(Text and photos by Michail Takach, for an historical panel created by this project in 2019. The panel is on loan to the 'This Is It' bar in downtown Milwaukee.)
On May 2, 1914, Ralph Kerwineo was arrested by Milwaukee police. The official charge was disorderly conduct, but the accusation was that he was biologically, in fact, a she.
For 13 years, Ralph had effectively lived his life as a man. He was described as the perfect gentleman, the most well-dressed and well-educated, and among the finest sportsmen known in Milwaukee. He worked in men-only jobs at the Plankinton Hotel, Gimbels and Cutler-Hammer.
Ralph informally married Mamie White in Chicago in 1906, but he couldn't limit himself to just one woman. The relationship was long riddled with affairs, and Mamie grew tired of Ralph's smoking, drinking, cursing and gambling. In 1914, Ralph obtained a groom's health certificate and legally married his mistress, Dorothy Kleinowski. When Mamie found out, she went straight to the police and outed Ralph as a "cross-dresser."
The case attracted negative national attention. Ralph was immediately labeled as a deviant who "impersonated" a man to take advantage of a confused woman. Called to trial, Ralph appealed to the judge to understand how much easier it was to find gainful employment in industrial Milwaukee as a man.
"...we had been subject to all sorts of overtures from all kinds and conditions of men....If I assumed men's clothes, I would be better able to obtain work, and as a 'man,' I could protect my 'wife' from insult."
It was a brilliant defense. Surprisingly, Milwaukee was very supportive of Ralph. The chief of police was quick to state "there is no moral perversion in this case." Reporters commented that Ralph was just trying to make a honest living, support his wife and be a respected citizen, just like any other working man. People almost forgot Ralph was not a biological man. Almost.
Although the charges were dropped, Ralph was misgendered through the trial, and ultimately ordered to wear female attire and use his birth name.
"They are writing the last chapter of the life of Ralph Kerwineo," said the defendant. "When we leave this courtroom, Kerwineo will be dead." His new wife soon left him, saying "as a man I loved her, but when she donned skirts that love died."
For a while, Ralph seems to have rejected the judge's orders. He capitalized on his reputation as the "Girl-Man of Milwaukee," became a public speaker, and joined the Orpheum vaudeville scene. In 1915, he was arrested in Racine for "masquerading as a man," and in 1919, he was released on probation after police found him in bed with a woman.
"I thought of myself as a man, and it never entered my mind that I was any different than the men around me with whom I laughed, joked, worked, and played my part," said Ralph.
Ralph relocated to Chicago where, living as Cora Anderson, he later married Jacob Seifert. He died on October 4, 1932 and is buried in Lake View Cemetery.
Credits: Web site concept, design and most content by Don Schwamb
Photos and text on this page by Michail Takach
Last updated: May-2021.
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