In popular mythology, immigrants to the United States changed their names at Ellis Island to fit a more American image; in reality, those who did take on a new name did so at the port of departure from their home country. Because identification was never asked for at the Island it was easy to enter with whatever name the passenger purchased their ticket under, and thanks to New York’s lack of name change laws it wasn’t unheard of for immigrants to simply start using new names whenever they chose. However, there was one rare exception in which Ellis Island officials altered a passenger’s name in their books, and that exception was Frank Woodhull.
At the time of his arrival at Ellis, Woodhull, né Mary Johnson, had been a US resident for thirty years. Originally born in Canada, he had moved to California after his father’s death and lived there fifteen years as a woman before using the mustache nature gave him and taking on a male identity. In 1908, when he was fifty, he vacationed in England and passed through Ellis Island on his return, where his frail, thin appearance led to him being pulled aside for questioning under suspicion that he had tuberculosis. At that point he pleaded not to be examined, confessing, “I am a woman, and have traveled in male attire for fifteen years.” Woodhull’s name was then “corrected” in the log, and he was detained overnight in a private room. The next day he was brought before the Board of Special Inquiry, which determined that, in light of his proven ability to support himself, he was a “desirable immigrant [who] should be allowed to win her livelihood as she saw fit,” and he was subsequently released.
Woodhull’s story made the next day’s papers, causing a temporary stir. (The New York Times has its own account available for public viewing here, with the headline, “She posed as man for fifteen years.”) After his short, unintentional brush with fame, Woodhull disappeared from the public eye, possibly to New Orleans, which had been his original destination.
Because Woodhull’s fateful Ellis encounter occurred more than a century ago it is difficult to determine what his gender identity truly was. In his interviews he made much of his unemployability when he lived as a woman and how he had taken inspiration from Canadian women who lived as men, but the way he spoke of his own dislike of womanhood – and his willingness to live as a man for decades – suggests that he may have been better described as a trans man. To quote:
“Women have a hard time in this world. They are walking advertisements for the milliner, the dry goods stores, the jewelers, and other shops. They live in the main only for their clothes, and now and then when a woman comes to the front who does not care for dress she is looked upon as a freak and a crank. With me how different. See this hat? I have worn that hat for three years, and it cost me $3. What woman could have worn a hat so long? Bah! They are the slaves to whim and fashion. What could I do when fifteen years ago I faced the crisis in my life? There was only housework to which I could turn.[…] Men can work at many unskilled callings, but to a woman only a few are open, and they are the grinding, death-dealing kinds of work. Well, for me, I prefer to live a life of independence and freedom.”
As a result of his testimony, this post uses male pronouns to describe him, and the entry is tagged “transgender”; however, given that Woodhull would not have been familiar with the term, it is impossible to conclusively apply it to him.