It Wasn’t All Gold and Glitter
by DAVID W. JACKSON
This is the third in a trilogy of features exploring local, arcane anti-LGBTQ laws that citizens of the past endured.
Each article is worth taking to heart. After decades of struggle, recently granted rights and freedoms are again under attack and threatened with reversal.
Looking back 135 years at Kansas City’s laws shows how far the LGBT movement has advanced but it also shows how much is the same and still needs to be changed.
An 1881 issue of the “Kansas City Daily Journal” encapsulated Kansas City’s ordinances, many of which showed clear bias against women and privacy. Some “offenses against morals” still on the books made it unlawful to:
- Appear or dress in public in dress not belonging to his or her sex;
- Bathe in river or pond in day time in state of nudity;
- Employ lewd women to carry beer, keep bar, or sing and dance in a saloon;
- Exhibit, selling or offering for sale any lewd book or picture;
- Expose person or appearing in a state of nudity;
- Indecent or lewd dress is worn;
- Occupy rooms for purposes of prostitution;
- Print/publish or circulate reading material of an indecent nature; or,
- Permit girls under age of 17 years to remain in bawdy house without notifying police.
The laws also targeted specific people, including:
- Females of lewd character frequenting saloons;
- Females of lewd character misbehaving while riding or walking;
- Hackmen (buggies) hauling prostitutes in other than closed hack;
- Inmates or keepers of bawdy (i.e., whore) house riding in open buggy or hack;
- Prostitutes plying avocation on street or public place;
- Vagrants who owned or worked in bawdy houses for prostitution purposes; and,
- Male procurers, or pimps, who kept bawdy houses.
One of the earliest women documented as appearing on the streets as a cross-dresser was Maud Cummings, a “Cyprian,” or mixed-race African-American, who paid $6 in Police Court in October 1883 for “appearing upon streets in male attire.” In today’s currency, $6 would be $150.
In August 1884, “The Kansas City Star” published the arrest of 27-year-old Andrew Woodard, an African-American working as a servant, for “perambulating the streets in female attire,” who was fined $5. He said he was on his way home from a ball in Wyandotte.
The following year, “A Queer Case,” was published in the “Kansas City Daily Journal,” describing Frank Gray, who came to Kansas City two years earlier from Columbus, Ohio, and whose real identity was Mrs. Mary B. Walcott. She successfully masqueraded as a man for 15 years before being arrested for violating the city’s anti-cross-dressing ordinance. This person would transfer real property from one name to the other, then initiate false litigation whereupon Frank Gray would sue Mrs. Walcott. That is, until she was discovered. Her elaborate scheme is demonstrated more fully in my new book, “Changing Times: Almanac and Digest of Kansas City’s LGBTQIA History.”
In May 1898, the African-American “Autumn Leaf Club, with rooms at 706 E. 12th St., was raided and 18 people arrested, among them, Taylor Sexton, a ‘strapping’ man dressed in female attire, with which he wore into court, and was fined $25 ($730 today).” The 20 July 1899 edition of the “Kansas City Journal” provided a dramatic event where Leon Henry Jordon, father of Kansas City African-American icon Leon M. Jordon, was forced to light a match to his Autumn Leaf Club charter before the Police Court. Jordon prevailed, and the Club continued (even after his 13 Aug 1918 death) later at 1516, then 1704 ½ E. 12th St., intermittently as late as 1942.
“[One] exception to Kansas City’s rules regulating what one may or may not wear was evident upon the floats parading through downtown streets during the Priests of Pallas festival [like Mardi Gras]…. This annual exhibition started in 1887 and spanned 40 years of lavish, ornate celebrations. The most prized and extravagant float…featured the Pallas Athena herself…except they cast a male to play the role of Athena.”
Women had their revenge in the summer of 1899. In May, three “young ladies” who lived on West 10th Street—“their names not made public…for the sake of their families…who were well-known”—donned their brothers’ clothes, and made a raucous on West 4th Street in the quarter containing the “notorious houses of shame.” This was famous KC madam Annie Chambers’ neighborhood at Wyandotte near the City Market.
In July, “Lucy Bell, colored, age 13-15, associated with Ida Tabb and Mattie Marshall, both well-known thieves, dressed as a man in disguise as a means for successfully carrying on her business. She said she had abandoned dresses after a masquerade dance in Argentine last winter. Lucy was caught ‘relieving a colored woman at Independence Avenue and Oak of her pocketbook.’ The three girls made their home in the vicinity of 3rd and Holmes. Lucy was pronounced a sneak thief and sentenced to serve 60 days at the workhouse.”
The following month, “In the police court, yesterday morning, Mrs. Nan Weekley and Mrs. Tillie Murray, were arrested for wearing their husband’s garments.”
In September, Maggie Reed, “colored,” was arrested for wearing men’s clothes and committed to the Work House. She had been released from the State Penitentiary on July 4 after serving time for the murder of a youth named John Nye, in the West Bottoms. The Work House building survives today in the 18th and Vine District.
This date night takes the cake. Two “men” were apprehended in October 1890, and, “after being ‘closely questioned,’” it was found that one of them was actually the other man’s wife. The couple from Alma, Kansas, had been staying in a room at 4th and Main, while seeking employment. In doing so, the wife had, “assumed the garb of a man and attempted to play the brother game…. It was thought best not to institute charges against the couple proving the lady would assume proper clothing and they would settle down and live as man and wife should.”
Try to imagine the years of repression and prosecution our predecessors had to endure so they could be themselves and to explore their own sexuality. Always remember—even here in Kansas City—the “Gay ’90s” were gay (and lesbian, bisexual, and transgender); but they weren’t all gold and glitter.
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.pdf). To donate to GLAMA, visit glama.us.