Re-Dressing America's Frontier Past

Re-Dressing America's Frontier Past

by Peter Boag
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University of California Press


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Re-Dressing America's Frontier Past

Americans have long cherished romantic images of the frontier and its colorful cast of characters, where the cowboys are always rugged and the ladies always fragile. But in this book, Peter Boag opens an extraordinary window onto the real Old West. Delving into countless primary sources and surveying sexological and literary sources, Boag paints a vivid picture of a West where cross-dressing-for both men and women-was pervasive, and where easterners as well as Mexicans and even Indians could redefine their gender and sexual identities. Boag asks, why has this history been forgotten and erased? Citing a cultural moment at the turn of the twentieth century-when the frontier ended, the United States entered the modern era, and homosexuality was created as a category-Boag shows how the American people, and thus the American nation, were bequeathed an unambiguous heterosexual identity.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520274426
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 09/01/2012
Pages: 270
Sales rank: 386,932
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.80(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Peter Boag holds the Columbia Chair in the History of the American West at Washington State University. He is the author of Environment and Experience: Settlement Culture in Nineteenth-Century Oregon and Same Sex Affairs: Constructing and Controlling Homosexuality in the Pacific Northwest, both from UC Press.

Read an Excerpt

Re-Dressing America's Frontier Past

By Peter Boag


Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-27062-6


"Known to All Police West of the Mississippi"

Disrobing the Female-to-Male Cross-Dresser

For the late spring, the evening of 3 June 1912 was unusually warm and dry in Portland, Oregon, when police there led a raid on the Yale rooming house located in a lower east-side working-class neighborhood. For their efforts, the authorities nabbed a recent arrival from Seattle who, over the years, had passed under the assumed names of Harry Allen and Harry Livingstone. Along with Allen, the police arrested Isabelle Maxwell, a known prostitute, also from Seattle, who posed as his wife and supported him on her earnings. Police had been keeping tabs on the pair for a while and during the raid reportedly discovered a telegram from Allen to Maxwell, asking her to come to Portland from Seattle. Since Allen apparently had transported Maxwell across state lines for immoral purposes, he had, in the eyes of the authorities, transgressed the Mann Act. Passed by Congress in 1910, this statute was intended to curb the so-called white-slave trade, more a perceived than real problem, but one that had recently created something of a national hysteria.

Taken immediately before local authorities, Allen endured fierce questioning before the arrival of special agent Charles Pray, a federal officer who investigated white-slave cases. Within moments, Pray recognized Allen—just a few months before in Spokane, when Pray worked there as a U.S. deputy marshal, Allen had come before him, accused of selling bootleg whiskey on an eastern Washington Indian reservation. Well acquainted with Allen, Pray of course knew his given name. When the special agent called the captive by it, the prisoner broke down: "I am not a white slaver," he sobbed, "and I am not Harry Allen. I am Nell Pickerell, and I have been posing as a man for more than 12 years." The shocking revelation dumbfounded the local arresting authorities; they claimed that the suspect's disguise had been perfect, complete with "long stride and basso voice." Federal authorities soon dropped the white-slave charges. But the local court, in lieu of an ordinance that criminalized the wearing of clothes more appropriate to the opposite sex, convicted Allen of vagrancy and sentenced him to ninety days in the city jail.

Portland newspapers had a field day with the incident, not so much at the police department's expense, but rather because of Allen's arresting story. They marveled at his masculine characteristics, namely his way of walking, his speech pattern, his ability to swear, and his ease at drinking and smoking. They worked over his employment history, noting the various men's jobs he had performed through the years: bronco busting, bartending, barbering, and longshoring. They crooned over his remarkable ability to sing in a deep voice and his proficiency at playing several instruments—the piano, the violin, the guitar, and the slide trombone. The most sensational daily of the lot sponsored a debate on the question: "Should Nell be jailed for not wearing [a] skirt?" Soon realizing they had in their midst a person "known to the police of cities throughout the Northwest as the most skillful male impersonator that has operated on the Pacific Coast," journalists dug up yet more about him and his past, including his previous brushes with the law, dating back several years and across the region for cross-dressing, bootlegging, saloon brawling, and horse stealing.

Considering all these details, the press boldly dubbed Allen "one of the most notorious male impersonators in the United States." That might have stretched it a bit, but in fact newspapers near and far had reported on him, making the most scurrilous statements and employing the purplest of prose, since at least 1900, when Allen had not even reached eighteen years of age. For example, in June 1900 Minnesota's Saint Paul Globe carried the article "Wickedest Spot in the World," about Tunnel City, a Great Northern Railroad shantytown located in Washington's Cascade Range where construction workers labored on a three-mile passageway through the mountains. The paper described the camp's denizens and their effect on Tunnel City as the "scum of the West.... Murderers fleeing from justice, desperate and lawless hoboes, driven thither by the Western winter, ramblers and bunco men; saloon-keepers whose home-manufactured whiskey drives their patrons into a frenzy, and the most degraded women that Pacific seaport towns can supply, combine in making the camp an inferno." Despite the abundance of colorful Tunnel City reprobates whose lives, behaviors, and antics the Saint Paul Globe might have dished up to a shocked middle-class audience, the paper called out only one by name for consideration: the "incorrigible" Nell Pickerell, whose one ambition in life "is to act like a man."

A few years later, on 23 February 1908, even the Washington (D.C.) Times carried an illustrated story on Pickerell in its Sunday magazine supplement. Somewhat exaggerating its subject's celebrity, the paper contended that Pickerell "is known to all police west of the Mississippi." The article was more a cautionary tale of what happens when a woman masquerades as a man and trifles with the affections of others of her sex: the bulk of the piece focused on two suicides, Dolly Quappe and Hazel Walters, who, only after hopelessly falling for Pickerell, had become morbidly distraught upon learning their lover's true sex.

The first of her victims to end her disappointed life declared her infatuation knew no bounds. She was madly, raptu[r]ously in love with the attractive "Harry" Livingstone. The girl in man's garb played with the misguided member of her own sex as an angler with a big speckled trout until at last the secret was whispered in her ear. Her life seemed worth nothing when she learned the truth.

"I love you, Harry, even though you have been to me a living lie," she cried, and shot herself to death.

The second victim within a short space of a few weeks, hu[r]ried herself upon the rocks of destruction to the siren song of this woman who plays with life and death. Like a wrecker upon the beach, she placed false lights upon the shore to lure upon the treacherous sands the ships that sail the angry seas. Hazel Walters felt the lure of the girl's false personality, and in her delirium of madness drank a liquid that ended forever the disappointment that filled her life.

The Washington Times obscured little in describing Allen as "clever in the art of love making" to other women. Somewhat more tame than its meaning today, making love at the turn of the twentieth century nevertheless was something that society appropriately reserved for opposite sex couples, as it involved petting, romance, and perhaps declarations of intentions. Of course, such reporting salaciously called into question Allen's sexual and gender makeup. In that vein, the remainder of the piece focused on his convincing masquerade, suggesting that he had nearly become the opposite sex. Other news stories over the years likewise noted the same. Allen "is just as much like a man as can be," were the words of one, while another discovered that he "has arm[s] like a man ... hard as nails, and exceptionally well developed." "As a harvest hand," reported yet another, "she proved her ability to smoke, drink and frequent saloons," while another claimed Allen could "fight as good a fight as any man of her size." "She wears her hair closely cropped," maintained another, "and has the strength and rugged features of a workingman." When a Portland reporter visited him in the city jail in June 1912, he asserted that "the moisture in Nell Pickerell's eyes ... was the only hint of the fact that she is a woman." Another jail scene rendered Allen a "lone 'man' among the women prisoners, strutting about with 'his' hands in 'his' pockets or hooking 'his' thumbs in 'his' suspenders, or adjusting 'his' tie."

Over the years some newspapers went only so far in claiming that Allen had actually become a man, typically adding tidbits that still positioned femininity as somehow related to, or the cause for, Pickerell's sartorial switch. Some reported, for example, that "she" had once loved a man, if unwisely, married him, and had a child. When the relationship soured, it was "her" husband's treachery that likely led Pickerell later to flirt with women. While one speculated that he took to men's clothing when a mere child due to the bicycle craze at that time, and a boy's short pants made riding easier, another theorized that Allen simply revolted against sartorial customs that prescribed the most uncomfortable and impractical getups for women. Such possibilities aside, the same source further feminized him when it reported one of his own explanations for why he wore men's clothes as a "typical woman's" non-reason: "because I want to." The police, on the other hand, claimed Allen wore male attire "to better conceal her work in the underworld." But the most common explanation given for Allen's masquerade proved also the most conventional trope for why women of the day passed as men: to more easily secure better paying employment. Even Allen at times said it was so.

Social science of the day also worked to feminize and normalize Allen's wardrobe and behaviors. By sheer coincidence—and the historian's good luck—the very summer of Allen's incarceration in Portland, twenty-five-year-old Miriam Van Waters, an anthropology graduate student at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, happened to be in Portland, her hometown, collecting data at the local jail for her doctoral thesis, "The Adolescent Girl Among Primitive People." Among the incarcerated, Van Waters encountered Allen, who supplied her with some of her most important evidence. A budding social reformer and women's rights advocate, Van Waters argued that any number of adolescent girls caught up in the penal system of the day were simply energetic and independent young women who, had they lived in "primitive" societies, such as those of the American Indian, would have been ushered into roles acceptable for such people where dressing and behaving in ways associated more with males were actually valued and supported. In turn-of-the-twentieth-century western civilization, however, such women tended to end up before the law for activities deemed unacceptable, even criminal. The fault in matters where a woman like Allen found "herself" in jail, in Van Waters's mind, lay not with the individual, but rather with modern society. Specifically in Allen's case, Van Waters confidently concluded that "her criminal record appears to be the result of discrimination."

Considering the dissertation's determinations, it comes as little surprise that in relating Allen's life history as "Case I" of her study, Van Waters labored to recapture certain elements of her subject's "normal" womanhood and even heterosexuality, despite also having to relate here and there Allen's masculine characteristics and adventures (and despite being a lesbian herself). How much of Allen's life Van Waters reimagined, or Allen veiled when recounting it, is of course impossible to know; Van Waters's biographical sketch likely blended the two. For example, Van Waters told of Allen's marriage in her teens to an older man, a union that produced a child. (In fact, Allen never seems to have married and when she did give birth in 1898, the boy's father went unlisted and the child's birth was registered as illegitimate.) When Allen's "husband" deserted "her," in Van Waters's recapitulation, Allen went to work as a domestic servant and waitress, but unable to earn enough, only then did he assume the identity of a man and find work on farms and cattle ranches, in lumber camps, and around freight depots and dock yards, earning "a man's full wages." Steadfastly refusing to wear women's clothing, Van Waters asserted, it was impossible for Allen "to earn an honest and adequate living while dressed as a woman." (On the other hand, Van Waters also offered hints that Allen had taken to male activities, chores, and clothing well before adulthood.) Of the reports that Allen ruined girls and that two even suicided as a result, Van Waters claimed them to be little more than apocrypha. Rather, in Van Waters's telling, Allen's life had early introduced him to women of the underworld, with whom he grew sympathetic. He took some in, returned others to their homes, and generally looked after their welfare. Supplementing this charitable assessment for Allen's interest in these women, Van Waters definitively asserted at once that Pickerell "does not exhibit homo-sexual tendencies" and reaffirmed later that he "lacks the excitability of the usual homosexual type." (And yet elsewhere Lola G. Baldwin, superintendent of the Portland Police Department Women's Protective Division when Allen served time there in 1912, explained in her official reports that her charge had "an almost insane mania for making love to girls, when dressed in men's clothing" and that "she" and Isabelle Maxwell "lived together as man and wife.")

Although Van Waters's findings support Allen's relatively "normal" womanhood and sexuality, and other sources of the day sometimes worked to conventionalize his behaviors, in fact most information offered up at the time, whether through news reports or the occasional legal and social science file, clearly indicated to an anxious public that Allen was, to use the common term of the time, a sexual invert. As such, "she" might have been a lesbian. Typically in the late nineteenth century and even well into the twentieth, working-class women (and somewhat later, certain middle-class women) who had same-sex desires expressed their interests by dressing as men and adopting elements of a male persona. Some working-class lesbians in the early twentieth century (and beyond) also found themselves as sex workers or otherwise associated with them, as did Allen.

More appropriately, Allen was a sexual invert and all that it implied. Within this expansive category, he may have leaned more toward what we now understand as transsexual or transgendered; evidence points to the fact that he saw himself as male, something that the era's term "sexual invert" could mean. In a 1912 interview, Allen maintained that as a result of living for many years as a man, he had experienced a "change of sex." Even earlier he reportedly claimed to have "always played with the boys and wanted to be one of them.... I did not like to be a girl; did not feel like a girl, and never did look like a girl. I seemed to have nothing in common with my own sex. My hair was short and coarse. My shoulders were broad and square like a man's.... I put on men's clothing, and have not discarded them since." He supposedly never acted as mother to his son, whose grandmother raised him, the two maintaining that the child's mother died and that Allen was in fact his uncle.

Even those near Allen, and in some cases those from afar, questioned his femaleness. Particularly striking is the Portland jail matron's statement from 1912: "She looks and talks and walks and acts like a man," she recited. "Why, every time I go into the room where she is, although I know all about her, I can't help feeling that there is a man in the room. I went in there in night attire one evening, and she sat there in her street clothes, and I nearly screamed with the feeling that I had blundered into the presence of a man in dishabille." One perceptive reader of the Portland News in 1912 wrote a letter to the editor with only thinly veiled meaning: "A woman who is ashamed of her sex so that she masquerades in male attire," this reader argued, "should be shunned. This old story about more wages because she wears men's clothes is not the main part of the drama at all. There is many a good man who would marry such a woman as Nell Pickerell, but she will not have it that way."

In Seattle in December 1922, Allen died at age forty from syphilitic meningitis. The Post-Intelligencer carried the obituary, which summarized his long and colorful criminal career, his varied masculine jobs, and the considerable consternation he caused the police over the years. Forever "ashamed" of being born female, the paper asserted, Allen "grew indignant when her sex was mentioned." The article included a picture of the deceased, reproduced at other times over the years, showing him wearing a derby hat, suit jacket, collared shirt, and necktie. The caption said he had been "masquerading for years as a man." The headline read NELL PICKERELL MAN-GIRL, DIES. As was true with other reports about Allen over the years, this one at the conclusion of his life sprinkled throughout it uncertainty over his gender and sexual identity.


Excerpted from Re-Dressing America's Frontier Past by Peter Boag. Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

Introduction. A Trip Along the Pike's Peak Express: Cross-Dressers and America's Frontier Past

PART ONE. "Females in Male Attire, and Males in Petticoats": Remembering Cross-Dressers in Western American and Frontier History
1. "Known to All Police West of the Mississippi": Disrobing the Female-to-Male Cross-Dresser
2. "I Have Done My Part in the Winning of the West": Unveiling the Male-to-Female Cross-Dresser

PART TWO. "The Story of the Perverted Life Is Not Attractive": Making the American West and the Frontier Heteronormative
3. "And Love Is a Vision and Life Is a Lie": The Daughters of Calamity Jane
4. "He Was a Mexican": Race and the Marginalization of Male-to-Female Cross-Dressers in Western History
5. "Death of a Modern Diana": Sexologists, Cross- Dressers, and the Heteronormalization of the American Frontier

Conclusion. Sierra Flats and Haunted Valleys: Cross-Dressers and the Contested Terrain of America's Frontier Past



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"This is fascinating stuff, on many levels. . . . If you're a western history buff especially, you need to outfit yourself with this book soon."—
Inland Empire Weekly

"A extremely valuable work."—Pacific Northwest Quarterly

"Challenging, informative work. . . . Highly recommended."—Choice

"A lovely (and at times wry) new volume."—Western Historical Quarterly

"Because it uncovers a wealth of stories that are overdue for telling, Re-Dressing America's Frontier Past is the ticket. If you're a western history buff especially, you need to outfit yourself with this book soon."—Dallas Voice

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