Ralph Kerwinieo, One of Milwaukee’s Most Charming Women

Forgotten Stories has blogged before about a same sex marriage in the 1850’s (see  here: https://forgottenstories.net/2012/04/16/americas-first-same-sex-marriage/). The story of Cora Anderson, alias Ralph Kerwinie popped across our radar screens the other day, and given yesterday’s announcement, we felt obliged to share it.

Cora Anderson told Idah M’Glone Gibson  the difficulties she and her roommate had borne when they finished nursing school in 1902. “As girls working outside the home we had been subject to all sorts of overtures from all kinds and conditions of men…We wanted to live honest lives and become respected citizens of the community.”

So, Cora came up with a solution. “If I assumed men’s clothes, I would be better able to obtain work, and as a ‘man’ I could protect my ‘wife’ from insult. The compact we entered into as unthinkly as most marriages are.” Well, the masquerade went off without a hitch. Cora and her purported wife, Marie White, set up themselves up in Cleveland, Ohio, where Cora,  styling herself Ralph Kerwinieo, went to work as a bellboy at the Hollenden Hotel. A few years later, they decamped to Milwaukee, and Ralph took a job at the Plankinton Hotel. “We furnished our little flat” said Ralph, “and to the world we were Mr. and Mrs. Ralph Kerwinieo.”

“In a short time, I thought of myself as a man, and it never entered my mind that I was any different than the men around me with whom I laughed, joked, worked, and played my part.” Yet, it seems she played her part a little too well for Marie Smith/Mrs. Kerwinieo.  Her husband began spending time in barber shops, and pool rooms. News of occasional flirtations with other women reached her. Ralph grew coarse in his language.

Then, in late 1913, after 11 years of presenting themselves to the world as Kerwinieos, things came to a head. At a dance hall during a night out with the boys, Ralph met Dorothy Kienowski, very pretty and very blonde. “It was love at first sight on my part” said Dorothy, “and we became engaged. I grew tired of the life at home and told Ralph he must marry me at once or it was all off…he went out and procured the [marriage certificate] and we were married by Edward J. Burke, justice of the peace.”

This did not sit too well with Marie White, and she decided to reveal the truth about Ralph. As Ralph told it, “Miss Marie White told my employer my secret in revenge for my leaving the house, but my employer was game and never gave the story away for two months – not until Miss White, finding my employer was not going to do anything, tipped it off to the police.”

A complaint was filed for disorderly conduct, and Cora Anderson found herself brought before Judge Page.  Both sides presented many witnesses, but the highlight of the trial happened when the bench questioned the arresting officer:

Page: “While in male attire, how did she act.”

Policeman: “Like a perfect gentlemen.”

Laughter ensued. A few hours later, the Judge allowed Cora to go free, with an order that she wear women’s clothes in the future.

“I am determined to stand by him and be his chum, even if I couldn’t be his wife.” said Dorothy.

Above we have Cora/Ralph as a man and as a women. The wives are below, with Marie to the left, and Dorothy to the right. Consensus here at Forgotten Stories is that Dorothy is kind of cute. Ralph had good taste.

The Fabulous Fat Men

“The ponderous gentlemen of the Fat Men’s Association, for various and weighty reasons, held their first annual ball on the evening of Monday, December 20 at Irving Hall…” The Association’s leadership had begun planning for the gala affair in November, 1869, and the goal was to create a spectacle and sell tickets so that members of the public would watch the Fat Men cavort around a dance hall. The funds raised would go towards offsetting the cost of the Fat Men’s annual picnic in Connecticut.

Initially, they planned  to have each member of the Association appear in matching blue jackets and brass buttons, but the membership felt formal dress more appropriate, and the men appeared clad in swallow-tailed coats and top hats. Their guest of honor was seven-year-old Thomas Conway, all 80 and ½ pounds of him.

Before the dancing began, the Fat Men hunkered down for a good meal; above them the public looked downward, making bets on how much each man would eat. At 11:30, dancing began. Garfule’s Bank had been hired especially for the affair, and Garfule himself composed “The Fat Men’s March.” The President of the Association, John A.P. Fiske (358 lbs.) led the members and their wives to the dance floor, and then put on a spending display of terpsichorean skill; he’d spent the last two months honing his dancing skills with lessons.

The Fat Men’s dancing partners were, for the most part, slim, being outweighed by their larger companions. A few exceptions existed, for “there were enough heavy weights, however, among the fair sex to vindicate the theory of women’s rights and prove that women can compete with men, even in fatness, if they so choose.”

The New York Fat Men’s Association was but an offshoot of the Fat Men’s Association, headquartered in Connecticut. The brainchild of Sidney Smith, he started the Association in 1869 as a means of raising funds for a hotel proprietor in desperate need of business. To drum up business, Smith hit upon the idea of a Fat Men’s Clambake; which proved a rousing success. For the next Clambake, invitations to the clam bake were sent to fat men in New York City and Brooklyn, and it was to offset the cost of a steamer and food that the Fat Men’s Ball was held.

Each and every year thereafter, the New York members of the Fat Men’s Association would journey to Connecticut via steamer, usually accompanied by the jeers of young children concerned about the ability of the gangplank to bear so much weight. On the trip out, the members enjoyed copious amounts of lager beer, danced, and sang; “The Bear Went Over the Mountain” being the most popular. Arriving at the dock in Bridgeport, they were greeted by their Connecticut brethren, and the combined group repaired to the bar, where six bartenders stood ready to serve them and bushels of raw clams stood close at hand.

The smell of the steaming clams was already wafting through the air, prepared by Clark Weston, a black cook much in demand.

Before  dinner, each member was required to be weighed, as no man was permitted in the Association unless he topped 200 lbs.

Finally, at 2 PM, the Fat Men were permitted to eat, which they did for the next two hours. At one 1876 clambake, the attendees devoured 65 bushels of round clams, 17 bushels of long clams, 35 bushels of oysters, 4 barrels of lobsters, 2 barrels of bluefish, 4 barrels of sweet potatoes, 8 barrels of Irish potatoes, 83 chickens, 42 ducks, and in excess of 1000 ears of corn.

The two hours allotted for dinner having been completed, the election for President was then held. The most weight was given to the President’s size, with Willard Perkins (392 lbs) gaining office in successive years. At 6PM, after awarding the President as his badge of office a special chair custom designed to support immense weight, the revelers departed.

Most reporters present each enjoyed the revelery in the spirit in which it was mean, but there was always one or two who viewed the subject with disgust. A New York paper headlined its story on the 1876 picnic “An Atrocity in the Flesh;”

…these valiant trenchermen, with their aggregate tons of adipose, were fat brained, fat witted gross men. They enjoyed life in their way, and wanted their way of enjoying it heralded to the world…There is one thing to be said in favor of the fat men. They are so nearly related to the oyster in activity of mind that they never do much hurt. Whoever saw a fat man of four hundred pounds arraigned on any criminal offense? Whoever knew a fat man at the bottom of any conspiracy? It was Cassius who had the lean and hungry look, and was therefore to be feared as one who could hatch conspiracies….

            With the lone exception of the grouchy reporter man (and perhaps the clams, lobster and chickens), everyone else seemed to enjoy themselves capitally. Although the Fat Men’s Association petered out in Connecticut after Willard Perkins’ death on April 27, 1889, other offshoots of the Fat Men’s Association continued on until the turn of the century. The New Jersey Branch was headed by Eurastus H. Lewis, who upon his death in 1901 was carried to the cemetery by six members of the club in a specially made coffin. The Ohio branch held its clambake at Put-In-Bay, and the St. Louis Fat Men’s Association conducted dances in Uhrig’s cave. The Texas Association’s outlasted most; membership fee was 1 cent per pound, payable at the annual gathering in Galveston.

The Vast New York Shoe Conspiracy

For years, a vast conspiracy existed between the women of New York and their shoe salesmen. From the doughtiest matron to the slimmest debutante, shoe size 13A or 1 were considered ideal, and anything up to a 3 acceptable; and women struggled to fit into them, much to the consternation of the salesmen.

The best conspiracies are the simplest, and footwear specialists came up with a solution; label each and every pair of shoes a 13A or a number 1. The smallest feet around…size 1. Feet like toboggans…size 1. Give the shopper a shoe that fits, label it a size 1, and she’ll be happy.

And so began the legend; “Feminine residents of New York have held to themselves for lo! these many years the flattering belief that they have the smallest feet of the women of any large city. They have prided themselves especially upon their superiority in the matter of small neat tootsies over their sisters of New York’s deadliest rival, Chicago” said the New York World.

Women showed up to buy these:

Advertised by retailers such as this (putting on a White Sale during the second week of January 1909):

and all who wanted went home with a size 1 or a 13A.

The charade fell apart during the week of January 13, 1909. First, The National Boot and Shoe Manufacturers’ Association, holding their annual convention at the Hotel Astor, condemned the practice. Association President J. Hanan stated on the record, “The subterfuge ingeniously arranged so a dealer can give a woman any size to fit no matter what she may call for is manifestly unfair.” J.D. Smithers, shoe dealer from Detroit, disagreed, “You tell a lady with a No. 9 foot that you are giving her a No. 9 shoe,” said Mr. Smithers, “and watch her whisk out of your store! What you need in trade young man is discretion.”

Then the other shoe fell (pun completely intended). Mat Grau, theatrical booking agent, was in town to pick out a chorus line for the new Broadway play A Stubborn Cinderella. Advertisements were inserted into newspapers invited the small footed young ladies of the greater New York area to call upon Mr. Grau for an audition; to sweeten the deal Grau offered twice the usual chorus girl salary.

The special nature of the play called for the chorus girls to fill a size 13A shoe. “Out in Chicago, we had no difficulty of a serious nature in picking a chorus of girls – adults – who could wear a 13A shoe” said Grau, and so he expected it to be easy. ” One thousand women came from Newark, Brooklyn, and Manhattan, each trying to squeeze into a size 13A. Said Grau, “Putting [the test shoe] on most of the feet I have run across in a week was like trying to fit a peanut shell on the end of an incandescent lamp.” Grau’s heart fell like a pair of arches with each failure. He’d been testing the feet of chorus girls for years, “I remember the time, when I was younger, that this test shoe I have – a 13A – would slip on the foot of possibly every fifth girl who applied for a chorus position.” But no more. Out of those 1000 women, Grau found only one who could wear the 13A. Miss Rita Harris.

But the illusion was gone; the Achilles heel exposed. The women of New York, Brookyln and Newark had big feet.  And now the world knew it.

The Human Rat Eater of Philadelphia

Rat-baiting was popular amongst the denizens of the pool halls and squalid taverns of the urban ghetto.  The sport, if it can be called such, pitted a dog (usually a terrier or a pit-bull) against a ring full of rats; bets would be laid as to how long it would take the dog to kill all the rats, the average time per each rat death, or whether Dog A could kill 50 rats faster than Dog B.

In the dingy squalor of the Philadelphia Pool Hall, according to Frank Leslie’s of December 22nd, 1866, the sport took a new direction. Plain pine board benches were tiered around a center ring, six foot in diameter.  At the center of the ring, full of apologies, stood a man in fighting costume; shorts, with tights underneath for proprieties’ sake, and a loose fighting shirt.  He was sorry, the celebrated canine he had ordered from New York City to fight a pit full of rats had not arrived, but to mollify the crowd he gave them two  options; either he would substitute another dog against the rats, or the crowd could watch him kill the rats personally.  You can guess what the crowd chose.

Some 24 rats, large ones, were brought in; taken from a ship in Philadelphia’s harbor, and dumped into the ring.  As the creatures tried in vain to escape the pit, “The Man Rat Killer” as he is called, set upon them.  Down on one knee, the man plunged his hand into the squirming mass of rats, seizing one, putting it in his mouth, breaking its neck with a squeak and a crunch, before tossing it aside.

After ten or so of their compatriots had been dispatched in such a sundry manner, the rats figured out what was going on, and swarmed, crawling up the man’s thighs, but he was too quick for them. Rat after rat was crushed between the man’s teeth, the last terrified survivor cowering at the edge of the ring, until it too was killed.

The crowd cheered.  The man jumped up, felt his lips which had been bitten once or twice in self defense, pulled some rat hairs from between his teeth, and washed away the taste with a glass of whisky.

I’m not quite sure whether to be disgusted at the cruelty of it, shocked at the fact that he didn’t catch bubonic plague, or to wish that he was still alive today to roam NYC subway stations looking for victims.

Rat Baiting Image from the Police Gazette via Wikipedia.

The Great Female Balloon Race of 1909 – Ms. Miller defeats Ms. Shaffer

Oakland, California – October 24, 1909 – Ms. Margaret Miller and Ms. Genevieve Schaffer competed for the third time today in an aerial race. It will be remember that Ms. Miller became the first woman to win the Portola Cup, the prize awarded to the balloonist who travelled the farthest from their starting point; and that Ms. Shaffer also has a Portola Cup win to her credit. The two ladies are friendly rivals; Ms. Shaffer’s balloon, Queen of the Pacific, represents San Francisco, and Ms. Miller ascends in The City of Oakland.

Ms. Shaffer, attired in a white veil and a street gown, ascended first. In between snaps of her ever present chewing gum, Ms. Shaffer told reporters, “I am not afraid at all…I have been looking forward to the trip with much pleasure for weeks.” At her signal, her assistant and the builder of the balloon, Baldwin, cut loose the ballast and Ms. Shaffer was away.

With a white handkerchief, Ms. Miller waved a friendly farewell to her rival before climbing aboard The City of Oakland. Ms. Miller too was attired in a simple street dress, beautifully set off by a rose colored veil. Miler is a prominent Oakland society girl, recently returned from New York City where she made a name for herself as a Spanish dancer. Her father, James Miller, well known capitalist and president of the Oakland pottery works, stood by and took many a wager in support of his daughter.

Both aeronauts seemed to find it difficult to discover an air current to carry them forward.  Queen of the Pacific’s captainess preferred to keep her balloon low in altitude in an attempt to discover a sufficient wind. Very slowly Ms. Shaffer’s balloon drifted towards the Bay, and as no life preservers were carried aboard, it was decided to set the Queen of the Pacific down on the Oakland side rather than risk landing in the waters of the Bay. Accordingly, it touched down at Adeline and Fifty-Eighth Street.

Miller adopted a different tactic, ascending as high as 9000 feet, and as a low as 100 feet off the ground in an attempt to find a wind, and risked the waters of San Francisco Bay. When close to the San Francisco shore, a strong wind did come up, directly in the face of Miller, and The City of Oakland was sent backwards towards her namesake city. Coming ashore and landing at the Key Route pier, Ms. Miller had gone the greater distance, and was named the winner.

“I enjoyed every minute of it. I was not nervous and was not afraid at any time,” said Miller. “It is the greatest sport of all to sail in the air.” Miller will be the guest of honor at a sumptuous feast in her honor at a local café.

A Cure for the Common Cold

From the Schulenberg (TX) Sticker of 1909, we learn of a great way to cure the common cold:

“It is an almost infallible cure when…taken properly…Take two ounces of glycerine with eight ounces of good whiskey and add in one half ounce of concentrated pine compound. Take a teaspoonful or tablespoonful every four hours”

So, next time you you have a cold, mix Pine-Sol with Glycerine and Jim Beam, and watch your cold melt away…but look out for the spontaneous combustion side effect.

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