Frank Woodhull / Mary Johnson

The clipping below is from the passenger list for the steamship S.S. New York, which arrived at the Port of New York, from Southampton, England, October 4th, 1908. It shows that a passenger’s name has been crossed out and replaced with another, that of Mary Johnson. The clipping below that is from the United Kingdom Outward Passenger Lists and confirms that the passenger had described himself as Frank Woodhull, a clerk, and alien in the United States.

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List or manifest of alien passengers: S.S. New York (American Line) Sept 26th,1908

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United Kingdom outward passengers: S.S. New York (American Line) Sept 26th,1908

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The S.S. New York’s passenger list includes an addendum, a page titled Record of Aliens Held for Special Inquiry. This was a list of the names of passengers disembarking from the S.S. New York, who were detained at Ellis Island. The reason given for “Mary Johnson” being held for further inspection is that “she” was travelling as Frank Woodhull “in male attire.” Mr. Woodhull proved that he would not be a financial burden on the United States, and was allowed to continue his journey to New Orleans.

Record of aliens held for special inquiry: S.S. New York (American Line) Sept 26th, 1908

The incident generated headlines in newspapers all over the country, and Frank Woodhull gave a number of interviews, where he told his story, a story that tells us much about the times. Here it is as told to the New York Times, October 5th and 6th, 1908:

My life has always been a struggle. I come of an English-Canadian family, and I have most of my fight to make all alone. Thirty years ago, when I was 20, my father died and I was thrown entirely on my own resources. I came to this country a young girl and went west to make my way. For fifteen years I struggled on. The hair on my face was a misfortune. It was often the subject of rude jest and caused me endless embarrassment. The struggle was awful, but I had to live somehow, and so I went on. God knows that life has been hard, but of the hardness of those years I cannot speak.

Then came a time fifteen years ago when I got desperate. I had been told that I looked like a man, and I knew that in Canada some women have put on men’s clothes do men’s work. So the thought took shape in my mind. If these women had done it why could not I, who looked like a man? I was in California at the time. I bought men’s clothes and began to wear them. Then things changed. I had prospects. My occupation I have given here as canvasser, but I have done many things. I have sold books, lightning rods, and worked in stores. Never once was I suspected that I was other than Frank Woodhull. I have lived my life, and I tried to live it well. Most of the time I have been in California, but now I am going to New Orleans, where there are chances of employment. I have never attempted to take citizenship papers. I knew to do so would be either to reveal my sex or else become a law breaker. I have never been the latter. I did not know that there was a law against women wearing male attire in this State or I would have sailed to another port. My folks come originally from England and it had long been my wish to go there and take a look about. So with a measure of success the longing grew and I began to save up for my holiday. I went over in the steerage two months ago and returned the same way.

On October 8th, 1908 Woodhull returned from Europe, and passing through Ellis Island, as an alien, despite having lived in the United States for a number of years, was pulled to one side by an official who thought that he might have Tuberculosis. Erica Rand, in her book The Ellis Island Snow Globe, quotes an article that appeared in the New-York Tribune, describing “what happened when Woodhull was called for further examination:

[…] Woodhull told the surgeon “Oh, please don’t examine me!” She pleaded. “I might as well tell you all. I am a woman, and have traveled in male attire for fifteen years.” “(p.80)

Woodhull was brought before a Board of Special Inquiry at Ellis Island, who according to the New York Times, October 6th, declared him a “desirable immigrant [who] should be allowed to win her livelihood as she saw fit.” (p.6)

Woodhull talked about how women were expected to behave, dress, and of the types of work open to them.

Women have a hard time in this world. They are walking advertisements for the milliner, the dry goods stores, the jewelers, and other shops. They live in the main only for their clothes, and now and then when a woman comes to the front who does not care for dress she is looked upon as a freak and a crank. With me how different. See this hat? I have worn that hat for three years, and it cost me $3. What woman could have worn a hat so long? Bah! They are the slaves to whim and fashion. What could I do when fifteen years ago I faced the crisis in my life? There was only housework to which I could turn.[…] Men can work at many unskilled callings, but to a woman only a few are open, and they are the grinding, death-dealing kinds of work. Well, for me, I prefer to live a life of independence and freedom.

The New York Times goes on to add that the individual identified at Ellis Island as Mary Johnson, was freed, to “face the world as Frank Woodhull.” (p.6)

A thorough search of Ancestry Library Edition provides no clues as to Frank Woodhull’s whereabouts after leaving Ellis Island, though the internet does include references to his settling in New Orleans, becoming an American citizen, and dying in 1939: citations are missing. Perhaps, after the furor, Frank decided to change his name, to avoid further publicity. This story illustrates one thing. Once Woodhull left Ellis Island, he was no longer obliged to be known as Mary Johnson, but was free to resume his life, complete with the name and identity of his choosing. Ellis Island could not impose a name upon him.

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Phillip Sutton is a graduate of Goldsmiths College, London, and the Pratt Institute. Philip is interested in research of all kinds, particularly in genealogy, and building history. He currently teaches classes in New York City house history research, and immigration as it pertains to genealogical research. He was formerly a recommended researcher at the Brooklyn Historical Society.

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