Thomas Ernest Boulton and Frederick William Park were two middle-class Victorian men who were involved in a national scandal after being arrested and tried for cross-dressing in public.
Boulton was the son of a stockbroker; Park of a Master of a superior court. The two met at a young age and became friends, forming a theatrical double-act as Stella Clinton and Fanny Winifred Park, which played to favourable reviews. Boulton, particularly, was very attractive, with a sweet soprano singing voice.
Fanny and Stella were more than just parts they played, however. From an early age Boulton’s mother had encouraged his fondness for dressing as a girl and calling himself Stella, and starting around 1868, when they were approximately twenty, they both began to cross-dress in public. Fanny and Stella became a frequent sight around the West End, where they were removed more than once from the Burlington Arcade and Alhambra Theatre, and were even sentenced by a magistrate for their behaviour, being bound over to keep the peace. They also attended the Oxford-Cambridge boat race.
Around this time Boulton struck up a relationship with the MP Lord Arthur Clinton, in whose company Fanny and Stella were often seen. In a scene from Sins of the Cities of the Plain, Jack Saul recounts attending a sodomites’ ball, where the “women” were men dressed in drag. Fanny, Stella, and Lord Arthur were notable guests: Lord Arthur was referred to as Stella’s husband, and indeed, when dressed as his alter-ego, Boulton gave Stella Lord Arthur’s surname. Saul spent the evening with the trio, and in the morning they breakfasted “all dressed as ladies”.
The reference to Clinton being Stella’s husband, in practice if not in law, is certainly supported by what we know of their relationship. Boulton often introduced himself as “Lady Clinton, Arthur Clinton’s wife,” and wore a wedding ring. Lord Arthur paid for his lodgings, his hairdresser (who visited the house daily), and commissioned a stationer to produce visiting cards in the name of “Lady Arthur Clinton” and a seal in the name “Stella” for Boulton to use. Lord Arthur also appeared onstage with Boulton in several productions.
The arrest which made national headlines happened on the evening of 28th April 1870. The police had been following Fanny and Stella for some time and when, in the company of a man, they were seen by a police detective leaving a house near Regent Square the policeman followed them to the Strand Theatre and observed them meet two gentlemen and enter a private box inside the theatre (and the theatres at this point were known as hotbeds of vice, and common haunting grounds of prostitutes both male and female). The detective called for assistance and a superintendent and sergeant arrived during the performance. As the party attempted to leave the theatre, the police attempted to arrest them. Boulton, Park, and one of their companions, Hugh Alexander Mundell, were arrested, the others escaped.
The three were taken to a police station and subject to an intrusive psychical exam to try to gain evidence that they had engaged in anal sex. No such evidence was found. Nonetheless, the three were kept overnight and in the morning brought before a magistrate at Bow Street Court. Boulton and Park were still dressed as Fanny and Stella, and news of their appearance quickly spread through the streets. Soon a crowd had gathered outside to look at the men dressed as ladies.
Under examination, Mundell claimed to have believed that Fanny and Stella were women, despite the fact he had met them previously while they were dressed as men. The magistrate bailed him, but not Boulton and Park, who had originally been arrested for a misdemeanour breach of the peace for appearing in public while cross-dressing, but following the police exam were charged with conspiracy to commit sodomy. They were led out of the station and into a police van under the avid gaze of the crowd. The public interest in their trials only grew from then on.
The house which Fanny and Stella had been observed leaving on the evening of their arrest was searched, and it transpired it had been leased by Boulton, Park, and a few other friends as a place for them to change their clothes before evenings out. The police inventory included sixteen silk and satin dresses with lace trim, a dozen petticoats, ten cloaks and jackets, six bodices, twenty chignons, and a multitude of bonnets, hats, stays (early bras), boots, gloves, curling-irons, and makeup.
A search of their apartments produced love letters from John Stafford Fiske, the United States consul in Edinburgh. Fiske, an American citizen who’d lived in Scotland for the previous three years, had befriended Louis Charles Hurt, a Post Office surveyor and boyhood friend of Boulton. For six months between 1868-9 Boulton had lived with Hurt in Edinburgh, which is when he’d been introduced to Fiske, who was immediately smitten, and had continued to write to Boulton after his return to London. A warrant was obtained to search Fiske’s rooms, and behind a grate the police found an album of photographs of Boulton dressed as Stella.
An indictment was eventually brought against eight men: Boulton, Park, Lord Arthur Clinton, Louis Hurt, John Fiske, Martin Gumming, William Sommerville, and C.H. Thompson. Gumming, Sommerville, and Thompson all absconded before trial. Clinton received his subpoena on 18th June 1870, and the following day was found dead. He was thirty years old. The official cause was recorded as scarlet fever, but he almost certainly committed suicide. A third theory, that he used his powerful family connections — he was godson of then Prime Minister William Gladstone — to flee the country under an assumed identity, remains an unlikely though tantalising possibility. Historian Neil McKenna did uncover some circumstantial evidence suggesting Clinton lived on in exile.
The trial proved a lengthy affair, due to the wealth of evidence amassed by the prosecution. An entire day was devoted to the reading of letters exchanged by the defendants (the keeping of which was the reason most were on trial to begin with). Fanny and Stella’s wardrobe was paraded before the jury, the crowded public gallery, and splashed across the front pages of the newspapers. Nonetheless, the police struggled to prove any evidence that a felony (sodomy) had been committed. Much of the slang used in the letters was incomprehensible to the jury, leaving them and even the prosecutor himself with the overwhelming impressing that while the defendants’ lifestyle had been subversive and suspect, it wasn’t actually criminal.
The Lord Chief Justice, Sir Alexander Cockburn, presiding over the trial, concluded his summing up with scathing criticism of the prosecution’s case and the police investigation. After fifty-three minutes’ deliberation, the jury acquitted all the defendants, to resounding cheers from the public gallery.
The fate of Lord Arthur has one final strange footnote. In 1882, a woman called Mary Jane Fearneaux was arrested in Birmingham for impersonating Clinton. She had spent several years living as a man and pretending to be him, claiming reports of his death were a fiction created to avoid the scandal of the trial. When her neighbours observed her in female attire, she claimed to be cross-dressing in order to disguise her true identity. She plead guilty to obtaining £5000 from two men under false pretenses, and was sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment.
Frederick Park died in 1881, aged thirty-three. Earnest Boulton died in 1904, aged fifty-six.