February 17, 2013

A shocking, lurid tale of depravity that transfixed Victorian London

Filed under: Britain, History, Law, Liberty — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 12:15

In History Today, Richard Canning reviews a new book on the trial of Frederick Park and Ernest Boulton, aka Mrs Fanny Graham and Miss Stella Boulton in 1871:

McKenna provides what is certainly the definitive account of the Boulton/Park story, drawn not only from contemporary journalism but also from the full legal transcript, a miraculous survivor housed in Kew’s National Archives. It is a miserable tale, if leavened both by McKenna’s dramatic verve and, during the show trial held in Westminster Hall, by Fanny and Stella’s black humour. The establishment account – that the pair’s persistent cross-dressing importuning was a scandal to public morals that must be stopped – soon breaks down. McKenna shows clearly how the men were effectively set up and, to some degree, even entrapped.

Police confidence in pressing the serious charge of ‘conspiracy to solicit, induce, procure and endeavour to persuade persons unknown to commit buggery’ (as opposed to the minor offence of outraging public decency) was nonetheless misplaced. Buggery had until lately incurred the death penalty and still carried a lifelong penal sentence. No such charge had been brought for 240 years. The problem which attended the endless, farcical medical examinations of Boulton and Park reflected sodomy’s millennial history as the nameless or invisible crime. Few Victorian doctors could claim to have seen evidence of the extreme anal dilation which purportedly occurred after the ‘insertion of a foreign body’. Of the half dozen who inspected the pair – both inveterate sodomites, as McKenna concedes – only one remained certain that the corporeal evidence supported conviction. They were acquitted and the notion that ‘the impurities of Continental cities’ had reached London was rooted in legal terms for a quarter-century – if paradoxically seeming somehow to be affirmed.

McKenna lays bare a fascinating tapestry of interrelated personal histories, only partially capable of reconstruction. Frederick’s elder brother Harry, already twice disgraced, was hiding in Scotland under an assumed name. Their father, a judge, was urgently shipped off to South Africa during the trial of his younger son. Impressively, Frederick’s mother – amusingly a literal ‘Mary Ann’ – took to the stand to defend his moral character. So successful was she that the identification of Frederick/’Fanny’ as a theatrical mother’s boy exonerated him entirely from the imputation of vice.

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