To some extent transgender news really didn’t begin until December 1, 1952, when news was leaked to an unexpecting world that George Jorgensen had undergone a procedure thought by even most physicians to be from the realm of science fiction – sexual reassignment surgery. However, there is some transgender news which may be found prior to that date, most of it hidden to some extent. Within the links below you will find many references to crossdressers, drag performers, female impersonators, etc., but in most of the cases there is a hidden story which seems evident to our 21st-century eyes. For example, a person arrested for wearing women’s clothes who called themselves a “female impersonator” – yet mainly wore the clothes at home, and not on stage, was probably a transgender person. Likewise a person arrested for soliciting in women’s clothes, or being found with a trunk full of stolen women’s clothes.
And in some cases we can even read of extreme violence perpetrated towards these “female impersonators.”
Thus, this page lists the links to news items regarding transgender persons from prior to 1952. It is ordered by date of appearance in the news, not the date of the event. Note that the text summaries are not transcripts.
March 17, 1855. Cleveland Leader, page 3
Kunkel’s Opera Troupe is featuring Joe Brown, the “unequaled fancy dancer and female impersonator.”
September 20, 1875. Jackson Mississippi Citizen Patriot, page 4
An article about the “great St. Leon,” a noted female impersonator, claims that she was really a woman named Ella Seigen. However, some claimed that she did in fact grow a beard when she appeared as a male, so it is possible she was an intersex person.
February 8, 1877. Evansville Indiana Courier and Press, page 4
Simmon’s and Slocum’s Minstrels is featuring a female impersonator, W. Henry Rice, who is noted as being perfect in both dress and voice.
May 28, 1879. New York Times, page 5
A historical article talks of the death of Omar Kingsley, a noted female impersonator who performed under the name Ella Zoyara.
August 12, 1893. Springfield Illinois Daily State Journal, page 2
A collection of short news items states the following: “A female impersonator with golden curls and a voice in “G” was chased all over Alton by the police and small boys. His or ‘its’ life was a burden while there.”
February 19, 1895. St. Louis Republic, page 7
Charles Willis, who claimed to be a traveling salesman, was arrested for stealing the linens from a hotel room in which he stayed. When the police searched his belongs, they found female clothing, padding, wigs, and cosmetics. There were also playbills announcing “Willis the Female Impersonator.”
October 19, 1895. Illinois Daily Inter Ocean, page 6
Harry Mortimer, a female impersonator, was arrested and appeared in court to be sentenced to 6 years in prison for stealing diamonds. While in court Mortimer was “painted and powdered” and “wore several rings.”
December 13, 1901. Fort Worth Morning Register, page 7
A man named Edgar Edwards was arrested while dressed as a woman in Austin, Texas. As he was carrying several men’s clothes in a bag, the police are concerned he may be a felon attempting to escape recognition.
June 30, 1903. Kalamazoo Michigan Gazette, page 6
A country dance at Batavia station featured two beautiful young female dancers, who danced with many men and then revealed that they were really boys. Supposedly a “riot” almost ensued.
July 18, 1905. Anaconda Montana Standard, page 7
Percy Yarick, a female impersonator performing at the Casino concert hall on East Galena street, took exception to a woman named Mazie Hopps and attacked her. Hopps was badly beaten and Yarick was arrested.
June 22, 1908. Philadelphia Inquirer, page 12
A “negro” in women’s clothes attacked a policeman with a knife and was shot and killed in response. The initial reason for the confrontation is not really explained.
September 18, 1908. Denver Post, page 8
Jean D’Arville, known as the “silly kid” and the “straight female tramp impersonator,” was arrested for being a pimp.
October 20, 1908. Philadelphia Inquirer, page 9
Female impersonator Garfield Wallace, who claimed to be injured in a trolley accident, lost his suit in court against the trolley company after a private investigator found that Wallace intended to swear falsely in court.
February 21, 1910. Cincinnati Post, page 9
Newspaper sketch artist Winsor M’Cay has drawn a series of impressions of female impersonator Julian Eltinge performing at the Orpheum.
April 25, 1910. Duluth News-Tribune, page 2
La Nier Watts, a female impersonator, is accused of stealing a silk dress, and was subsequently arrested.
November 6, 1911. Evansville Courier and Press, page 1
Noted female impersonator Jesse Harris was found dead from morphine poisoning. Harris’ wife and another actor were arrested.
December 5, 1911. Riverside California Independent Enterprise, page 3
Clarence Westfall, passenger on a steamer ship which docked at San Pedro, was arrested for masquerading in women’s clothing. When confronted, Westfall denied he was masquerading, and in a “remarkably girlish voice” declared himself to be Margaret Swift. Upon being arrested he claimed to be a female impersonator by trade, but preferred living in women’s clothes at all times.
October 14, 1912. Seattle Daily Times, page 9
Noted female impersonator Julian Eltinge is appearing as the leading woman of “The Fascinating Widow” at the Metropolitan Theatre. It was reported that female viewers were most impressed with Eltinge’s impersonation, calling it flawless.
March 16, 1913. New Orleans Times-Picayune, page 7
A lengthy and interesting article talks of the “greatest female impersonator of all time,” the Great Heywood. There are a couple of photographs with the article.
June 21, 1913. Montgomery Alabama Advertiser, page 5
Willie Harris, an escaped “negro convict,” was arrested while wearing women’s clothes, reportedly the only clothes he had. While escaped prisoners masquerading as the other sex is nothing new, something about the way this article was written made me wonder if there was more to it than that.
February 8, 1915. Cincinnati Post, page 7; Trenton New Jersey Evening Times, page 10
Ida Weinstein, a woman who lived as a man named Ben Rosenstein for six years. Her wife claimed that the entire arrangement was by design to help them share expenses, with Weinstein working as a male. The Times article claims that her wife, Pauline, had wanted to work, “But Ida said I was too frail. She refused to hear of it. She insisted upon my being her ‘wife’ in the eyes of the world.”
February 9, 1915. Boston Herald, page 11
Another article on Ida Weinstein essentially repeats the Times article of the 8th. One item noted by all articles is that she insisted with her dying breath to be buried in her first black men’s suit.
October 30, 1916. Philadelphia Inquirer, page 1
Clement Sonsin claimed to be out and having fun in an early Halloween costume dressed as a woman, when he was confronted by a suspicious guard at City Hall. Although he claimed he dressed up because he worked nights and could not participate in Halloween fun, he was for some reason in City Hall with two men, who fled at the guard’s approach. Sonsin was subsequently arrested.
May 6, 1917. Boston Herald, page 12
An article discusses noted Chinese female impersonator Cha Pin Yung, who is so dedicated to their craft that they bind their feet. They receive $2,000 a month, an incredible sum in 1917.
May 13, 1919. Bay City Michigan Times, page 3
John Lind, reputed to be a wonderful female impersonator, will be appearing at the Bijou theatre this week.
June 5, 1919. Cleveland Plain Dealer, page 14
Female impersonator Bothwell Browne is interviewed and discussed in an detailed article.
September 28, 1920. Richmond Virginia Times Dispatch, page 8
Eggie Elwell, a female impersonator, was fined $10 for causing a disturbance by the simple act of wearing female clothing.
January 23, 1921. New Orleans Item, page 30
Noted female impersonator Bothwell Browne is coming to town, along with his vaudeville troop, “The 1920 Revue.” Featuring other female impersonators, the highlight of the show will be Browne’s “Dance of Jealousy” in a harem costume. There are pen and ink drawings accompanying the article.
January 2, 1922. Macon Georgia Telegraph, page 7
It’s difficult to know what Will Thomas was thinking when, dressed in women’s nightclothes, he entered another person’s house, and crawled into their bed. When the owner of the house arrived, a struggle ensued, during which the owner was struck on the head with a shotgun. Thomas, quickly arrested, spoke in a high-pitched voice, and still wore their dress over their trousers and jumper when they were placed in jail.
June 28, 1923. Evansville Courier and Press, page 1
Fred Thompson, also known as “the smiling woman bandit,” was ordered held for a grand jury trial by the coroner’s jury. Thompson appeared in court in female dress, despite being forced to wear male dress while in jail.
December 23, 1925. San Francisco Chronicle, page 4
Jack McDonald, age 16, was arrested in a department store where he had stayed overnight and stolen women’s clothes and wigs. McDonald was dressed as a very chic female, and called himself the Countess Zelden Letrovinski when first confronted. Later, the story changed that he was an actress, the “only female baritone on the stage.” Somehow that was less than convincing to the detectives who arrested him.
May 5, 1929. Omaha World Herald, page 87
A full-page article with many photographs talks of the trend of college boys to dress as girls, for informal and formal performance numbers, as well as camping out around the campus. A University of Wisconsin professor is consulted on why this occurs, and his best guess is that it is due to competition for “coveted female roles.” In other words, the college boys are wanting to find out what life is like for a girl.
June 28, 1929. Seattle Daily Times, page 21
Sam Jarvis, a female impersonator, was found guilty of the theft of women’s clothes from the house of Mrs. M. L. Pierce.
February 22, 1930. Springfield Massachusetts Republican, page 4
Two young men who were arrested at a party by vice squad officers were sentenced to fines of $20 each for dressing as women. The men, both bellhops at a Main street hotel, pled not guilty, with one of the men, Wilbur Guyette, claiming he was a professional female impersonator. His companion, Albert Cushman, was not quoted on the arrest.
October 1, 1933. San Diego Union, page 38
Noted female impersonator Julian Eltinge will be making an appearance in town. It is noted in the article that the very feminine Eltinge studied Lillian Russell and Blanche Ring to develop his poise and manners. There is a photograph of Mr. Eltinge in drag along with the article.
July 20, 1936. San Francisco Chronicle, page 5
The famous transgender landmark, Finocchio’s Club of San Francisco, was raided by the police. Ten people were booked on charges of disorderly conduct and other various code violations.
May 28, 1937. Daily Illinois State Journal, page 1
Edward F. Dolan was discovered dead in his apartment on May 27, apparently the victim of beating and strangulation. Dolan was a noted female impersonator who was typically seen dressed female whenever they left their home. No suspects are known.
January 10, 1940. Richmond Virginia Times Dispatch, page 6
Los Angeles has finally legalized crossdressing, but only for actors and only with a special police permit. The action was taken based on the prompting of noted female impersonator Julian Eltinge.
March 7, 1941. Boston Traveler, pages 1 and 17
Noted female impersonator Julian Eltinge has died at age 57 in his New York apartment. Eltinge was noted for being especially feminine in appearance, voice, and comportment, and a small photograph comparing him in boy and girl mode is found on the second page of the article.
June 14, 1942. Truth, Sydney, Australia
A mug shot of Neville McQuade (age 18) and Lewis Stanley Keith (age 19), at the North Sydney Police Station, early June 1942. A photograph of this same pair appears in the newspaper Truth, of 14 June 1942, taken after they had appeared at North Sydney Police Court on charges of being idle and disorderly persons, having insufficient means of support, and with having goods in their possession – including a military uniform and an American dollar bill – believed to be stolen. After being remanded in custody for a week, both were released on bonds. McQuade later said to a Truth correspondent: “We were bundled out of the police cell, and snapped immediately. My friend and I had no chance to fix our hair or arrange our make-up. We were half asleep and my turban was on the wrong side.” McQuade told the paper of his ambition to be a professional female impersonator, and spoke of his admiration for his mentor, Lea Sonia, who had been killed not long before getting off a tram in the wartime ‘brownout’.
November 21, 1945. Omaha World Herald, page 1
Edward E. Kinney was arrested for vagrancy as a female impersonator, and given that Kinney really looked feminine and had been arrested before frequenting taverns in full dress, it’s likely they were engaged in more than mere “vagrancy.” The report of their arrest is intended to be humorous in that the detectives who saw Kinney at first were so thrown by how attractive Kinney was, that they let her slip by. There is a poor photograph of Kinney along with the article.
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