How to Spot a Sodomite

Mark Simpson reviews some fam­ous Victorian bum holes in Neil McKenna’s Fanny & Stella (the Independent)

grey How to Spot a Sodomite

I had never seen any­thing like it before… I do not in my prac­tise ever remem­ber to have seen such an appear­ance of the anus, as those of the pris­on­ers presen­ted.” So test­i­fied Dr Paul in shocked tones at the trial of Frederick Park and Ernest Boulton, two young, cross-dressing clerks charged with sod­omy in 1870 — a crime that then car­ried a pen­alty of a lifetime’s penal servitude.

Park and Boulton had been arres­ted in the Strand Theatre dressed as their coquet­tish, las­ci­vi­ous alter egos Fanny and Stella. The trial of “The Funny He-She Ladies” as the press dubbed them, was the sen­sa­tion of the age. Largely for­got­ten until now, Neil McKenna’s highly read­able recount­ing brings it roar­ing back to life.

According to the med­ical author­it­ies of the day the signs of sod­omy were eas­ily detect­able. A wear­ing away of the rugae around the anus, mak­ing it resemble the female labia. Elongation of the penis, caused by the “trac­tion” of sod­omy. And dila­tion. Dilation was the big­gie. The way one tested for it was by the inser­tion of a pro­fes­sional fin­ger. Repeatedly. If the sphinc­ter failed to show enough res­ist­ance to the learned finger-fucking then you were deal­ing with a sodomite.

The appalled police doc­tor was as we’ve seen con­vinced he had fingered major sod­om­ites. Six more doc­tors lined up to inspect the upraised rectums of Park and Boulton and insert their digits, repeatedly. After two fetid hours, five declared there were no signs of sod­omy to be found on or in either arres­ted anus.

In fact, both Park and Boulton were guilty as pro­ver­bial sin. Their bot­toms had been rogered sense­less by half of London — though, unlike the good doc­tors, their part­ners usu­ally paid. From respect­able middle-class back­grounds they enjoyed work­ing as brazen, hoot­ing cross-dressing pros­ti­tutes in the even­ing, as you do. The single dis­sent­ing doc­tor had a few years earlier treated Park repeatedly for a syph­il­itic sore in his anus.

But because the med­ical prob­ing had pro­duced the oppos­ite med­ical opin­ion to the one hoped for, and because sod­omy was such a ser­i­ous offence (car­ry­ing a pen­alty of life with hard labour) the Attorney-General had to with­draw all charges of actual sod­omy. Instead Boulton and Park were charged with the vaguer but still ser­i­ous catch-all of “con­spir­acy to soli­cit, induce, pro­cure and endeav­our to per­suade per­sons unknown to com­mit buggery”.

Seventeen dresses and gowns; quant­it­ies of skirts and pet­ti­coats; bod­ices and blouses; cloaks and shawls; ladies’ unmen­tion­ables, all a bit whiffy and worse for (work­ing) wear, were paraded through the court as evid­ence. Although cross-dressing was not in itself a crime, and was actu­ally a pop­u­lar form of bur­lesque enter­tain­ment at the time in which both Fanny and Stella had enjoyed some suc­cess, the Victorian state was keen to make the case — presen­ted by Attorney General Sir Robert Collier him­self — that their cross-dressing was part and par­cel of their abom­in­able sod­omy and the “con­fu­sion” of the nat­ural and godly gender order it rep­res­en­ted. The male anus dressed as a vagina. This approach also back­fired, spectacularly.

Digby Seymour for the defence asked the court, “Would young men engaged in the exchange of wicked and accursed embraces put on the dresses of women and go to theatres and pub­lic places for the pur­pose of excit­ing each other to the com­mis­sion of this out­rageous crime?” In other words, the very obvi­ous­ness and shame­less­ness of Stella and Fanny’s (deli­ciously out­rageous) beha­viour was presen­ted as proof that they could not pos­sibly be guilty. Which, in a strange, 20th-century gay pride sense, was sort of true.

But the defence’s ace in the, er, hole was a final, irres­ist­ible appeal to pat­ri­ot­ism. “I trust that you will pro­nounce by your ver­dict,” intoned Digby Seymour, “that London is not cursed with the sins of Sodom, or Westminster tain­ted with the vices of Gomorrah.”

The jury did its duty and the “fool­ish” young men, as their defence termed them, were acquit­ted — hav­ing fooled most of their cus­tom­ers, the doc­tors, the courts and the imper­i­ous Victorian state.

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