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Tracing Boston's Transgender History Through The Tale Of An Infamous Grifter

Newspaper headlines from Ethel Kimball's arrests.
Newspaper headlines from Ethel Kimball's arrests.
This article is more than 4 years old.

In December 1921, a man named John Hathaway was arrested on State Street in Boston on charges of attempted auto theft. As the story goes, police officers quickly learned that Hathaway was actually a woman named Ethel Kimball.

"Ethel had spent the previous two years masquerading as a wealthy widower and graduate of MIT and during that time even married Louise Aechtler of Somerville," explained The History Project's Joan Ilacqua to a tour group in Beacon Hill on a recent Saturday afternoon.

The History Project is a community-run archive that collects the untold stories of Boston's LGBTQ history — like this one.

Kimball was born on Martha's Vineyard in 1882. She moved with her family to Boston, and by her early 20s had minted the first lines on a growing rap sheet.

At some point, Kimball began living as a man — John Hathaway was just one of the names he adopted — though the threat of being discovered did not seem to dampen his appetite for a good con. (Or his desire to marry women, which he was busted for on two different occasions.) Very often Kimball's identity would be revealed after he was detained for some petty crime, like forging a check or using an assumed name. Once, he convinced a Back Bay car salesman to drive him and his friends all around the city, eventually ending up at an inn in Danvers, at which point it became clear he had never had any intention of buying a car.

"It’s literally like every two years, Ethel’s found out and arrested," Ilacqua told the crowd.

"Girl ‘Bridegroom’ Jailed’ " cried a New York Times headline in 1924, when Kimball was turned in to the authorities by the nephew of his second wife. An earlier Times article described Kimball as “thin faced, bespectacled, aquiline nosed” with “a voice that resembles a man’s.” He was locked up numerous times throughout his life — in jails and psychiatric institutions — but never for long.

"Ethel is incredibly unsavory — like, committed a lot of crimes," Ilacqua said, laughing. "But that's how we know of his existence. Because he was doing these things and getting caught, and being talked about, and so examples of this life are saved."

Back then, there was no widely accepted understanding of transgender identity.

Did Kimball see himself has a man? Or did assuming a male identity simply allow him to live a certain life: marrying women, inventing identities, swiping cars?

Ilacqua says that, although Kimball appeared to understand himself as a man, it’s hard to know for sure.

"There aren’t that many examples of those people talking about their own experience," Ilacqua says. "Especially with LGBTQ history, you can find examples of people who are arrested, people who are punished, people who have records created by other people [that refer to] them, and you don’t necessarily know what they thought about themselves."

Kimball’s story is not entirely unique. Folklore abounds with tales of women disguising themselves as bandits or sailors in order to abscond with jewels and men’s hearts. But the historical record is more dire. Very often, such stories ended in tragedy, state-sanctioned violence — even death.

But there is no evidence of a grim end for Kimball, no untimely demise. According to Ilacqua, at some point he just fades away, like ink on an old newspaper clipping. All that’s left are the traces of his run-ins with the law. In this way, Kimball remains alive, ever the audacious scoundrel, forging checks and seducing women, always on the take.

As the history tour continues down the hill through Boston Common, I imagine Kimball strolling the same paths — taking in the sunshine, cooking up his next scheme, still, for the moment, free.

The History Project's next Pride walking tour is on Saturday, June 16 at 1 p.m.

This segment aired on June 15, 2018.


Amelia Mason Arts And Culture Reporter
Amelia Mason is an arts and culture reporter and critic for WBUR.



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