Puzzled Police

On March 4, 1938, Jean Williams was arrested in Scranton, Pennsylvania, for disorderly conduct. Born in New York City, Jean told the police she worked as a “nightclub entertainer.” After conducting a search of her person, police placed Jean, who was dressed in men’s clothing, in the cell room for males. Apparently this was her first arrest in Scranton.

Jean_Williams_confuses_police
Headline from The Evening News, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, Saturday, March 5, 1938.

A friend arrived at the police station a short time later and informed Captain John Lewis that Jean was female. The friend wanted to know why she had been arrested and why she was being held in a cell for male prisoners. Eventually he succeeded in convincing Lewis that Jean was a woman. She was transferred to the women’s cells and later discharged.

Scranton Police arrested Jean again for disorderly conduct on December 12, 1938. Her booking card indicates that she was 27 years old, tall and slender, with black hair and “maroon” colored eyes. In the “mustache” section of the card, which was crossed out, the police clerk wrote “Hermaphrodite” in parentheses, as if embarrassed and needing to whisper the description. It’s unknown which set of cells she was placed in on that occasion.

Jean Williams_back_marked
Back of Jean’s arrest card, collection of the author.

Jean identified as a female. Her face, with its delicate features and thin eyebrows, looks feminine. However she has a distinct Adam’s apple, no breasts and she’s dressed in men’s clothing. The way her hair is tucked under at the back gives the impression that she’d recently been wearing a wig.

America in the 1930s was decades away from acceptance of people who didn’t fit clearly into traditional gender roles. The word “transgender” wouldn’t come into common use until the 1970s. It would take until almost the end of the 20th century, with advances in understanding of genetics, for the word “hermaphrodite” to be replaced by “intersex.”

Jean appears in only one Scranton city directory — the 1936 edition. Her profession is listed as “waiter” so she may have identified then as male. She worked at a Scranton tavern called the Ritz Café that was raided by police due to violations of the state’s liquor laws.

After December 1938 Jean could not be traced. Perhaps she’d had enough of being arrested by the puzzled police of Scranton, so she moved on.

Featured photo: Jean Williams in arrest photos taken by the Scranton police, collection of Shayne Davidson

 

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