Part One: Mulberry Street, I. Adult Female-Impersonation Apprenticeship Begins
In 1893 at the age of nineteen I count my adult life to have begun. In 1893 I finally concluded that medical science was helpless in the matter of rescuing me from the hands of Destiny. And I now ceased to struggle against Destiny. Further, my appetencies became now for the first time absolutely uncontrollable. For details of my almost un-heard-of struggle against them, extending through the first five years of my adolescence, I refer to my Autobiography. My non-sexual bosom friend from my thirty-fourth to forty-sixth year, who read that work a decade before it went to the printer and whose own life I have epitomized in the present work in the chapter on Voyeurism, declared (he being a literary man) that this long account of my struggles against the “Mr. Hyde” in me was the best part of my Autobiography of an Androgyne.
For I did not at all desire to be a quasi-professional female-impersonator. If Providence had permitted me to follow my own will I would have passed my adult life as a proclaimer, in China, of the gospel of “peace and good-will to men.” During my first two years in college I was a student volunteer for foreign missions, besides giving half-a-dozen hours a week to city-mission work.
As the biased Overworld considers a bisexual as an outcast, I was driven, right from the start of my adult career as a member of the gentle sex, to the Underworld of New York, in which city I was fated to reside from the age of sixteen to thirty-one as well as from forty down to the date of the present writing (1921) when I am in my forty-seventh year.
Perhaps the greatest charm of Underworld life is that it is carefree. The individual does whatever he most wants to regardless of consequences to himself and of the interests of others. He lives only for the passing moment and is usually one hundred per cent selfish. For example, he does not particularly care if he inoculates a healthy chance-met companion with an incurable disease, or even makes a mother out of a young unmarried woman whom he will never meet again.
Moreover, he is generally ignorant and at least oblivious of the fact that the devotee to the pleasures of appetite in the Underworld thereby shortens his stay on earth by from one to four decades, depending on the avidity with which he drinks at its fountains.
My female-impersonation apprenticeship chanced to fall in the very center of the principal foreign-born Italian quarter of New York and within a radius of a quarter of a mile of the present Police Headquarters. In 1893 the latter’s site was occupied by a city market, closed evenings. Some of my earliest impersonations were staged on the very site.
If, after my death (for during my lifetime I can not expect to obtain much attention from the reading public: man is such a biased animal) I ever attract a few hundred sympathetic readers, it would be a good joke, as suggested by my non-sexual bosom friend whom I once took on a tour of the scenes of my New York Underworld career, for them to collect pennies for a bronze tablet to be affixed to the Grand Street façade of Police Headquarters:
ON THIS SITE SOME OF THE EARLIEST FEMALE-IMPERSONATIONS OF THE ADULT RALPH WERTHER WERE STAGED. HIS DEBUT AS AN ADULT IMPERSONATOR AT THE AGE OF NINETEEN TOOK PLACE AT THE ARCHED PORTAL OF THE WAREHOUSE AROUND THE CORNER OF MULBERRY STREET, TWO HUNDRED FEET EAST.
I do not wish to imply that my pristine stamping ground was or is a red-light district. I knew of only three filles de joie who in 1893 flourished on the block on which most of my female-impersonating time was then spent. For reasons patent to the cognoscenti, I drifted into the circle of the most vicious score of inhabitants out of the three thousand - - all of foreign parentage and the vast majority born in Italy - - living at the time on that block. Outside my immediate circle, the inhabitants, although not ten per cent could read English, were, with about the same number of exceptions to be found among the residents of Fifth Avenue, of good morals. I became slightly acquainted with a hundred outside my immediate circle in cafés, etc. And I was able to get a glimpse through the open doors of not a few homes I never entered. Particularly the sexual morality of nine-tenths of the adults was of the highest. For, among all classes and all races, chastity and honesty are
[Handwritten on left margin: Note to Dr. R[obinson]. P. 21 was [unclear word] in 3d typing. You have it. Original number, 12.]
… ninety-five per cent of the population were Italian, and only five per cent Irish. The adult foreign-born Italians hardly spoke a word of English. But it was with their offspring, born in New York that I associated. Further, about one-half of my score of pals were stalwarts of Irish parentage.
At intervals along the block, narrow covered alleys or mere planked halls which never possessed doors at front or back gave access to the rear tenements. A small paved court separated the front and rear structures. In 1893 each court was adorned with two or three timbered, highly malodorous and indescribably nauseating out-houses: common privileges of the sixteen families who called either the front or rear tenement “casa” (home) as well as of whatever wanderer from the street should find himself suddenly in dire need.
By inspection in 1920 I ascertained that this stretch of Mulberry Street has greatly improved during the lapse of twenty-seven years. On my block, I could find not a single alley remaining and very few rear tenements. More than one-third of the antique and unsightly three-story brick tenements have been supplanted by five-or-six-story multi-family houses, some of which boast of imposing facades. While sometimes dirty and out of repair on the inside, they present on the exterior the appearance of health, comfort, and prosperity. The greenhorn Italians have been mostly replaced by American-born of Italian blood. Asphalt has succeeded cobblestones and powerful electric street lamps, the dim flat-flame gas.
In 1893, the bread and but… spaghetti (for butter was almost unknown) of the population were provided by the male janitors of stores and warehouses, the middle-aged, exhausted–looking women who cleaned the office-buildings of New York in the evening or early morning, the small boys and lads who shined shoes on the streets, the push-cart vendors of fruit and vegetables on Manhattan Island south of Fourteenth Street, but most important of all, adult males who were shipped out temporarily, under numbers not under names, to points all over the United States east of the Mississippi to supply the elbow grease for the construction of railroads.
My apprenticeship on Mulberry Street lasted about a year. These experiences when the “Mr. Hyde” in me temporarily ousted the “Dr. Jekyl” and took possession of my mind and body, I named “female-impersonation sprees.” They occurred one evening per week while I spent all the rest of my waking hours as a university “grind” and prize-winner, having relinquished my avocation of city missionary as soon as my female-impersonation sprees demonstrated themselves to be inevitable.
My associates on these sprees were always the “Arch Gang” of stalwarts, varying in age from sixteen to twenty-one and numbering a score. In addition, three filles de joie constituted a species of “hangers on.”
During a decade after circumstances carried my female-impersonations to other stages and I in general saw no more of my Mulberry Street pals, I occasionally yearned to be back there with these fellow performers of my female-impersonation apprenticeship. Even at the date of the present writing (1921) twenty-eight years subsequent to that apprenticeship, a swift succession of pictures flashes through my brain as I turn my attention back to my Mulberry Street nights. I will endeavor to put several of these pictures into words.
[The above text is followed by this note:]
(NOTE TO THE MAGAZINE EDITOR: 19 pages, 330 words to page; that is, 6,270 words to this point. SUGGEST 1st installment to end here, or else at end of preceding chapter. SUGGEST printed announcement: The next installment will describe AND SO ON.)
- Manuscript pp. numbered 18-23.
- Mulberry Street. New York City. Photochrom print by the Detroit Photographic Co., copyrighted 1900. From the Photochrom Prints Collection at the Library of Congress. #53641. This picture is in the public domain.
- It would be useful to know if there exists any other references to the "Arch Gang" of New York City in the 1890s.