In May 1871, the Victorian public was gripped by the trial of Frederick William Park and Ernest Boulton, AKA Fanny and Stella, the two most notorious cross-dressers of the 19th century. They were tried at the Old Bailey for the crime of "conspiracy to commit felonious crimes", or, in other words, for dressing like women and flouting social norms.
But what do these two men (or ladies) have in common with Christiana Edmunds, I hear you ask? Well, the link is a man called John Humffreys Parry, one of the most talented and prolific lawyers of the mid 19th century. Parry defended Ernest Boulton at his trial and, one year later, was retained by the family of Christiana Edmunds, the Chocolate Cream Killer.
Getting back to Fanny and Stella, the case was sensational in nature but, legally speaking, there wasn't really a case against them. On the night of their arrest, they had been out to Strand Theatre, dressed as women, with a few friends. They didn't realise that they were under the watch of a police constable and detective who arrested them as they were leaving the theatre. The charge was conspiring to commit a felony and they were remanded in Newgate Prison pending a court appearance. Here, they were forced to undergo a physical exam (which was completely illegal) to find evidence of sodomy but doctors found nothing.
When they appeared at Bow Street Magistrates' Court, they were still dressed as women. In the dock, Stella was wearing a "cherry-coloured silk evening dress trimmed with white lace, bracelets on bare arms, a wig, and plaited chignon." You can imagine the public's reaction...
To modern eyes, the proceedings were fairly shambolic. Hordes of personal correspondence were brought in (none of which was indecent) and trunks of ladies' dresses were placed on display. Public moralists were outraged and requested that all evidence be taken in secret. But their pleas were ignored and Victorian society revelled in such sensational and scandalous tales.
Fanny and Stella were committed to trial and not given bail but their charge was changed to "conspiring to commit felonious crimes" and "outraging public decency by going about dressed as women." Far less serious than committing a felony.
Their trial began on 9 May 1871. Understandably, much of the prosecution's focus lay on Fanny and Stella's "unusual" lifestyle and had no real basis in law. Let's face it, there was no evidence of sodomy and wearing women's clothes appeared to have no basis in English law. As such, the jury took only 53 minutes to find Fanny and Stella not guilty of their charges. On hearing the news, Stella fainted in the dock.
The trial had no lasting impact on Fanny and Stella. Stella, for example, continued to act as a female impersonator in theatres across the country before emigrating to the USA. (He died there in 1904). But they had certainly gripped the public's imagination. Here's a cheeky little Victorian limerick which commemorates their notoriety (undated):
There was an old person of Sark
Who buggered a pig in the dark;
The swine in surprise
Murmured: ‘God blast your eyes
Do you take me for Boulton or Park?’
As for Mr Parry, he might have thought he'd seen it all. But nothing could prepare him for meeting Christiana Edmunds in January 1872. I'll save his thoughts on the infamous Chocolate Cream Killer for another day....
(These fabulous images of Fanny and Stella are courtesy of History Extra, check them out here.)