Do you know:
The first gay rights advocacy group in the United States was formed in Chicago in 1924?
There was a legally recognized same-sex marriage in Chicago in 1923?
That Cab Calloway’s signature song “Minnie the Moocher” is a “heterosexualized” version of a song called “Willie the Weeper” popularized by a Bronzeville female impersonator?
All these stories and others come to life in Jim Elledge’s new book The Boys of Fairytown: Sodomites, Female Impersonators, Third-Sexers, Pansies, Queers, and Sex Morons in Chicago’s First Century, a historical exploration of Chicago’s queer male community, from the late 1800s through 1940.
Too often, when the history of the gay community is discussed, it feels monolithic—as if there was only one kind of experience, following an unwavering timeline from repression to openness. Naturally, life isn’t so neat. The narrow timeframe covered by the book shows a wide variety of experiences: gay men who lived openly in their neighborhoods with little fear of harassment, female impersonators who were huge stars, men who were tormented by their sexuality, men who didn’t consider themselves “homosexual” but had sex with other men, and men who had sex for money. But while there were periods of measured tolerance, times changed and American culture went through conservative periods, leaving gay men more vulnerable to persecution and discrimination. Elledge uncovers these largely untold stories, each chapter devoted to one person, or an aspect of queer life during this time. Sometimes overlapping with common “characters”, they add another fascinating layer to our city’s unique history.
The book opens in the 1860s with the story of John Wing, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune who was also an extremely thorough diarist. As a result we have a mostly uncensored view of his love and sex life from the time he was a teenager onwards. He didn’t seem to struggle at all with the idea that he was attracted to men and while he likely wasn’t blabbing about it publicly (sodomy being a crime punishable by a life sentence in Chicago until 1874), he was comfortable in his own skin.
John Wing might have thought of him self as a “sodomite,” but throughout the book Elledge doesn’t shy away from showering the reader with an awe-inspiring array of other terms used to label the queer community during this time: dandies, inverts, psychic hermaphrodites, third-sexers, temperamentals, cake eaters, lily bearers, inverts, pansies, and the always-classic perverts—some things never go out of style. The word homosexual didn’t appear in print until 1892, and only came into common usage after the 1920s.
By the time Henry Gerber was living in Chicago, he was ready to be out and proud. When he was stationed in Germany after World War I, he observed the beginnings of a gay rights movement in Berlin, and was impressed at the number of queer publications available. Queer Germans had organized to overturn discriminatory laws, and Gerber wanted to do the same in America. In 1924, he founded the Society for Human Rights, which he intended as an educational and advocacy group for homosexuals. He went on to publish a magazine called Friendship and Freedom, and encouraged “non-queer men of good reputation” and “noted medical authorities” to join this the organization, though without much success. Gerber was too far ahead of his time, and the world wasn’t quite ready for his ideas. He, along with the other officers of the Society for Human Rights were arrested in 1925 after one of the men’s wives (!) reported them to the police. Gerber’s apartment was raided and all his papers were seized and publicized in court as proof of his degeneracy. The judge eventually dismissed all charges, but as a result of the trial Gerber lost his job, and the legal bills nearly bankrupted him. In less than a year the Society for Human Rights was defunct. Soured on Chicago, he moved to New York, and then Washington, DC, continuing to write and advocate for gay rights. Chicago honors him now as the Gerber in the Gerber/Hart Library, founded in 1981 as an archive and resource for the papers of LGBTQ individuals and organizations.
Much like today, in the early 1900s there were neighborhoods where gay people lived and worked and felt more comfortable being themselves. Neighborhoods like Towertown (the area between the Water Tower on Michigan Ave, and LaSalle, Ohio, and Pearson Streets), and the booming South Side neighborhood of Bronzeville. The vice district of West Madison Street (now populated by pricey condos and restaurants) was less a neighborhood of choice than a place where someone ended up either homeless, drug-addicted, or as a prostitute. Elledge populates the book with an abundance of specific locations and addresses that will provide interesting context for the longtime Chicago resident, but might be an unnecessary clutter of information to an outsider.
Bronzeville was home to many theaters and cabarets where female impersonators were big stars alongside the likes of Fats Waller and Louis Armstrong. In a city where racial segregation was the order of the day (even in a neighborhood like Towertown which was gay-friendly and the heart of bohemian culture in the city), the races mingled more freely in Bronzeville, especially in clubs referred to as “black-and-tans.” In 1934, after the Chicago World’s Fair closed, the Towertown area was targeted by the city in a crackdown on cabarets and nightclubs that catered to a queer clientele. Bronzeville was ignored (for awhile, anyway) and as a result became the new entertainment hot spot.
One of the most famous Bronzeville stars of the 1920s and 1930s was all-around talent Frankie “Half-Pint” Jaxon: he was a singer, producer of musical revues, host of several successful radio programs, and a successful female impersonator. His specialty was rewriting the lyrics of popular songs to include all kinds of sexual innuendo, and often performed “duets” with himself singing both male and female parts. He was so popular he played clubs around the city, and even personally saved a theater from bankruptcy by selling out the joint. In 1927, Jaxon rewrote the lyrics to an old song called “Willie the Weeper,” to tell the tale of a drug-addicted chimney sweep, with a little homosexual innuendo thrown in. In 1931, Cab Calloway “de-gayed” the lyrics and had his biggest hit, “Minnie the Moocher.”
The most fascinating, and confusing, story in the book involves the murder trial of Frances Carrick (aka Fred Thompson, aka G. Fred Thompson, aka Harry Thompson, aka May Belmont, aka Nanny White, aka Fay Holmes). She sometimes lived as a woman, and sometimes as a man. As May Belmont, she performed as a very successful female impersonator and ran two different brothels (as Nanny White and Fay Holmes) at different points in her life. As a woman, she married Frank Carrick in 1912, while as a man, married Marie Clark in 1921 (at the Moody Bible Institute, no less). Carrick lived with both her husband and wife in the same apartment at the same time. Then in 1923 she was accused of killing a man during the course of a robbery by a very unreliable witness. While she was in jail awaiting trial, it was revealed she was biologically male, resulting in a media frenzy, which Frances seemed to enjoy and use to her advantage. Surprisingly, the trial judge dismissed her husband, Frank Carrick, from testifying, a precedent-setting legal acknowledgement of a same-sex marriage (since spouses can’t be compelled to testify against each other). Carrick was found not guilty by the jury and tried to parlay her fame into a cabaret show, but it didn’t last long. Chicago’s mayor at the time, William Dever, didn’t think anyone should be entertained by such a person, and had the cops close down the show. Neither of Frances Carrick’s marriages were annulled, and even though they eventually split up, there were no official divorce papers. How Elledge was able to piece this story together through the lifetime of Carrick’s shifting identities is really something. I can only imagine one of those crime procedural tack boards with photos and newspaper clippings connected by red string.
What looks like a slim book from the outside contains an incredible amount of research, digging deep into stories that most people would never even bother to think about. Thanks to diarists like John Wing and Henry Gerber, researchers like Myles Vollmer (a divinity grad student at the University of Chicago), Juvenile Protective Association Investigator Nels Anderson, Dr. Ben Reitman, and famed sex researcher Alfred Kinsey, Elledge has a wealth of contemporary primary sources that reveal so much of this previously unknown history. He clearly approaches the subject matter with a deep well of empathy and a need to ensure these men—and the history they represent—are not forgotten. It’s a fascinating read that will open your eyes to the diversity of experience in queer Chicago.
Kathy Moseley is an anxiety-ridden graphic designer/writer/photographer and people-watcher who loves Chicago in all its messy glory. She published the zine SemiBold from 1996 to 2010, and most recently published the zine Ear Plugs and Ticket Stubs, chronicling a year of concerts. Other words and pictures may be found on Twitter or Instagram @semibold, and at semibold.wordpress.com.