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. This was apparently her first arrest in Scranton.
A friend arrived at the police station a short time later, asking why Jean had been arrested. After informing Captain John Lewis that Jean was female, the friend wanted to know why Jean was being held in a cell for male prisoners. Eventually he succeeded in convincing the police captain 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 the police wrote “Hermaphrodite” in parentheses, as if embarrassed and needing to whisper the description. It’s unknown which cells she was placed in on that occasion.
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 as a male. The way her hair is tucked under at the back gives the impression that she’d recently been wearing a wig.
The confusion regarding Jean’s gender identity isn’t surprising. America in the 1930s was decades away from acceptance of people who didn’t fit clearly into traditional sex roles and appearances. 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 in Scranton, so she moved on.
Featured photo: Jean Williams’ police booking card (front). Collection of the author.