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Meet Nell Pickerell, transgender at-risk youth of yesteryear

She lived a century ago - as a man. But Nell's story rings true today, and parallels the experience of many Northwest street kids.
Nell Pickerell, aka Harry Livingston, was a media favorite in her day.

Nell Pickerell, aka Harry Livingston, was a media favorite in her day. Credit: The Seattle Times

She was a young woman in her early 20s who lived by her wits. She could fight like a man, and looked great in a suit, tie and derby. She smoked, drank and ran with a rough crowd. She was reputedly close to the city's gang leaders and very familiar with the insides of a jail cell, having spent time there for theft, vagrancy, selling liquor to the Indians, resisting arrest and other offenses. She was jugged once in Portland for violating the Mann Act by allegedly transporting a woman over a state line for immoral purposes. The woman was her partner, a Seattle prostitute who "posed" as her wife. 

Meet Nell Pickerell, aka Harry Allen, aka (sometimes) Harry Livingston, a cross-dressing troublemaker with a tough background and a penchant for getting attention. 

Nowadays, we'd likely see Nell as an at-risk transgender youth. (To stay consistent with the way she was written about in her time, I'll refer to Nell as a she, though we might well refer to her today as a “he.”) Digging into her history is to find a person who feels utterly contemporary, whose life, more than 100 years later, parallels the experience of Seattle street kids today. She was born in an era that didn’t know what to make of her, or what to do with her. 

Nell Pickerell was born in 1882. A news account in the Seattle Mail and Herald described her father as a drunkard and a wife-beater. From childhood on, she mostly identified as male, often working at "men's" jobs (bartender, cowboy, farmhand) disguised as a man. 

Nell became pregnant at age 16. The father of her baby was rumored to be a much older man who skipped town. Nell’s son was raised by her mother who told the boy that Nell was his uncle. 

By her late teens Nell was living in Tunnel City, the rough and tumble Cascade boom-town that sprouted up during the digging of the Great Northern railroad tunnel at Stevens Pass. An article in the St. Paul, Minnesota Globe in 1900 called Tunnel City the "wickedest place on earth" where "scum of the earth" got drunk on payday and indulged in every vice known to man in a "fight club" atmosphere. The story mentions only one woman:

"... a fight is usually arranged between two women. Sometimes there is a coarse love story at the bottom of these fights. ... One of the women favored male attire. She is a handsome girl, Nell Pickerel[l] by name, whose respectable parents live in this city. She is only eighteen years of age, but incorrigible. The ambition of her life is to act like a man."

A woman living the life of a man was a bold move in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Many frontier women did it for practical reasons, such as to avoid being molested in a frontier dominated by men. (In the Northwest of Pickerell's era, the male to female ratio was around 14 to 1.) Others sometimes dressed as men for work or because it was more sensible to shed their Victorian finery when crossing the Rockies in winter. Dressing as a man to enjoy a more liberated lifestyle was looked down on, though not unknown. Think Calamity Jane. 

But there were also women who lived in quiet disguise for years. Washington State University historian Peter Boag, whose 2011 book Re-dressing America's Frontier Past documents this fascinating subject, says cross-dressing women were a "ubiquitous presence in the West." 

Even so, Nell was a novelty, a woman who embraced her maleness with complete public gusto. At first, the newspapers seemed almost charmed by her; she certainly made great police blotter copy. A 1901 Seattle Times story describes how she looked down at the police station one morning after she’d been arrested for theft: "Dainty patent leathers adorned her feet. She wore a colored shirt, stand-up collar, bright red tie. Her jet black hair was cut short and parted in the middle. Her well rounded cheeks were tinted with the glow of health. Her eyes were bright and clear. She carried herself erect and well. She made a most handsome boy."


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