The Victorian era in England was a straitlaced time. At least on the surface — which is one reason London police arrested avid cross-dressers Frederick Park and Ernest Boulton in 1870. The subsequent trials the two men faced became one of England's more scandalous affairs, and is the subject of a recent episode of Ridiculous History, a podcast co-hosted by Noel Brown and Ben Bowlin.
Park and Boulton (aka Fanny and Stella, respectively) came from middle-class families and were fast friends. The young twenty-somethings both held respectable office jobs in the day, but performed in drag in the evenings. The men "were widely known in the London theater community as being very successful cross-dressers," says Noel. This was not so unusual at a time when women were not allowed to perform onstage. But unlike their peers, who typically reserved their female attire for performances, Park and Boulton flaunted their feminine wardrobe around town whenever they felt like it. Sometimes, they would appear in men's clothing, but also wearing make-up.
The pair flirted with powerful men, and Boulton – the more feminine-looking of the two – even struck up a romance with English aristocrat Lord Arthur Pelham Clinton. So serious was the affair, that Boulton wore a wedding ring and had calling cards made with "Lady Stella Pelham Clinton" engraved on them.
But some found the duo's behavior unacceptable. In 1869, a time when social changes were occurring that many found unsettling, local law enforcement began shadowing the two. One night, after about a year of surveillance, Park and Boulton dolled themselves up to attend a play at the Royal Strand Theatre with two others. During the performance, they even used the women's lavatory. As the group was leaving the theater, police arrested Park and Boulton.
The two were initially charged with "personating a woman," a minor offense. But after raids on their homes, where police examined personal photos and letters, among other items, they were charged with the more serious crime of sodomy, at the time punishable by imprisonment. Police subjected the men to humiliating medical tests to try and prove they had engaged in unlawful sexual relations. But these tests were inconclusive. Police also attempted to bribe people to testify in court that the men had engaged in these acts but to no avail.
The men were subjected to several trials, which devolved into circuses; newspapers dubbed Park and Boulton the "He-She Ladies" and spectators vied to get a look at the pair. Tragedy ensued when Lord Arthur Pelham Clinton was summoned to testify; shortly before the court date, he was found dead. The official cause of death was listed as scarlet fever, but many believe he committed suicide.
Law enforcement never could prove the two had engaged in an unlawful sex act, even though in private Boulton was a part-time gay prostitute. When it came time for the jury to deliberate, it took them just 53 minutes to find the men not guilty. Those in the gallery yelled, "Bravo!"
The two resumed their lives, performing together and separately. Boulton even performed on Broadway as a female impersonator for a while, delighting American audiences. Over time, both of their stars faded. Park emigrated to the U.S. and died there in 1881 at the age of 34. Boulton continued performing with his brother until his own death in 1904 at 56.