NPF: NOTHING NEW UNDER THE SUN

An anecdote of such great interest from Vincent Cannato's American Passage that I don't think my words can do it justice:

Frank Woodhull’s experience at Ellis Island began in 1908 when he returned from a vacation to England. The Canadian-born Woodhull, who was not a naturalized American citizen, was heading back to New Orleans where he lived. As he walked single file with his fellow passengers past Ellis Island doctors, he was pulled aside for further inspection. The fifty-year-old was of slight build with a sallow complexion. He wore a black suit and vest, with a black hat pulled down low over his eyes and covering his short-cropped hair. His appearance convinced the doctors to test Woodhull for tuberculosis.

Woodhull was taken to a detention ward for further examination. When a doctor asked him to take his clothes off, Woodhull begged off and asked not to be examined. “I might as well tell you all,” he said. “I am a woman and have traveled in male attire for fifteen years.” Her real name was Mary Johnson. She told her life story to officials, about how a young woman alone in the world tried to make a living, but her manly appearance, deep voice, and slight mustache over her thinly pursed lips made life difficult for her. It had been a hard life, so at age thirty-five Johnson bought men’s clothing and started a new life as Frank Woodhull, working various jobs throughout the country, earning a decent living, and living an independent life. Mary Johnson’s true sexual identity was a secret for fifteen years until Frank Woodhull arrived at Ellis Island.

Johnson requested to be examined by a female matron, who soon found nothing physically wrong with the patient. She had enough money to avoid being classified as likely to become a public charge, was intelligent and in good health, and was considered by officials, in the words of one newspaper, “a thoroughly moral person.” Ellis Island seemed impressed with Johnson, despite her unusual life story. Nevertheless, the case was odd enough to warrant keeping Johnson overnight while officials decided what to do. Not knowing whether to put Johnson with male detainees or female detainees, officials eventually placed her in a private room in one of the island’s hospital buildings.

“Mustached, She Plays Man,” said the headline in the New York Sun. Despite her situation, officials deemed Johnson a desirable immigrant and allowed her to enter the country and, in the words of the Times, “go out in the world and earn her living in trousers.” There was nothing in the immigration law that excluded a female immigrant for wearing men’s clothing, although one can imagine that if the situation had been reversed and a man entered wearing women’s clothing, the outcome might have been different.

Before she left for New Orleans, Johnson spoke to reporters. “Women have a hard time in this world,” she said, complaining that women cared too much about clothes and were merely “walking advertisements for the milliner, the dry goods shops, the jewelers, and other shops.” Women, Johnson said, were “slaves to whim and fashion.” Rather than being hemmed in by these constraints, she preferred “to live a life of independence and freedom.” And with that Frank Woodhull left Ellis Island to resume life as a man.

That's a pretty powerful statement of how limited the prospects in life were for women in the 19th Century. Not much has been written about Frank Woodhull, but you can find the archived original news stories with a simple Google search.

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18 Responses to “NPF: NOTHING NEW UNDER THE SUN”

  1. Noskilz Says:

    Neat – learn something new every day.

  2. Gil More Says:

    Great find Ed !

    What surprises me is that the dignity she sounds to have been treated with back when transgender or transvestite weren't words used much in English then. More of an oddity than the threat some unenlightened people feel today.

  3. Katydid Says:

    Thanks for posting that, Ed, that was refreshing to read after days of Republican prurient interest in other people's genitalia and what they do in private bathroom stalls.

  4. Fiddlin Bill Says:

    Too bad our ignorant NC legislators don't read anything beyond ALEC memos.

  5. doug Says:

    ignorant 'R' legislators, but yes; Amen Fiddlin Bill

  6. doug Says:

    Thanks Ed, good to know we were once sane. perhaps we can return to that one day.

  7. Nick Says:

    BUT WHAT BATHROOM DID SHE USE?!

  8. Major Kong Says:

    If you've ever been on an airliner you've already used a (gasp!) unisex bathroom.

  9. Skepticalist Says:

    "Some Like It Hot."

  10. Katydid Says:

    @Major Kong; if you've ever lived in a house/apartment/condo with other people, you've already used a unisex bathroom!

  11. Goat Says:

    Check out the case of Thomas/Thomasine Hall from Kathleen Brown's Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs for something even more unusual.

  12. c u n d gulag Says:

    Yes, in a much more bigoted and sexist era, she was handled with a good deal of dignity.
    Was it because she portrayed herself as a male?

    How would a male dressed as a woman have been treated?
    Besides being ridiculed and hounded – even to the point of suicide – I mean…?

    Paging Dr. Freud…
    Dr. Sigmund Freud…
    Dr. Freud?

  13. mothra Says:

    Major Kong:
    What? WHAT???? You mean that the person who I thought was a woman who came out of the airplane bathroom might actually have had a penis under her skirt and used the same toilet that I am going to use? My head is exploding right the fuck now.
    (that's sarcasm, folks.)

  14. Kim Says:

    "[…] how limited the prospects in life were for women in the 19th Century."

    Certainly not now. The decades-long rush of women into female-to-male trans/queer identity, especially among the youngest of us, is absolutely about progressive freedom and totally individual and unique truths; not at all the obvious and natural reaction of us damn drowning rats trapped in a world where the only 'critical ideology' (let alone 'feminism') that's available to them, says only: 'how to be sexier and a generally better market choice'.

  15. jharp Says:

    A terrific post.

    Thank you.

  16. Kaleberg Says:

    There were a lot of women living as men, and there are probably plenty of them even now. In one of her autobiographical essays MFK Fisher remembered recognizing that the typesetter in her father's printing shop was a woman though she lived as a man. Odds are a number of people recognized this, but most of them didn't give a damn.

  17. Mark Says:

    She could have lived as a woman and not practiced any of the foibles that she described, thereby denying herself being stereotyped.

  18. eau Says:

    @Mark: And you could have tried harder to grasp the point, or chosen to shut the fuck up, thereby denying yourself (sic) being identified as an idiot.