April 1870. London, England. Miss Fanny Park and Miss Stella Boulton made national headlines in when they were arrested outside the Strand Theater. Boulton, dressed in an elegant cherry-colored silk evening gown trimmed with white lace, and Park, wearing a dark green satin dress with a black lace shawl and white gloves, were led from the theater by police. Their crime: Being men, and being suspected of homosexuality.
Contrary to widely-held belief, Victorian England wasn’t nearly as stuffy and puritanical as many people think. London actually had twice as many brothels as it did schools, churches, and charitable institutions, and there’s no shortage of gay porn from the era. Then, of course, there were people like Park and Boulton, who got their kicks by dressing up as the opposite sex and openly flirting with knowing — and sometimes unknowing — gentlemen.
Thomas Ernest Boulton and Frederick William Park would often arrive to their destinations as men, then excuse themselves to the bathroom, only to return in full-on women’s evening garb, complete with hair and make-up. They were frequently seen drawing attention to themselves in the balcony of the Strand Theater.
Biographer Neil McKenna writes in his new book Fanny and Stella: The Two Young Men Who Shocked Victorian England:
Fanny and Stella were hard to fathom. They had behaved with such lewdness in their box in the stalls as to leave not the faintest shred of doubt in even the most disinterested observer that they were a pair of hardened and shameless whores. And yet, close up, Stella was revealed as a beautiful, almost aristocratic, young woman who showed flashes of an innate, and most decidedly un-whorelike, dignity and grace… Fanny, too, was clearly a woman of some education and breeding, and was certainly very far removed from your common-or-garden whore.
Just as the carriage was about to depart, one of the men who had been shadowing them all that evening jumped up and swung himself in through the door.
“I’m a police officer from Bow Street,” he said, producing his warrant card, “and I have every reason to believe that you are men in female attire and you will have to come to Bow Street with me now.”
Both Park and Boulton were charged with “conspiring and inciting persons to commit an unnatural offense” (A.K.A. homosexuality), which was considered a crime at the time. What ensued was a lengthy and sensational trial that drew enormous crowds.
The trial began on May 9, 1871 at the Court of Queen’s Bench. It was presided over by Lord Chief Justice Sir Alexander Cockburn. (That’s right, Cockburn.) During the hearing, Boulton and Park’s lifestyle attracted a great deal of media attention, especially when a trunkful of their dresses were brought in as evidence.
As part of their investigation, police raided Park and Boulton’s shared London address where they discovered 16 satin and silk dresses, a dozen petticoats, 10 cloaks and jackets, and various hats and other feminine accessories. Their landlady described the clothing as “very extreme.”
Ultimately, Park and Boulton were found not guilty after a slew of unreliable witnesses were unable to sway the jury’s minds and the prosecution failed to establish that 1. the pair had ever engaged in sodomy, and 2. that men wearing women’s clothing was against English law. The jury took only 53 minutes to deliberate. When the defendants were finally acquitted, loud cheers and cries of “Bravo!” were heard from the gallery.
Watch Neil McKenna talk about the fascinating case in the video below.