Seattle writer Knute Berger was combing through old articles when he spotted an unusual character: “A woman, dressed as a man, riding a bike recklessly.”
The woman was Nell Pickerell, also known as Harry Allen or Harry Livingston. In Seattle of the 1900s, Pickerell was a media darling who dressed sharply in fashionable suits and hats. She got in fights and ran around with criminals and prostitutes. When police conducted roundups, she was often one of the usual suspects.
KUOW’s Jeannie Yandel spoke with Berger on The Record about Pickerell, a notorious heartbreaker.
(In his article, Berger explains why he uses female pronouns to describe Pickerell/Allen: “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.’”)
“What she did shocked sensibilities,” Berger said. “There were several cases, in the Victorian parlance, where she had seduced young women. She had female admirers who then, supposedly when they found out she was actually a man, attempted suicide. One shot herself in Denny Park, another drank carbolic acid."
“This fit a kind of Victorian narrative of usually men bringing women to ruin,” he said. “And in this case, it had the added tabloid twist of a woman pretending to be a man bringing women to ruin.”
Victorian readers ate it up.
But the newspapers, which had early on fawned over Pickerell, saying she made a handsome man, started turning against her. The police started picking her up more frequently because of her attire.
“She insisted on dressing as a man. And many people were fooled into believing she was a man,” Berger said. “But when they discovered she was in fact a woman, she was arrested on vagrancy charges. Or it was illegal for a woman to be unescorted in a saloon. So she was arrested for that.”
Pickerell’s problems worsened. She was swept up in an opium den raid, and in 1919, she was stabbed by her father. They had been drinking and got into an argument. She survived but was badly injured.
The next year, in 1920, Pickerell died of syphilitic meningitis. She was 40. The headline in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer read, “Nell Pickerell, Man-Girl, Dies.”
Berger’s story appears on Crosscut as part of the Kids At Risk series. Pickerell, he said, fit the profile of a kid at risk in modern times.
In King County there are 4,000 to 5,000 kids who are considered homeless, and 20 to 40 percent identify as queer.
“She was a person from a troubled home, with an abusive father, teen pregnancy, then she was out on her own,” he said. “She struck me as a very contemporary figure.”
Berger said he admired Pickerell for bucking the tide.
“She was someone determined to be herself, even if that self was contrary to society’s norms,” he said.
This segment originally aired July 29, 2014.