Havelock Ellis: Bill; St. Louis, Missouri, 1909

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"She drank, she swore, she courted girls"

by Jonathan Ned Katz. Copyright (c) by Jonathan Ned Katz. All rights reserved.

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A quaint and, indeed, somewhat fanciful-sounding tale of what seems to have been Lesbian transvestism is recounted by Havelock Ellis. This report's charm arises partly from the contrast between the attitudes of 1909 and 1976 toward women engaging in such activities as drinking, swearing, fishing, and camping. Such behavior, found so utterly peculiar for a woman in 1909, is now quite ordinary; the present quality of this story is thus intimately tied to the historical change in the situation of women. The story of "Bill" also brings out that farcical potential in the situation created by tranvestite disguise, that doubling which has for so long been an element in theatrical comedy, humor arising from the transposition to one sex of that activity customarily assigned to the other. This example shows how particular activities in a sex-polarized society become sex-linked in an apparently essential way; viewing this behavior in historical perspective makes clear the social relativity of its "masculine" or "feminine" character.

In St. Louis, in 1909, the case was brought forward of a young woman of 22, who had posed as a man for nine years. Her masculine career began at the age of 13 after the Galveston flood which swept away all her family. She was saved and left Texas dressed as a boy. She worked in livery stables, in a plough factory, and as a bill-poster. At one time she was the adopted son of the family in which she lived and had no difficulty in deceiving her sisters by adoption as to her sex. On coming to St. Louis in 1902 she made chairs and baskets at the American Rattan Works, associating with fellow-workmen on a footing of masculine equality. One day a workman noticed the extreme smallness and dexterity of her hands. "Gee, Bill, you should have been a girl." "How do you know I'm not?" she retorted. In such ways her ready wit and good humor always disarmed suspicion as to her sex. She shunned no difficulties in her work or in her sports, we are told, and never avoided the severest tests. "She drank, she swore, she courted girls, she worked as hard as her fellows, she fished and camped; she told stories with the best of them, and she did not flinch when the talk grew strong. She even chewed tobacco." Girls began to fall in love with the good-looking boy at an early period, and she frequently boasted of her feminine conquests; with one girl who worshipped her there was a question of marriage. On account of lack of education she was restricted to manual labor, and she often chose hard work. At one time she became a boilermaker's apprentice, wielding a hammer and driving in .hot rivets. Here she was very popular and became local secretary of the International Brotherhood of Boiler-makers. In physical development she was now somewhat of an athlete. "She could outrun any of her friends on a sprint; she could kick higher, play baseball, and throw die ball overhand like a man, and she was fond of football. As a wrestler she could throw most of the club members." The physician who examined her for an insurance policy remarked: "You are a fine specimen of physical manhood, young fellow. Take good care of yourself." Finally, in a moment of weakness, she admitted her sex and returned to the garments of womanhood.[1]


  1. Ellis (1936), p. 248-49. Bram Stoker's Famous Imposters (N.Y.: Sturgis and Walton, 1910) contains a chapter on female transvestites titled "Women As Men." Although female-female intimacy characterizes some of the lives described, Stoker emphasizes the heterosexual aspects of most of the life histories discussed. His interpretation of female cross-dressing combines a mild feminism and a totally traditional notion of women (see espec. p. 227-28, 230, 236-39 [on the original La Maupin], 241-46 [on Mary East/James Howe]) . Stoker's own sexual orientation merits investigation. In the early 1870s, Stoker was one of those young men who wrote what a conservative "expert" on Walt Whitman calls "semi-love letters" to the American poet (Gay Wilson Allen, Solitary Singer [N.Y.: N. Y. University, 1955], p. 467, 516). In 1878, the Irish-born Stoker became the manager and traveling companion of the famous English actor Henry Irving, a post Stoker occupied for twenty-seven years, until Irving's death. In 1884, Stoker and Irving visited Whitman. Stoker is now best known as author of Dracula, a work not without sexual undertones meriting analysis. see Stoker's brief biography in Twentieth Century Authors (1942), p. 1351.


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