From 1900 to 1922, Harry Allen was one of the most notorious men in the Pacific Northwest, says an article from Atlas Obscura. “The West was still wide and wild then, a place where people went to find their fortunes, escape the law, or start a new life. Allen did all three. Starting in the 1890s, he became known as a rabble-rouser, in and out of jail for theft, vagrancy, bootlegging, or worse. Whatever the crime, Allen always seemed to be a suspect.” During his short life (he died at the age of 40), Allen was a bronco-buster, a longshoreman, and worked as a second in boxing matches. He was also the subject of lurid news stories in tabloid newspapers because he was born female and his given name was Nell Pickerell. “This Girl Refuses to Wear Skirts; Nellie Pickerell Acts, Talks and Dresses Like a Man, and says She Ought to Have Been One,” said one story in the Boston Post from 1900.
In an 1908 interview with The Seattle Sunday Times, Allen described his discomfort with his assigned sex. “I did not like to be a girl; did not feel like a girl, and never did look like a girl,” he said. “So it seemed impossible to make myself a girl and, sick at heart over the thought that I would be an outcast of the feminine gender, I conceived the idea of making myself a man.” Allen’s identity fascinated local papers, which cast it as part of the zeitgeist of the American frontier. One publication framed him among “the scum of the West” for his active career of saloon brawling, bootlegging, bronco busting, and horse stealing.
And Allen wasn’t the only one who found new possibilities for reinvention in the New World, as the Atlas Obscura piece notes. When 80-year-old lumberjack Sammy Williams died in Montana in 1908, the undertaker discovered his assigned sex, dumbfounding the community that had only ever known him as a man. Joseph Lobdell, born and assigned female in Albany, New York, surfaced in Meeker County, Minnesota and became known as “The Slayer of Hundreds of Bears and Wild-Cats.” Historian Peter Boag, who researched some of the early trans pioneers, says “If people thought you were a man, you wouldn’t be bothered or molested, there’s good evidence that some women dressed as men to get better paying employment.” The best job most women could hope for was cooking or housekeeping.