Early Kansas City Law Criminalized The Practice
by David W. Jackson
In the last issue, we looked at the origin, evolution and extinction of unconstitutional sodomy laws. This time, let’s address (pun intended) one of Kansas City’s earliest local municipal ordinances which made cross-dressing illegal.
Cross-dressing and appearing on public streets must have been a “thing” in the 1850s. The practice was common—and, frowned upon enough—to lead the Kansas City Council to pass a local ordinance banning the practice in 1859. This puts a whole new spin to a “Wild West” we have never before lassoed. Think of this: there was no Kansas Territory until 1854 and State Line was the western edge of the United States.
Wouldn’t you love to time-travel back to the mid-1800s just to see how and why this law was put on the books? I’d love to pop in and interview those individuals on both sides of the law to discover their thoughts, beliefs and motivations. Did some cross-dress because they were transvestites? Did others cross-dress because they were, in terms we’d use today, transgender or genderqueer? You know the answers. Both.
From the time these laws were adopted on the Missouri frontier—and lasting more than 150 years—imagine the unnumbered Kansans, Missourians and Kansas Citians who were unnecessarily harassed, arrested, bullied, suppressed and even murdered for simply trying to bravely live in authenticity in a highly prejudicial, puritanical world, and “open range” city.
Truth be told, this aspect of human superiority, that is, putting down others to make the majority class feel more pious, moral, lawful, just, or right, is as old as recorded history. And yes, humans have been LGBT since the beginning of time, too. But I digress.
Here in River City, men and women on the American frontier cross-dressed. They appeared in public. Some were arrested. Working-class arrestees were often exposed in local papers, while high-society folks remained anonymous.
My friend James A. Tharp, who researched very early, local newspaper coverage of LGBT-matters, shared his data for incorporation into my recently published book, “Changing Times: Almanac and Digest of Kansas City’s LGBTQIA History.” Tharp found numerous articles about men and women who were arrested in Kansas City for cross-dressing.
The City’s 1859 anti-cross-dressing ordinance, Sec. 2, read: “Whoever shall, in this City, be found in any dress not belonging to his or her sex, or shall make any indecent exposure of person in any public place, or in any other place, to the annoyance of any person or persons, or be guilty of any indecent or lewd act or behavior; or shall exhibit, sell or offer for sale, any indecent or lewd book, picture or other thing, or shall exhibit or perform any indecent, immoral or lewd play, or other representation, shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor.”
The earliest known recorded instance of an infraction to the 1859 ordinance was in March 1875. It wasn’t the first; it’s just that records prior to that time are not known to survive.
“Frederick Angerstein was waltzing about town on Friday night in hoop skirts, bustles, chignons and the like, and yesterday was fined $13.15 for the fun. He said he was ‘prepared for a mask ball in Wyandotte.’ Angerstein appears to have lived in Leavenworth, Kansas, in 1870; and, by 1880 lived in St. Louis.”
In February 1875, “Two unnamed young persons, supposed to be females rigged out in male attire, crated a very considerable stir at the Union Depot…. They were effeminate in appearance and speech….”
The next month, “Matt Clary, conductor on the Missouri River, Fort Scott and Gulf railroad, at Olathe, ‘collared’ a smooth-faced young man dressed in woman’s clothes and made the man ‘put down his false colors, and come out in his right dress.’ Why he wanted to travel in the attire of a female is one of these things no fellah can find out,” the Kansas City Times reported.
The next found instance was in 1880. “George Johnson, smooth-faced, 6-foot-tall African-American from Rosedale, was caught dressed in ‘female garb…. His hair was beautifully frizzed.’” Unable to pay the $10.50 fine, he received a term in the Work House where he was given a pair of “ruffled overalls and an embroidered shirt” and put to work “at the rock pile.” These were real people.
In November 1880, the two-month-old Kansas City Evening Star ran an article where the word “drag” first appeared in print in Kansas City. “Drag” is believed to have originated in the 1870s theater as a slang term meaning “dressed resembling a girl” to describe a male performer wearing female clothing. It may have also been used to describe the performer’s sensation of wearing a long skirt that trailed behind her on the floor and dragged as she walked. A folk etymology emerged in the late-20th century suggesting that “drag” is an acronym for “dressed as girl.” The article discusses “strange men, very queer people, and “womanly men.”
Just four days earlier the Kansas City Police found “in a Fourth Street mansion a well-known young society gentleman dressed up in woman’s clothing dancing the can-can. Several men well-known in other lines of business were indulging in similar antics, while two of the women, arrayed in men’s clothing, added zest to an entertainment which was startling if not elegant.”
Unlike other instances when people’s names were dragged through the mud in newsprint, these high-society folks remained anonymous, possibly by having bribed their way out of prosecution.
These instances didn’t occur daily or weekly, but they were scandalous enough to make the paper whenever they did take place. “Changing Times,” thanks to Tharp, accounts for each instance that has thus far been uncovered.
It was at this time that Oscar Wilde performed to a sold-out audience at the Coates Opera House in April 1882. The Opera House, destroyed by a fire in 1901, was across the street from the Coates House Hotel, which has been preserved, restored and remains one of the city’s most notable buildings at the southeast corner of 10th and Broadway.
According to local author Felicia Londre’s book, “The Enchanted Years of the Stage,” Kansas Citians had never seen such a flamboyant character dressed in “purple velvet breeches with knee buckles, black silk stockings, cutaway coat, white neck scarf with diamonds and long, center-parted hair.”
Charles Ferruzza, in his March 9, 2013, Pitch article, “Oscar Wilde ate here (Really, he did!),” wrote: “The Kansas City Journal reported that Wilde dined at the Vienna Model Bakery, Cafe and Restaurant at 549 Delaware. That particular building was razed years ago to make room for the highway that slices through downtown Kansas City. But it stood, roughly, near the northeast corner of Delaware and what used to be Sixth Street, just a few blocks away from the Farmhouse.
This is how the Journal described Wilde’s stage appearance: “… He held in his hand a handkerchief and toyed with it as does a bashful maiden. When not holding either his watch charm or handkerchief, his hand played with his coattail. This he bobbed up and down like a frisky lamb does its caudal appendage when running in a field.”
Where can I go now that I’ve broached the word “frisky?” If you dare, join me in the next edition, won’t you?
David W. Jackson is co-founder of the Gay and Lesbian Archive of Mid-America (GLAMA) and author of “Changing Times: Almanac and Digest of Kansas City’s LGBTQIA History” (orderlypackrat.com/s/books.
To donate to GLAMA, visit glama.us, call 816-235-5712, or mail items to: Stuart Hinds, c/o GLAMA, LaBudde Special Collections, 326 Miller Nichols Library, University of Missouri-Kansas City, 800 E 51st St., Kansas City, MO 64110.