John Safford Fiske was born in Ashtabula, Ohio, and had prepared for college at Williston Seminary, in Easthampton, Massachusetts. He entered Yale College in 1859 and graduated in 1863. He worked as a deputy clerk in the New York State Senate in Albany from 1863 to 1864, then spent 1865 as a private tutor with a family near New York City. In August 1867, Fiske applied for and was awarded the consul job in Scotland.
In October 1868, two Englishmen - Ernest Boulton and Frederick Park traveled to Edinburgh where they met the new United States consul. The American Fiske became enamored of the British Boulton, and when Boulton returned to London, fascinated Fiske attempted to sustain the romance by mail.
The 32-year-old Fiske wrote to the 22-year-old Boulton, "wishing... a hundred times each day" that his "darling Ernie" were "to be here." The American desired Boulton's physical presence, not just his memory and his photographs, however alluring.
Fiske missed Boulton in the flesh: the photographs, notes, and "my memory is all that I have of you." "When" he asked, "are you going to give me more?" What more, exactly, did Fiske desire? Fiske imagined offering the extraordinary Boulton a mundane, steady love.
Fiske and friends were using the word "drag" to refer to men dressing in women's clothes. On March 20, 1870, from the United States consulate in Edinburgh, Fiske wrote again to Boulton, saying that he had received a "charming" letter from their friend Louis Hurt, reporting that Boulton, in London, was "living in drag" - one of the earliest documented uses of that term.
On April 28, 1870, the cross-dressed Ernest Boulton and his friend Frederick Park were leaving the Strand Theatre in London when they were arrested. Boulton and Park were first charged simply with outraging public decency by dressing publicly as women, and were taken to the Bow Street station house and held overnight.
The morning after Boulton and Park's arrest, the police superintendent had met a friend, James Paul, a medical doctor, and, by way of harassing the cross-dressers, had asked him to examine the prisoners. The doctor had been studying French medical writings on "La Pederastie." On his own, he decided to examine the prisoners' anuses for the alleged physical signs of participating, on the receiving end, of anal intercourse. Sure enough, he found the anuses he sought.
He reported his findings to the police, and these officials then significantly expanded the charge, accusing Boulton and Park of the "detestable and abominable crime of buggery not to be named among Christians," an act punishable by ten years to life imprisonment. Just a decade earlier in England, buggery had been punishable by death.
But, since police investigators could find no witnesses to Boulton and Park's alleged buggery, the revised charge, for which the two cross-dressers were finally tried, was "conspiracy" to commit buggery.
After the arrests, the police searched Boulton's and Park's apartments and confiscated quantities of photos and correspondence, including the two letters from John Safford Fiske to his innamorato.
On May 18, 1870, Louis Hurt, in London, wrote the first of several notes to John Safford Fiske, in Edinburgh, warning him "that the worst letter" held by the prosecution "is yours."
The police were "anxious" for Fiske to come to London, Hurt told the American, "and I really believe it would be your best course." Fiske's "name must appear" in the proceedings, Hurt reasoned, so the American might as well cooperate with the authorities.
Later, Hurt wrote to Fiske that he had seen a copy of one of the American's letters to Boulton: There "is nothing indecent" in it, "of course, but it is the most high-flown language." Fiske's campish letters had become a dangerous liability.
In June, when Fiske finally traveled to London to see the police, he was arrested and charged, along with Boulton, Park, Hurt, and four others, with conspiracy to commit buggery.
On June 24, John Safford Fiske, facing a scandalous upcoming court case, wrote to the United States Department of State, voluntarily resigning his post as consul, to avoid tarnishing that government office, though maintaining his innocence.
Almost a year later, on May 9, 1871, the case of The Queen v. Boulton and Others began before a jury guided by a famous English lord chief justice, Alexander Cockburn, and numbers of prominent attorneys.
The campish letters from the American, John Safford Fiske, were among the chief evidence offered of his and the others' involvement in an international conspiracy to commit buggery.
But there was no evidence against Fiske, just his acquaintance with Boulton, and a couple of letters, argued the American's lawyer, Henry Matthews. If Fiske had not been conscious of his complete innocence he could have fled to America, the lawyer pointed out. But, instead, Fiske had even traveled, voluntarily, to London to give evidence, at which time he had been accused and arrested.
Near the trial's end, Judge Cockburn instructed the jury that Fiske and Hurt did not even live in the same country as their cross-dressing friends. They "had nothing to do with the conduct of Boulton and Park in going about in women's dresses." The judge upbraided the police for searching Fiske's and Hurt's lodgings "without any authority."
The judge concluded: Whatever the meaning of Fiske's letters, the prosecution had not proved them to contain more than romantic expressions of personal admiration and affection.
Judge Cockburn declared: a "gross injustice" had been done to Fiske and Hurt. They "ought never to have been put upon their trial in this court." He left it to the jury, he said, to decide if Fiske's and Hurt's letters supported the charge of a conspiracy to commit buggery.
On May 15, 1871, the jury retired and returned to the courtroom in fifty-three minutes, finding Boulton, Park, Fiske, and Hurt not guilty on every count. The verdict was received in court with "Loud cheers, and cries of 'Bravo!' " Ernest Boulton fainted and had to be revived with water.
In 1873, Fiske returned to the United States. In 1874, he again left the United States, living in Constantinople, Germany, and France. There, Fiske said, he took a house near Paris "with an English friend," a hint that Fiske perhaps found the lover for whom he yearned.
Fiske settled, finally, in 1882, in Alassio, on the Italian Riviera. Italy had a history as refuge for American and English men-loving men. During these years, Fiske published journalistic reports from Sweden, Russian, Germany, Turkey, Greece, and Italy in various newspapers, and he contributed cultural and political reports to The Nation in New York and the Princeton Review.
In 1893, Fiske reported on the Columbian Exhibition in Chicago. He also wrote articles for the Dictionary of Architecture, edited by a well-known architect, Russell Sturgis. Also, in 1893, Fiske lectured on art and architecture at Hobart College, in Geneva, New York, and in 1897 received an honorary degree from that institution.
In 1905, the fifty-five-year-old Fiske wrote from Alassio to his Yale classmates, summing up his life: "With advancing years I have gradually abandoned painting and even drawing"; now he divided his time between reading, writing, and horticulture. "I have a large and beautiful garden" in a region "where the rose blooms the whole winter," and, as he sold his flowers, the garden paid for itself.
When Fiske died in 1907, he left 4,000 books, cataloged in three large, carefully handwritten volumes, to Hobart College. Among these are John Addington Symonds's multi-volume history of Italy, Oscar Wilde's Picture ofDorian Gray, and an English edition of Walt Whitman's poems.