Ronald Sell: Encountering Earl Lind, Ralph Werther, Jennie June

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As a gay boy I didn’t have friends or family members who could explain to me the feelings I was having for other boys or tell me that I was OK.

Few lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) people have access to support systems when they are children which can help them understand themselves. I think this is why we often try to seek out others like ourselves where we go to school, in our neighborhoods, our churches, or anywhere people congregate.

Another way we seek to understand ourselves is through literature. Ralph Werther certainly did this by looking to poets and playwrights such as Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde, to political activists such as Edward Carpenter, and to medical professionals that wrote about LGBT people such as Magnus Hirshfeld and Havelock Ellis.

I in turn looked to Werther for understanding. He provided comfort to me that others found their way through a confusing set of feelings and a complicated world a hundred years before me. Perhaps I had a chance.

But his writings also reminded me of how little things had changed politically and medically between the 1890s and the 1990s. Trying to understand the similarities and differences between Ralph’s life and mine were intriguing.

I first found Autobiography of Androgyne and The Female Impersonators in the early 1990s when I was in the habit of visiting used book stores and asking the owners if they had any books on sex or sexology. Almost routinely they would go into a back room and emerge with a box or pull a concealed box from under a counter. They would tell me that they didn’t know what to do with the material in the box (which often contained old heterosexual porn magazines) and they would offer its contents to me for whatever I was willing to pay just so they could get rid of it. They certainly didn’t feel comfortable putting the materials out on display and they didn’t see much if any commercial value in it.

I would pick through the boxes and find the (non-pornographic) materials that dealt with homosexuality which weren’t in my collection already. Looking back, given that it was the early 1990s, I realize that many of the collections I was picking through were probably once owned by gay men who died of AIDS and their well edited and cared for collections had been sold to the store. Perhaps the collections were in the boxes that well meaning and red-faced relatives had used to transport them to the store for sale with the rest of the person’s library.

In addition to helping me understand myself, Werther helped me write a dissertation at Harvard! His books and those like it informed my work which examined how sexual orientations were defined and measured historically. This consequently allows me to advise researchers wanting to measure sexual orientation in their work today. Werther wrote and thought at a time when many different ideas about homosexuality and gender were diverging and intersecting. Werther often discusses these conflicting ideas and nomenclature within a single page or paragraph (or even sentence) without much concern. These texts are essential reading for anyone interested in LGBT history.

Most frustrating however was the fact that Werther constantly mentions his books as a triology, with the third book being titled The Riddle of the Underworld. After reading the first two books I felt more than compelled to read the third. I was like a kid reading the first two Harry Potter books who anxiously awaited J.K. Rowling to produce the next in the series. But where was this book? It just seemed unfathomable that it didn’t exist. What if somehow J.K. Rowling’s third book just went missing.

Having read the first two Werther books I knew of his compulsive tendencies and I knew he would protect the manuscript for the third book with his life. If it wasn’t published it must exist in some overlooked archives. This set me off on an almost twenty year search.

I asked every historian who was gay or wrote about gay topics what they knew about the missing book. I even stopped Jonathan Ned Katz on the street many years ago (having recognized him from book jackets), and offered to buy him lunch if he would speak with me. Unfortunately, neither Jonathan or any of the other people I pestered could ever give me any hope of finding the missing manuscript.

They always say you will find love when you are not looking for it. Perhaps the same holds true for missing manuscripts. I was searching the internet one day to find information about Victor Robinson, a physician who wrote an introduction to a book with absolutely no connection I knew of to Werther and published almost 20 years after Werther published his works.

An online description of Robinson’s life mentioned that his archives are housed at the National Library of Medicine. Other than the fact that it is so easy to do, I don’t know why I decided to see what the Library of Medicine’s archives might list online. To my surprise, listed between unpublished manuscripts titled “The Price of Prudery” and “History of Aviation Medicine,” was “The Riddle of the Underworld” by Ralph Werther (1921).

Christmas and my birthday and every holiday where gifts are given arrived for me all on one day and at one mind and body numbing moment. You know the rest of the story because what I found in those archives is presented here. But the mystery of the missing text is not completely solved as the archives only held the first few chapters of the book. These few chapters will have to satisfy me until someone can find the rest of the book. In fact I don’t think I’m upset that I didn’t find the entire book, as now I have something to look forward to. J.K. Rowling may have finished her series, and we know what happened to Harry Potter, but we are still waiting to find out how things end for Jennie June. I hope she finds a sailor and lives happily ever after!

Randall Sell is an Associate Professor at Drexel University's School of Public Health, Department of Community Health and Prevention. He created the website, which is maintained by the Program for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Health at Drexel.