What with reality television, docusoaps and twitter we’re all familiar with the way people rise to prominence in the media for a time only to disappear into obscurity a few months later. Stories come and go so quickly it seems as though Andy Warhol’s prediction that in the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes might be true. But this is not a purely modern phenomenon. From late 1852 until the summer of the following year, people all over the United States were terribly interested in the antics of a seventeen-year-old girl called Emma Snodgrass. People were very shocked by her behaviour. The thing she did that upset everyone so much was to dress in man’s clothes. She was arrested for wearing pants. It’s hard to understand now why this should have been such a problem but it really was.
Emma was from New York where her father was a respected city official. On December 29th 1852, she was arrested in Boston for the crime of wearing pants. This was not the first time this had happened, nor was it the last. Some time in November, calling herself George Green, she had got a job as a clerk in a clothing store. When her cover was blown, she was arrested, given more appropriate attire and packed off back to her father in New York in the company of her brother. It was an unusual story which soon made it into the local paper. A few weeks later, she was back again. She took lodgings in a coffee house. She left her lodgings in women’s clothes but returned wearing a frock coat, cap, vest and pants. Her landlord recognised her and informed the police. She was again returned to her father. No one was able to understand why she persisted in wearing men’s clothing and one begins to wonder whether anyone ever asked her.
Several stories concerning her behaviour appeared in December. She was once again, caught wearing pants. She attracted the attention of romantic young men. She visited Portsmouth. N.H. Where she caused a ‘profound sensation’. Then on December 29th she was arrested again. This time she was in the company of another, similarly disguised young woman called Harriet French. According to the newspaper report “it was with great difficulty that the friends could be separated”. Eventually Emma was returned yet again to New York in the company of a police officer whilst Harriet was given a day’s grace to leave town or else face two months imprisonment at Blackwell’s Island. While Emma came from a well-off family, Harriet did not. That, said one newspaper, “is the difference between breeches without money, and breeches with”.
Apart from the trousers thing, no one seems to have adequately put their finger on what the problem with her was. On one hand she appeared in court charged with vagrancy but, as she had always paid her way, never begged or misbehaved herself she was released. Yet, another report says that she frequented drinking houses “made several violent attempts to talk ‘horse,’ and do other things for which ‘fast’ boys are noted.” What it means to talk horse, who the fast boys were and what else they got up to, I have been unable to find out. In the spring of the following year she was spotted in Albany calling herself Henry Lewis. She said she was on her way to California or Australia. Over the following months, she was reported in Louisville, in Buffalo, in Cleveland. Then in July a story appeared claiming that she had given up all her nonsense and gone home. Maybe she did, maybe she made it to Australia or maybe she just got really good at disguising her self.
Although no one seems to have found out why Emma chose to dress as a man, a few years later another young woman, called Charley, was arrested in New York whilst wearing men’s clothes. She claimed to have been with Emma Snodgrass in Boston, but had not been found out. Charley was asked about her own choice. She said that it was just easier, she could get better work for more money as a man. She had worked for a long time as a cabin boy on a Mississippi steamboat and then as a bar tender in the city. She had started to dress as a boy at fifteen, she said: “I acted wrong once, I don’t deny it; but I didn’t like to, and it was to prevent the necessity of continuing to act bad that I put on boy’s clothes.”