What They Did: The Queens of the Sydney Underworld
Kate Leigh Mugshot
Kate was born on 10 March 1881 in Dubbo, New South Wales, the eighth child of Roman Catholic parents Timothy Beahan, and his wife Charlotte.
Her childhood and teenage years included childhood neglect, time in a girls’ home at age 12, and an out-of-wedlock pregnancy; her daughter Eileen May Beahan was born in 1900.
Leigh married James Ernest ‘Jack’ Leigh in 1902. He was an illegal bookmaker and petty criminal.They separated in 1905 when he was imprisoned for assault and robbery.
Following his trial, Kate Leigh was convicted of perjury and for being an accomplice to the assault, after being accused of lying under oath to protect her husband; her conviction was overturned on appeal.
The marriage broke up soon after the trial, though they were not divorced until 1921.
Kate earned income, variously over these years, as a sly-grog trader (speakeasy/saloon owner), drug dealer, and as a madam.
She became a major New South Wales (NSW) underworld figure, and has been referred to as its “Queen of the Underworld.”
From 1919 to 1955 Leigh’s main enterprise was the highly profitable sly-grog trade, which ensued after the NSW State Parliament legislated for six o’clock closing of drinking establishments.
At its peak, Leigh ran at least twentyish bootleg outlets. Although she made much of her fortune from the illegal sale of alcohol, Leigh is reported to have never drunk (or smoked).
Leigh also exploited the passage of the Dangerous Drugs Amendment Act 1927 in NSW by providing lucrative illicit criminal distribution networks for the high-demand cocaine it criminalised.
Leigh derived from her supplies from a corrupt network of doctors, dentists, chemists, and sailors, and amassed considerable wealth from the activity. These activities—the defense of these business turfs—and ongoing feuds with rival organised crime leaders in NSW led Leigh to be a prominent figure in Sydney’s brutal razor gang wars of the 1920s and 1930s.
The NSW Police also intensively policed incoming vessels for overseas cocaine suppliers in 1938-9, but it was naval transit restrictions associated with the World War II that led to devastating interruptions of Leigh’s overseas cocaine supply.
Leigh was personally involved in violence, though she was never convicted of any such offense. On 27 March 1930, she shot and killed John William “Snowy” Prendergast when he and other gangsters broke into her home at 104 Riley Street, East Sydney. She was not indicted for the killing, or for shooting Joseph McNamara (in the crotch) nearby in Liverpool St, Darlinghurst on 9 December 1931.
However, Leigh was imprisoned on drug-related charges. In July 1930, Leigh’s house at 104 Riley Street was raided by a NSW drug squad. Leigh was found in possession of cocaine and was sentenced to 12 months imprisonment.
Through alleged personal connections throughout officialdom, she continued business throughout the 1930s and 40s despite frequent police raids and a mass of minor convictions.
She was charged on 107 occasions and was sent to prison on 13 occasions.
Appearing in courtrooms with flamboyantly expensive clothes and diamonds, her wealth was legendary.
When appearing in court, Kate would wear diamond rings on every finger of both hands. During her heyday, Kate Leigh owned and operated more than thirty different sly grog hotels at different locations in inner Sydney that generated thousands of pounds in profit annually.
Leigh was undoubtedly one of Sydney’s wealthiest women during the 1930s and 1940s but the Taxation Department sent her into bankruptcy in 1954 for unpaid income tax and fines dating back to 1942.
In 1955 the NSW government changed the law to allow legal hotels to serve alcohol until 10 P.M., an act that virtually killed off the Sydney sly-grog trade and put purveyors such as Leigh out of business. Leigh was famously quoted in the Australian media as stating “The bloom has gone off the grog”.
At the time of her death, aged 83, Kate Leigh was living in virtual poverty in a small room above one of her old illegal hotels. was financially dependent on her nephew, William John Beahan,who ran a mixed business in the shop in the downstairs part of the premises.
She suffered a severe stroke on 31 January 1964 and was rushed to hospital. She died on 4 February 1964 at St Vincent’s Hospital in Darlinghurst, and her funeral was held on 7 February and was attended by over 700 mourners.
The press remembered the wily woman not only for her crimes, but for her patriotism and generosity to the poor.
Matilda Mary Devineborn the daughter of bricklayer Edward Twiss, and Alice Twiss in Camberwell, London.
In 1915, she and many English and Australian women were found working as prostitutes and thieves.
At 16 she married an Australian serviceman, James (Jim) Edward Devine, on 12 April 1917 at the Sacred Heart Church, Camberwell, London.
The couple had one son, born at Camberwell in 1919.
Her career in prostitution began when she was a teenager and continued after she was married.
She and many English women were usually found soliciting on the wide footpaths on The Strand, at night. From 1915 onwards to 1919, she spent time at Bow Street Court and Lock Up for prostitution, theft and assault.
When Jim returned to Australia she followed him back on the bride ship Waimana, arriving in Sydney on 13 January 1920.
Her son stayed in London and was brought up by her parents.
Both Tilly and Jim Devine rapidly became prominent illegal narcotics dealers, brothel owners and crime gangs members in the Sydney criminal milieu.
Devine became infamous in Sydney, initially as a prostitute, then later as a brothel madam and organised crime entrepreneur.
The NSW Vagrancy Act 1905 prohibited men from running brothels; it did nothing to stop women with criminal gangs’ support and bribes to the police from running criminal enterprises.
Historian Larry Writer has noted that the Devines ran diversified operations. Elite “call girls” were available for politicians, businessmen and overseas guests of significance, while “tenement girls” were young working class women who resorted to casual prostitution to supplement their drug spendings, clothings and meagre earnings during times of Australian criminal and narcotic culture, absence of a comprehensive welfare state and unemployment. Older female prostitutes, “boat girls”, catered to itinerant sailors or working class-men.
Devine’s wealth was legendary, although it was all earned from crime. She owned much real estate in Sydney, many luxury cars, looted gold and diamond jewellery and travelled by ship in first class staterooms.
Much of her wealth was also used to pay bribes to the police sectors, and fines for her criminal convictions that spanned fifty years. Devine faced numerous court summons and was convicted on 204 occasions during her long criminal career, and served many jail sentences in the New South Wales jail, mainly for prostitution, violent assault, affray and attempted murder. She was known to the police to be of a violent nature and was known to use firearms.
Tilly and Jim Devine’s marriage was marred by domestic violence. On 9 January 1931, Jim was charged at Central Police Court with the attempted murder of his wife after a heated argument at their Maroubra home. As Tilly ran out of the house, Jim fired a number of shots at her in a similar way to the murder of George Leonard Gaffney in 1929.
Tilly escaped unscathed, the only damage being one of her brand new stilettos – the left one. Their terrified neighbours called the police resulting in Jim being arrested and charged over the incident. He was later acquitted, on 16 January 1931, because Tilly refused to testify.
The Devines separated in the early 1940s and were finally divorced in January 1944. Shortly after Tilly separated from Jim, long time criminal associate, Donald Alexander Kenney, known as ‘Skinny Kenney’, became Tilly’s lover and stand-over man.
Tilly married for the second time on 19 May 1945 to ex-seaman and returned serviceman Eric John Parsons.
She famously shot Parsons in the leg after an argument only months before they were married. This shooting occurred at her other Sydney residence: 191 Palmer Street, Darlinghurst. The house was almost opposite the notorious Tradesman’s Arms Hotel. It was at this hotel that Devine met Eric Parsons.
She was arrested by police and charged with the shooting, but was acquitted at trial. They were happily married for 13 years until Eric Parsons died of cancer on 22 November 1958.
Tilly was known as one of the most violent criminals in the game. She’d set fire to a policeman, pulled apart a mans face with a razor and generally slashed to ribbons any John who tried to cross her. Bitch. Was. Scary.
BUT Tilly wasn’t a one trick stab pony, she was a real renaissance woman (be it of the criminal variety) and along with her talent for violence and brothel running, she moved into the illegal booze trade.
Although Devine was one of Sydney’s wealthiest women in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, by 1955, the Taxation Department ordered her to pay more than £20,000 in unpaid income tax and fines sending her close to bankruptcy.
In 1953 Devine boasted to the media, “I am a lucky, lucky girl. I have more diamonds than the Queen of England’s stowaways – and better ones too!”
She sold off her last brothel in Palmer Street, Darlinghurst in 1968, and died two years later.
Devine was famous for flamboyant acts of generosity, and also for her violent feud with criminal vice rival Kate Leigh. Devine was charged by the famous Sydney Detective Frank Farrell on many occasions, and their feud lasted for 30 years.
Devine had suffered from chronic bronchitis for 20 years, and died of cancer, aged 70 at the Concord Repatriation Hospital in Sydney on 24 November 1970.
Her funeral service was held at the Sacred Heart Catholic Church, Darlinghurst.
She was cremated at Botany Crematorium, now known as Eastern Suburbs Memorial Park, on 26 November 1970 with Catholic rites by her married name, Matilda Mary Parsons.
Her funeral service was poorly attended and her death went virtually unnoticed by Sydney’s media and population and it was said that very few people openly mourned her death. The only public eulogy offered to Devine was given by the then police commissioner Norman Allan who said: “She was a villain, but who am I to judge her?”
Tilly and Kate physically fought one another on numerous occasions and their respective gangs conducted pitched battles in Eaton Avenue and Kellet Street, King’s Cross in May and August 1929.
Katie and Tilly both operated gangs to mange their businesses and, ‘take care’ of their enemies.
With both women now firm rivals, their gangs knew their enemy; attacking each other on sight with razors, after Sydney outlawed guns.
Huge fights of with gang members cutting the living shit out of each other, became a common sight on Sydney’s streets.
This ceaseless violence became known as: The Razor Gang Wars
But the violence wasn’t limited to street fights, here are just some of the delightful things Katie and Tilly did to each other:
Ransacked each other businesses
Set fire to each other’s businesses
And ordered rival gang members to be disfigured
Oh and there was that one time that there was a shoot out at Tilly’s home and her husband shot Kate’s right hand man in the face.
The war didn’t just play out via stabbings, shootings and slashing. Oh no, Kate and Tilly had one HUGE weapon they liked to break out: PR
Along with killing and mutalation, Kate and Tilly both used public relations to destroy each other in the papers.
Kate loved a good bit of PR, you see, she wanted to be seen as Sydney’s Jovial mother figure.
Sure she might have shot and killed a couple of guys, but really, underneath it all, she was just a nice lady who happened to run a criminal empire.
In fact it wasn’t even difficult for Katie to become a beloved (if terrifying) criminal.
While Tilly was famously slashing John’s and dousing policemen in petrol, Kate was making a very public show of donating some of her ill gotten gains to poor children and hosting Christmas for the cities poverty stricken families. .
In one newspaper write up of Kate’s crimes, the journalist took time to note that the detective followed Kate while she was: ‘Bound on a noble errand of supplying food to unemployed’
There was no way that Tilly was letting Kate be the public’s favourite and so she went all in, tearing apart her rivals image.
Tilly played up her English roots in a bid to appear classy, often bought up Kate’s childhood abuse (to try and illustrate how rough Kate was) and of course, Tilly was more than happy to trash her rival to any journalist she could find, saying:
‘I’m not like Kate Leigh anyway. I might drink and have a run in with the police now and then, but I don’t take dope, and no one can say I have ruined young girls. Kate Leigh does all this’
By the early 1930s police were hot on Tilly and Kate’s heels, after yet another series of armed brawls between their gangs had terrorised Sydney.
As the net closed, Tilly fled home to England for several years; Kate wasn’t so lucky.
After a series of raids, Kate was arrested, spending the next few years locked up.
Obviously Kate being Kate, she owned prison; inviting the wardens wife for tea and pretty much ruling over the inmates.
But when she was released Kate found herself in a very different world, with drugs and illegal boozing now completely off Sydney’s streets.
Luckily Kate managed to keep her brothel businesses running and therefore could remain one of Sydney’s wealthiest citizens.
Tilly also landed on her feet, once more back in Sydney and operating her chain of brothels.
Then in the 1940s Kate and Tilly did the impossible, they called a truce.
By now all their friends were dead or in jail, both women truly only had each other.
That didn’t stop them from continuing to constantly tear each other a new one in the press.
Ruth Coker Burks
Who was she: the Cemetery Angel
NEW YORK, NY – JUNE 20: Ruth Coker Burks attends 6th Annual Broadway Sings For Pride Concert at JCC Manhattan on June 20, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Laura Cavanaugh/FilmMagic)
25-year-old Ruth had been spending a lot of time at the local hospital visiting
her friend who was fighting cancer. As like every visit before, she passed a door covered in a red bag that read “Don’t Enter. G.R.I.D” or Gay-Related Immune Deficiency.
The door was never opened, and even the nurses seemed afraid to enter.I t was 1984 in the heat of the AIDS crisis. There was a lot misinformation, fear, and homophobia surrounding this mysterious illness that was rapidly taking the lives of more and more young, otherwise healthy gay men.
Ruth, who had a gay cousin, was curious about the illness and the patient on the other side of the red door.
She asked the nurses, whom she had gotten to know well over her many visits, about the patient. They warned her, “Don’t you dare go in that room, he’s got the gay disease. We don’t even know what it is. Don’t you go in there.”
At the time, no one knew how AIDS spread which is probably why the nurses wouldn’t bring the patient’s food into this room. Ruth could see trays of food piled up outside of the man’s door, trays he was too weak to retrieve, and she could see the nurses drawing straws to see who would have to go in and check on him.
Ruth recalled that she wasn’t sure what made her enter the room. Maybe it was her maternal instincts as a young mother or perhaps it was curiosity. Whatever it was, Ruth felt compelled to see the patient everyone was so terrified of.
Lying in the bed was a man named Jimmy and it was clear that he was dying. Ruth asked Jimmy if there was anything she could do for him to which Jimmy asked for his mama.
Ruth walked to the nurses and asked if they could call Jimmy’s mother. They replied, “That man’s mother’s not coming. He’s been here six weeks. Nobody is coming.” Though they weren’t hopeful, the nurses gave Ruth the mother’s phone number anyway.
When Ruth called, Jimmy’s mother first hung up.
Well, no one hangs up on Ruth Coker Burks, so she called back and said “If you hang up on me again, I will put your son’s obituary in your hometown newspaper and I will list his cause of death.”
This caught the woman’s attention long enough for her to say “I don’t have a son. My son died years ago to me. He was a sinner. I don’t know the man who’s there but when he dies, don’t call me back.”
The nurses wouldn’t help. The mother wouldn’t help. So Ruth did the only thing she could. She went back into Jimmy’s room, not knowing what she was going to say.
But when Ruth took Jimmy’s hand, he looked at her and said, “Oh mama, I knew you’d come.”
Ruth recalled that Jimmy started sobbing, but he was so dehydrated, he couldn’t even produce tears. Ruth stayed with Jimmy for 13 hours until he finally passed away.
A little more backstory, Ruth was born in Hot Springs, Arkansas in 1958/1958, as Frances Ruth Coker Burks after her grandmother.
As a child, Ruth’s mother was under long-term hospitalization for tuberculosis and Ruth’s father acted as her primary caregiver until he died when Ruth was 5.
This left Ruth’s mother struggling to be a parent while managing her illness.
Ruth credits this too-tragic-for-Disney childhood for giving her an incredible sense of empathy.
For generations, members of Ruth’s family had been buried in Files Cemetery, dating all the way back to the 19th century.
Ruth’s mother had a plot in the same row as her brother (Ruth’s uncle.) However, the two got into an argument and Ruth’s mother bought 262 grave spaces to ensure the uncle and his extended family couldn’t be buried with the rest of the family. Those 262 plots were left to Ruth and she had no fucking idea what she would ever do with them.
It took a lot of phone calls before Ruth was able to find a funeral home that would take Jimmy’s body.
When she did finally find one, WHICH WAS 70 MILES AWAY, they said they would only cremate him.
They sent Jimmy’s ashes back in a cardboard box. Ruth had to use a cookie jar for an urn. Then, no cemetery would take him.
Ruth used one of the 262 plots and buried Jimmy. She couldn’t find anyone who would dig the hole or anyone to say a prayer, so Ruth took her daughter, who was so little she still had a binky, and dug the grave herself and said a prayer.
Fearing townspeople would deface the grave, she buried Jimmy on top of her father’s grave.
This may have been a one off act of extreme kindness, but word got around about Ruth’s deed. Then the phone calls started.
Ruth began getting calls from others suffering from AIDS who needed help. Ruth recalled, “Word got out that there was this kind of wacko woman in Hot Springs who wasn’t afraid. They would tell them, ‘Just go to her. Don’t come to me. Here’s the name and number. Go.’ I was there hospice. Their gay friends were their hospice. There companions were their hospice.”
Referrals came in from all over, including rural hospitals all over Arkansas. Ruth began taking patients to appointments, helping them get financial assistance when they could no longer work, helped them get access to medications, and provided general emotional support.
Getting medicine for patients was particularly difficult since a lot of pharmacies flat out refused to carry them.
When her patients died, they would leave Ruth their unused medications. Ruth would stockpile these meds to use for patients who couldn’t get access.
As a Real Estate Agent, Ruth couldn’t finance everything herself and relied on donations. She partnered with drag clubs and gay bars to host fundraisers to raise money.
Ruth said, “They would twirl up a drag show on Saturday night and here’d come the money. That’s how we’d buy medicine, that’s how we’d pay rent. If it hadn’t been for the drag queens, I don’t know what we would have done.”
When her patients would die, Ruth would always contact their families to try and get them to claim their bodies. They were rarely compassionate and would even pray at her. Yes. AT her. Ruth continued burying her patients on her family’s plot. She would bury them over existing graves, again to discourage vandalism. When her daughter was old enough, she would help Ruth, carrying her own spade while Ruth would carry a post digger.
Of the thousands of patients Ruth cared for, she buried just over 40 on her family’s plot. Because of the care and support Ruth provided, her patients lived longer than the national average life expectancy. This caught the attention of a little organization called the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who sent researchers to investigate.
During Bill Clinton’s presidency, Ruth worked as a consultant for AIDS education!
So, what did Ruth get for all of her incredible work?
Her community and church shunned her. When she tried to tell people what was happen to try and raise the alarm, they wanted no part of it. One prominent doctor told her, “I will tell you here and now, I will never have an AIDS patient in my office.”
Ruth was on the finance committee of her church and asked if she could use one of the Sunday school classrooms at the church for support meetings once a month. The minister of the church said, in front of everyone, “Surely, you aren’t talking about bringing THOSE people into this church are you?”
Ruth collected herself and responded like a lady, saying “Oh no. I’m not talking about bringing THOSE people into this church. Instead, I’d like to walk THOSE people across your new $30,000 lawn and into your new $300,000 home, and sit their asses on the $40,000 dollars-worth of new furniture this church just bought you! That’s what I’d like to do with THOSE people.”
When the medical community began pulling their heads out of their asses and attitudes towards AIDS began improving, Ruth worked as a fishing guide and funeral director in Florida.
In 2012, Ruth suffered a stroke and had to relearn how to talk, read, feed herself, write, and do other everyday task. She believes the stress from caring for AIDS patients contributed to the stroke.
She moved back to Arkansas to be closer to her family and also because her health insurance dropped her after her stroke.
In 2013, she heard about 3 foster children who were removed from school due to rumors that one might be HIV-positive. I imagine, like an old grizzled cop, she said “I’m getting too old for this shit,” before she began advocating for the kids. She appeared on TV as an HIV advocate.
Naturally, her community shunned her and the funeral home she had worked at, who basically said when you’re better you can come back, rescinded their job offer. Also, no one else would hire her.
A local Walmart allegedly destroyed a chair she had sat in there after finding out about her HIV advocacy. Remember. This is 2013.
In 2016, Ruth along with other HIV/AIDS advocates were honored at New York City’s Pride Week by non-profit group Broadway Sings for Pride.
Ruth is also working on creating a memorial for AIDS victims and turning Files Cemetery into a garden.
Jimmy’s story and those of the thousands of people Ruth helped were not unique. Imagine all of the people who didn’t have anyone to claim and bury their bodies.
While HIV/AIDS is no longer a death sentence like it used to be, it’s still a serious issue that affects a disproportionate number of black, Latino, and LGBTQ+ community members.
According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 15% of people infected with HIV don’t know it which is why it’s important to use protection and get tested every 3 months if you’re sexually active.
As for Ruth? She’s currently working on a memoir of her story and working on a film based on her life and book.
In 2017, Rose McGowan wrote and directed an unauthorized short film titled Ruth inspired by Ruth’s work.
She still cares for the graves in her family plot and advocates for better care for HIV/AIDS patients. The cemetery has become a pilgrimage site for those affected by the crisis and a place for them to remember those they lost and say good bye, even if they aren’t buried there.
Gladys Bentley’s powerful voice, fiery energy on the piano and bold lyrics made her a star of New York City nightclubs. (NMAAHC)
2. Gladys Bentley by unidentified photographer, ca. 1940 (NMAAHC)
Courtesy of Wikimedia
Bentley looking over a scrapbook of her career, circa 1952
Born: August 12, 1907 Died: January 18, 1960
What she did: Harlem Renaissance Entertainer
Gladys was born in Pennsylvania. Her father George was American and her mother, Mary, was Trinidadian. Unfortunately, hers was not a happy childhood.
The eldest of 4 children in a low-income family, Gladys struggled. It didn’t help that Gladys’ mother wished she had been a boy.
Gladys wrote later in her life, “When they told my mother she had given birth to a girl, she refused to touch me. She wouldn’t even nurse me and my grandmother had to raise me for 6 months on a bottle before they could persuade my mother to take care of her own baby.”
This rejection made Gladys resentful towards her brothers and she hated the idea of a man touching her.
From a young age, Gladys didn’t conform to gender norms of the day. She wore boys’ clothes, had a crush on a female elementary teacher, and didn’t behave in a ‘lady-like’ manner.
She wrote, “It seems I was born different. At least, I always thought I was.”
Disturbed by their daughter’s lack of dress-wearing, Gladys’ parents took her to doctors because y’know, this was clearly a medical issue. Gladys was later diagnosed with “extreme social maladjustment.”
This toxic home life drove Gladys to run away to Harlem when she was 16 years old in 1923.
Gladys had a natural talent as a pianist and blues singer. She quickly found work as a performer, especially in speakeasies which were popular during prohibition.
She started out recording 8 tracks of music for $400.
Then she heard that a local gay bar, Harry Hansberry’s Clam House, was looking for a male pianist. Already perfectly comfortable wearing suites, Gladys began playing there dressed as a man under the stage name Barbara “Bobbie” Minton. She started out at $35 a week and went up to $125 due to her success.
Her act became so popular that the bar was renamed “Barbara’s Exclusive Club” after her stage name.
Gladys then began performing at the Ubangi Club on Park Avenue where she created her own musical revue with a chorus of 8 male dancers all in drag. She started making enough money she was able to afford a $300/month apartment on Park Ave along with servants and a nice car.
Gladys’ signature look was a white tuxedo and white top hat. Her acts included overt sexuality and her deep voice appealed to audiences across the sexual and racial spectrum.
In her songs, she would call out misogyny and sing about sexual relationships, including her own with women.
By 1933, Gladys was headlining at prominent nightclubs and theaters including the Apollo.
Her skill didn’t go unnoticed. Langston Hughes wrote of Gladys:
“For 2 or 3 amazing years, Miss Bentley sat and played piano all night long with scarcely a break between the notes, sliding from one song to another, with a powerful and continuous underbeat of jungle rhythm. Miss Bentley was an amazing exhibition of musical energy- a large, dark, masculine lady whose feet pounded the floor while her fingers pounded the keyboard- a perfect piece of African sculpture, animated by her own rhythm.”
In 1932, Gladys publicly married a white woman during a civil ceremony in New Jersey. We don’t know who the woman was or much about their marriage.
When Gladys tried to take her show to Broadway in 1933, the owners of the Clam House club she had been playing at sued her, saying that their club had been built around Gladys’ music and that they had a 5-year contract with Gladys’ and her performances.
This led to a Supreme Court battle as Gladys tried to take more control over her career. Despite the suite, Gladys moved her act to Broadway. Unfortunately, her raunchy performances caused people to complain and the police began locking the doors of places she performed.
This forced her to move back to Harlem where she performed at the Ubangi Club for 3 more years before it closed in 1937.
The decline of prohibition was great for everyone, but it resulted in the decline of Harlem speakeasies which hurt Gladys’ career.
She moved to southern California where she played at gay nightclubs and was billed as “America’s Greatest Sepia Piano Player” and the “Brown Bomber of Sophisticated Songs.”
What hurt her more than the end of prohibition was the government’s increasing criminalization of LGBTQ+ people. Due to federal laws, Gladys had to carry a special permit to be allowed to perform in her signature suites.
Then in the 1950s U.S. senator Joseph McCarthy came on the scene.
McCarthy was an infamous fear monger who was super popular
during the Cold War era when everyone was waiting for Russia to Nuke the United States.
McCarthyism, the practice of accusing people of treason, being a communist, or whatever else you felt like, was named after him.
During this time, people were being accused of having communist sympathies or being traitors to the United States.
It didn’t take much to become accused of something. Being a black lesbian who wore suites made Gladys a target.
Gladys suddenly began wearing dresses and married a man whom she only knew for 5 months.
She claimed she had been ‘cured’ of her lesbianism by taking female hormones and undergoing an operation.
They divorced later and the dude later denied he and Gladys were ever married.
On January 8th , 1960 at the age of 52, Gladys died unexpectedly from Pneumonia in her Los Angeles home.
Just before her death, she had been ordained as a minister, but never got her official paperwork.
Gladys was challenging societal norms of gender, sexuality, and entertainment from day 1. Her masculine attire and public relationships with women in a time when being ‘out’ was dangerous and unaccepted.
Gladys never attempted to ‘pass’ as a man but displayed an energy of ‘black female masculinity’ that challenged her audience’s views on race and sexuality.
La Maupin, L’Heroine
Cover page of the French magazine “Le Matin” (Morning), 1910s
“Mademoiselle Maupin de l’Opera”. Anonymous print, ca. 1700.
From the resource History Masquerade
Julie d’Aubigny aka La Maupin
Born: 1670 Died: 1708
What she did: Sword-slinging opera singer, and larger-than-life bisexual celebrity of 17th-century France.
Julie d’Aubigny was born in France around 1673. She was the only child to a secretary to King Louis XIV’s Master of Horse, Count d’Armagnac, one of France’s great nobles.
After first living in the riding school at the Tuileries Palace in Paris (where she learned to ride and take care of horses), she then moved with the court to the opulent Palace of Versailles in 1682.
While her father worked in King Louis XIV’s luxurious court, Julie d’Aubigny grew up in less-glamorous quarters, namely, the Great Stables.
Julie excelled at fencing from a very early age and her father chose to educate his only child alongside the young boys. It was while training alongside the court pages that her love for dressing up as a boy first began.
In 1687, the Count d’Armagnac took her for his mistress when she was barely fourteen years old.
He then had her married to Sieur de Maupin of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, and she became Madame de Maupin (or simply “La Maupin” per French custom).
Soon after the wedding, her husband received an administrative position in the south of France, but the Count kept her in Paris.
She soon ran away to Marseille with her fencing instructor, Séranne.
While travelling and performing in these impromptu shows, La Maupin dressed in male clothing but did not conceal her sex. She was already so skilled with the sword at this point in her life that audiences sometimes would not believe that she was actually a woman.
When one drunken onlooker proclaimed loudly that she was actually a man, she tore off her shirt, providing him ample evidence to the contrary.
On arrival in Marseille, she joined the opera company run by Pierre Gaultier, singing under her maiden name.
Eventually, she grew bored of Sérannes and became involved with a young woman a local merchant’s daughter.
The merchant, desperate to separate the two, sent his daughter to a convent
La Maupin followed, entering the convent as a postulant.
In order to run away with her new love, she stole the body of a recently dead nun, placed it in the bed of her lover, and set the room on fire to cover their escape.
Their affair lasted for three months before the young woman returned to her family. La Maupin was charged in absentia—as a male—with kidnapping, body snatching, arson, and failing to appear before the tribunal. The sentence was death by fire.
La Maupin left for Paris and again earned her living by singing.
In Villeperdue, still wearing men’s clothing, she was insulted by a young nobleman. They fought a duel and she drove her blade through his shoulder.
The next day, she asked about his health and found out he was Louis-Joseph d’Albert Luynes, son of the Duke of Luynes. Later, one of his companions came to offer d’Albert’s apologies.
She went to his room and subsequently they became lovers and, later, lifelong friends.
After Count d’Albert recovered and had to return to his military unit, La Maupin continued to Rouen.
There she met Gabriel-Vincent Thévenard, another singer, and began a new affair with him. Together they returned to Paris and on their first day there, while Julie was visiting her old lover d’Armagnac to convince him to arrange a pardon for her little indiscretion in Provence, Thévenard auditioned for the Opéra, and was hired immediately.
His condition was that Julie also be allowed to audition and the Opéra reluctantly agreed, so by the age of 17 she found herself a member of one of the world’s greatest musical companies.
She debuted as Pallas Athena in Cadmus et Hermione by Jean-Baptiste Lully the same year.
She performed regularly with the Opéra, first singing as a soprano, and later in her more natural contralto range.
The Marquis de Dangeau wrote in his journal of a performance by La Maupin given at Trianon of Destouches’ Omphale in 1701 that hers was “the most beautiful voice in the world”.
Due to Mademoiselle de Maupin’s beautiful voice, her acting skill, and her androgynous attire, she became quite popular with the audience, although her relationship with her fellow actors and actresses was sometimes tempestuous.
She famously beat the singer Louis Gaulard Dumesny after he pestered the women members of the troupe She responded by ambushing him, pushing a sword in his face, and demanding a duel. When he refused (on the grounds that he was a wimp), she beat him with a cane, stealing his snuffbox and watch. The next day, she caught him complaining that he had been assaulted by a gang of thieves. She called him a liar and a coward, threw his watch and snuffbox at him.
She also fell in love with Fanchon Moreau, another singer who was the mistress of the Grand Dauphin, and tried to commit suicide when she was rejected.
Her Paris career was interrupted around 1695 when she kissed a young woman at a society ball and was challenged to duels by three different noblemen. She beat them all but fell afoul of the king’s law that forbade duels in Paris. This entertained Louis XIV so much that he pardoned her from any punishment. and even though the king had pardoned her (musing that the law governed men, but didn’t say anything about women). She fled to Brussels to wait for calmer times.
There, she was briefly the mistress of Maximilian II Emanuel, Elector of Bavaria. Their relationship did not last too long. Apparently the Elector was a bit nonplussed when she stabbed herself onstage with an actual dagger.
From there she went to Madrid. She found herself working as a maid to a Countess Marino, whom she resented so much that one night before a grand ball she dressed the Countess’s hair with radishes so that everyone but the Countess could see them.
She performed for the court at Versailles, appeared once again in most major Opéra productions, and introduced the Italian idea of the contralto voice to France.
She and Thévenard remained best of friends until her retirement, although they also had some infamous spats, and one evening on stage she bit his ear so hard he bled.
In 1703 she fell in love with Madame la Marquise de Florensac, the “most beautiful woman in France” so beautiful that she too had had to flee to Brussels for several years because the Dauphin was obsessed with her.
The two women lived, according to one account, in perfect harmony for two years, until de Florensac died of a fever when Julie was 31.
She retired from the opera in 1705 and took refuge in a convent, probably in Provence, where she is believed to have died in 1707 at the age of 33. She has no known grave.
She was technically married throughout all of that. Don’t worry if you forgot about it, sounds like she did too.
Sorry for the late blog! Things have been a bit crazy lately! I know i missed The Dinner Party last week 2 but that will be up tomorrow no worries!
Sylvia Rivera in 1970.Kay Tobin / Courtesy of New York Public Library
Rivera, in the “gay camp” at the Christopher Street Piers c. 2000
photos by Val Shaff
Born: July 2nd, 1951 Died: February 19, 2002
What she did: Self-identified drag queen who fought tirelessly for transgender rights, as well as for the rights of gender-nonconforming people.
Sylvia was born as Ray Rivera,on July 2nd, 1951 in the Bronx, New York and lived most of her life in or near New York city; she was of Puerto Rican and Venezuelan descent.
She was abandoned by her birth father José Rivera early in life and became an orphan after her mother committed suicide when Sylvia was 3.
Sylvia was then adopted and raised by her Venezuelan grandmother, who voiced her disapproval not only of Rivera’s mixed background that made her skin darker than she preferred , but also of her behavior, which was deemed too effeminate for a boy.
Sylvia began to wear makeup in fourth grade.
Sylvia was bullied at home and at school, she shaved her eyebrows and wore makeup to school beginning in fourth grade, and was mocked and called faggot by classmates in sixth grade leading her to abandon formal education.
At 10 years old she left home and began life as a sex worker, hustling near Times Square. On the streets, specifically 42nd Street in New York, she found an eclectic tribe of sex workers, street queens (as poor trans youth, some of whom performed sex work and/or were homeless, then identified themselves), drag queens, and members of the gay community.
She gave herself the name “Sylvia Rivera” in a ceremony attended by some fifty of her friends and peers.
Rivera and her peers were regularly beaten up by cops, johns, or even each other. Rivera would eventually serve 90 days on Riker’s Island, sent to a cellblock kept for perpetrators of “gay crimes”.
Sylvia’s activism began during the Civil Rights Movement and continued through the movement against the Vietnam war and second-wave feminist movements.
Rivera didn’t care about labels and definitions, throughout her life she referred to herself as a ‘half sister,’ a ‘drag queen,’ or a ‘transvestite.’
Her attitude on her fluid identity further strengthened her position as a radical activist in the mainstream gay movement.
One day, as Sylvia was hustling on 42nd, she spotted an older black queen — Marsha P. Johnson — who she was immediately drawn to.
Marsha ended up inviting Sylvia out for a spaghetti dinner, and took her under her wing, teaching her how to apply her makeup and the rules of the street.
The pair remained friends for the rest of their lives, and participated in many of the most significant early gay liberation struggles.
She said she was a regular patron of the Stonewall Inn and was present On June 28th, 1969, when the Stonewall Inn was raided, Sylvia was 17.
At the time of the incident, Rivera was there with her close friend and fellow activist Marsha P. Johnson.
This became the StoneWall Riots, when gay men, lesbians, bisexual people, drag queens, street people and trans people rose up against what started as a routine raid by the police.
The incident resulted in five days of rioting, patrons of the bar, the greater gay community, homeless youth, African Americans, and Puerto Ricans protested…and won.
The protests contained: hurled barricades, broken windows, firebombs, cries of “occupy—take over, take over,” ”Fag power,” and “Liberate the bar!”
Rivera stated that she had told her comrades as the riots began, “I’m not missing a minute of this.” “It’s the revolution!” She emphasized this fact in other interviews. “We were the frontliners. We didn’t take no shit from nobody […] We had nothing to lose.”
Sylvia Rivera would always be quick to redress those who thought she threw the first Molotov cocktail at the historic Stonewall riot on June 28, 1969. “I have been given the credit for throwing the first Molotov cocktail by many historians, but I always like to correct it,” she said in 2001. “I threw the second one. I did not throw the first one!”
Regardless of the degree of her participation in the frenzy that took place at the Stonewall Inn that night, Sylvia laid low for a few months afterward for unknown reasons.
When her friend, Marsha P. Johnson, told her about meetings of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), she jumped at the chance to become involved in the activity emerging in the aftermath of Stonewall.
Despite Sylvia’s enthusiasm to be involved in these newly formed activists groups, such as the GLF and the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA) that would split from the GLF, from the beginning her identities as a street worker, drag queen, poor, and a Latina were troubling to the largely white, middle-class activist groups
She challenged the way the predominantly white gay and lesbian community approached activism from a middle class perspective.
Rivera wanted their activism to be more progressive, to include in their fight the rights of transgender individuals, including people of color, the homeless, and the incarcerated.
Her experiences made her more focused on advocacy for those who, in her view, mainstream society and the assimilationist sectors of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) communities were leaving behind.
She fought for herself but most importantly for the rights of people of color and low-income LGBT people.
As someone who suffered from systematic poverty and racism, Rivera used her voice for unity, sharing her stories, pain, and struggles to show her community they are not alone.
She amplified the voices of the most vulnerable members of the gay community: drag queens, homeless youth, gay inmates in prison and jail, and transgender people.
In 1970, Rivera and Johnson co-founded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) and later a home called STAR House. STAR offered services and advocacy for homeless queer youth, and fought for the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act in New York. SONDA prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in employment, housing, public accommodations, education, credit, and the exercise of civil rights.
She was banned from New York’s Gay and Lesbian Community Center, after she destroyed a desk in the lobby, enraged because she felt the center did not address the needs of transgender homeless youths who slept in front of it.
Rivera had supported the passing of the Gay Rights Bill in New York, which would bar discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, because it had originally included support for the transgender community.
But by the time the Gay Rights Bill passed in New York in 1986, 17 years after Stonewall, language denouncing gender discrimination had been removed. “They have a little backroom deal without inviting Miss Sylvia and some of the other trans activists…The deal was, ‘You take them out, we’ll pass the bill,’” she said in 2001.
She felt the community she and her trans siblings had fought for all these years at Stonewall and beyond, been arrested for and beaten for, had sold them up the river. When she discovered this, Sylvia’s response was: “Hell hath no fury like a drag queen scorned.”
She also stopped working with the GLF and GAA and the gay rights movement in general after three or four years because the organizations began to both publicly denounce and ignore her.
She would return some 20 years later for the 25th anniversary of Stonewall, asked to participate by the pride parade’s organizing body. “The movement had put me on the shelf, but they took me down and dusted me off,” she said in 1995. “Still, it was beautiful. I walked down 58th Street and the young ones were calling from the sidewalk, ‘Sylvia, Sylvia, thank you, we know what you did.’ After that I went back on the shelf. It would be wonderful if the movement took care of its own.”
At the 1973 Christopher Street Liberation Day Rally in New York City, Rivera, representing STAR, gave a brief speech from the main stage in which she called out the heterosexual males who were preying on vulnerable members of the community.
Rivera espoused what could be seen as a third gender perspective, saying that LGBT prisoners seeking help “do not write women. They do not write men. They write to STAR.”
At the same event, she got onstage amidst boos from the crowd. “I had to fight my way up on that stage…people that I called my comrades in the movement literally beat the shit out of me,” Rivera would say later. speech amid boos and shouts and starts her “Y’all Better Quiet Down,” speech, stating, “You go to bars because of what drag queens did for you, and these bitches tell us to quit being ourselves!” “You all tell me, go and hide my tail between my legs. I will no longer put up with this shit. I have been beaten. I have had my nose broken. I have been thrown in jail. I have lost my job. I have lost my apartment. For gay liberation, and you all treat me this way? What the fuck’s wrong with you all? Think about that!”
After the rally, Rivera broke down, disbanded STAR, and left activism for two decades. Sadly, she still continued to struggle with homelessness and drug addiction.
Her impact was not in vain, and her lifelong activism ensured that the “T” was placed in the LGBTQ rights movement.
In May 1995, Rivera tried to commit suicide by walking into the Hudson River.
Save an extensive interview to gay journalist Randy Wicker in which she discussed her suicide attempts, Johnson’s life and death, and her advocacy for poor and working-class gays made homeless by the AIDS crisis.
In the last five years of her life, Rivera renewed her political activity, giving many speeches about the Stonewall Uprising and the necessity for transgender people, including drag queens and butch dykes, to fight for their legacy at the forefront of the LGBT movement.
She traveled to Italy for the Millennium March in 2000, where she was acclaimed as the “mother of all gay people”.
In early 2001, after a service at the Metropolitan Community Church of New York referring to the Star of Bethlehem announcing the birth of Jesus, she decided to resurrect STAR as an active political organization (now changing “Transvestite” to the more recently coined term “Transgender,” which at that time was understood to include all gender-nonconforming people).
STAR fought for the New York City Transgender Rights Bill and for a trans-inclusive New York State Sexual Orientation Non Discrimination Act. STAR also sponsored street pressures for justice for Amanda Milan, a transgender woman murdered in 2000.
Rivera attacked Human Rights Campaign and Empire State Pride Agenda as organizations that were standing in the way of transgender rights. On her deathbed she met with Matt Foreman and Joe Grabarz of ESPA to negotiate transgender inclusion in its political structure and agenda.
Rivera died during the dawn hours of February 19, 2002 at St. Vincent’s Hospital, of complications from liver cancer.
Activist Riki Wilchins noted, “In many ways, Sylvia was the Rosa Parks of the modern transgender movement, a term that was not even coined until two decades after Stonewall”.
Metropolitan Community Church of New York, New York’s queer youth shelter is called Sylvia’s Place in her honor.
The Sylvia Rivera Law Project is dedicated “to guarantee that all people are free to self-determine gender identity and expression, regardless of income or race, and without facing harassment, discrimination or violence”.
In 2005, the corner of Christopher and Hudson streets was renamed “Sylvia Rivera Way” in her honor. This intersection is in Greenwich Village, the neighborhood in New York City where Rivera started organizing, and is only two blocks from the Stonewall Inn.
In 2015 a portrait of Sylvia Rivera was added to the National Portrait Gallery.
In 2016 Sylvia Rivera was inducted into the Legacy Walk.
“I left home at age 10 in 1961. I hustled on 42nd Street. The early 60s was not a good time for drag queens, effeminate boys or boys that wore makeup like we did. Back then we were beat up by the police, by everybody. I didn’t really come out as a drag queen until the late 60s. when drag queens were arrested, what degradation there was. I remember the first time I got arrested, I wasn’t even in full drag. I was walking down the street and the cops just snatched me.
People now want to call me a lesbian because I’m with Julia, and I say, “No. I’m just me. I’m not a lesbian.” I’m tired of being labeled. I don’t even like the label transgender. I’m tired of living with labels. I just want to be who I am. I am Sylvia Rivera. Ray Rivera left home at the age of 10 to become Sylvia. And that’s who I am.”
“Ladies and Gentlemen” Marsha Johnson | Andy Warhol
Marsha P. Johnson
Johnson hands out flyers at NYU in the 1970s
Marsha P. Johnson
Born: August 24, 1945 Died: July 6, 1992
What she did: Transgender Woman and LGBTQ Activist
Marsha was born August 24, 1945 in Elizabeth, New Jersey. She was one of 7 children born to her working class parents, Malcolm and Alberta.
As a child, Marsha attended an African Methodist Episcopal Church and was a devout Christian throughout her life.
By the time she was 5, Marsha began wearing dresses. She was teased and harassed by neighborhood boys, causing her to dress as a boy again.
Marsha was also sexually assaulted as a young child by a 13-year-old boy.
Once Marsha graduated from high school in 1963, she got the fuck out. With nothing but $15 and a bag of clothes, Marsha eventually found her way to Greenwich Village, New York, where she worked waiting tables.
Even though in 1950, New York downgraded sodomy from a felony to a misdemeanor, rampant criminalization of LGBTQ people was common. They weren’t allowed to dance in public, bars were banned from serving them, and cross-dressing was illegal.
When she first arrived in New York, Marsha alternated between using her birth name and going as Black Marsha.
She worked as a sex worker and was arrested frequently, later saying she stopped counting after her 100th arrest.
She was living in a high risk environment, working in seedy hotels and was even shot. She would frequently sleep under tables in the Flower District of Manhattan.
Marsha later changed her name to Marsha P. Johnson, saying the P stood for “pay it no mind.” This was like her catchphrase when people questioned her about her gender. One time, she used the phrase on a judge who thought it was funny and released her.
Marsha also performed as a drag queen. Because she couldn’t afford to purchase clothing and accessories, Marsha got creative. Remember the tables she would sleep under in the Flower District? Those tables were used for sorting flowers and she would decorate her hair with the extras, which became part of her signature look.
Marsha would also dress in flowing robes, shiny dresses, red plastic
high heels, and bright wigs because she was born to stand out.
She performed with a few different drag groups including Hot Peaches and The Angels of Light.
In 1975, Marsha was photographed by Andy Warhol as part of his “Ladies & Gentlemen” Polaroid series.
The Stonewall Inn was the only gay bar in NYC where dancing was allowed.
To protect the Stonewall Inn against Lilly Law, Alice Blue Gown, and Betty Badge (also known as undercover cops), patrons were greeted by a bouncer who inspected them through a peep hole to see if they recognized them or if the patron “looked gay.”
Staff would also stow away extra liquor behind secret panels so they could get back up and running quickly after a raid.
The Stonewall Inn also bribed the cops to tip them off if there was going to be a raid.
When raids did occur, the police would line up patrons and inspect their IDs. Anyone without an ID, dressed in drag, women NOT wearing 3 pieces of feminine clothing, or anyone they fucking felt like, would be arrested.
Female police officers would also take patrons dressed as women to the bathroom and ‘verify their gender.’
At 1:20 a.m. on June 28, 1969 9 police officers approached the Stonewall Inn and shouted “Police! We’re taking the place!”
There were two undercover cops already in the bar, gathering evidence and, when they gave the signal, backup came. People tried to escape but the police had barred the exits.
During the raid, some of the officers began sexually assaulting the women while frisking them. Some people were released by the police, but instead of getting the fuck out, they stood outside and a crowd began to form.
Between 100-150 people gathered and some began taunt the cops by performingor saluting the cops sarcastically.
As the cops began loading people into patrol wagons, there were shouts from the crowd of “Gay power!” and others sang “We Shall Overcome.” Tensions mounted between the police officers and the growing crowd and finally exploded when a woman being arrested tried to escape and was beaten with a baton. Some allege this was Storme DeLarverie, including Storme herself. Storme was a lesbian who frequented the Stonewall Inn and a gay rights activist. She recalls she shouted at the crowd “Why don’t you guys do something?” Finally things boiled over and the police’s attempts to control the crowd only antagonized them more.
The police retreated inside the bar, completely overwhelmed by the crowd. In response, the crowd tried to bust into the bar and set it on fire. The officers managed to escape and the fire was extinguished. The crowd eventually grew into 1,000s and the uprising lasted until July 1 st .
The Stonewall Uprising was not the beginning of the gay rights movement, but was certainly a watershed moment that resulted in mass awareness across the country and encouraged members of the LGBTQ to mobilize. It sparked the birth of the Gay Liberation Front, the first group to publicly advocate for gay rights.
The Stonewall Uprising also gave birth to the first pride parade which was held on the 1 year anniversary.
After the Stonewall Uprising, Marsha teamed up with her friend and fellow uprising participant, Sylvia Rivera. Together, they founded the organization Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, or STAR, a group dedicated to helping homeless youth and trans women of color.
Marsha was also a member of the Gay Liberation front and attended the first pride parade.
In 1970 Marsha and fellow Gay Liberation Front members staged a sit in at New York University after the school canceled a dance that was sponsored by gay rights organizations.
Marsha and Sylvia were notable presences at gay rights events. Unfortunately, just as today, there was discrimination within the LGBTQIA community and Marsha and Sylvia felt the impact of that when they were banned from the 1973 pride parade. The gay and lesbian committee putting on the event weren’t going to allow drag queens at the march.
Marsha and Sylvia responded by marching in front of the fucking parade which is the level of defiant and salty I aspire to be. The march produced one of the best known photos of these powerful besties.
When Marsha and Sylvia established the STAR House, a shelter for gay and trans youth, a shelter they paid for with money they made as sex workers, Marsha became known as the “drag mother.” So basically she became the mother figure for these kids who didn’t otherwise have supportive families.
The shelter provided clothes, food, and support to the youths it housed.
Though Marsha was an avid activist, she was still struggling just to live. She suffered her first mental breakdown in 1970 when she walked up and down Christopher Street, the same street the Stonewall Inn was on, naked. She would sometimes lash out and become aggressive. She called this side of her, Malcolm, which was her birth name. When she slipped into this persona, she would act masculine and aggressive.
She struggled her whole life with homelessness, engaging in survival sex, and mental illness.
As a marginalized person, she didn’t receive much help.
In 1992, shortly after the pride parade, Marsha’s body was found floating in the Hudson River. While the police originally ruled it as a suicide, her friends insisted that she was not suicidal and noted the fact she had a massive wound in the back of her head. Sylvia was one of the people who argued against the suicide ruling, saying she had Marsha had made a pact to “cross the river Jordan (aka the Hudson River) together.”
Witnesses came forward and reported they had seen Marsha being harassed by thugs and using homophobic slurs with her. There were also reports of a man who bragged at bars that he had killed a drag queen named Marsha.
Despite ALL OF THIS, the police refused to look further into the case because it involved “a gay black man.”
Marsha was cremated and her ashes were spread out over the Hudson River.
In November 2012, activist Maria Lopez got the NYPD to re-open the case as a potential homicide. Marsha is remembered as a vivacious activist who worked so hard and did so much with so little.