One hundred years ago, growing up on a farm in Eastern Washington was demanding, even for young children. Being the youngest of nine siblings was hard work, and Myrtle Tipton knew that. Since she could remember she had been working the land, doing the tasks often reserved for men — and doing them well. “I never did any homework, and don't know how. From the time I was old enough to do anything I did the work of a boy on the farm, driving the horses and doing the chores.”
In rural America young ladies were trained by their mother to care for the home — but not all girls were interested in housework (and not all homes had mothers). “I never cooked a meat in my life, but know lots more about horses, plows and farmwork,” Myrtle said. A life of hard labor on the windy Palouse left her preferring to dress in men’s clothes. “I like to wear men’s clothing, for it is more comfortable than dresses.” She explained her decisions with a smile — like confessing to a girlish prank — as if there was no social stigma reserved for girls who liked to dress as boys.
When she was sixteen years old — or maybe eighteen years old, the details are unclear, as is often the case with this sort of thing — she stole a team of three horses from a Coeur d’Alene Indian that employed her father. She made off with the horses and headed to the small town of St. John, Washington where she sold her plundered goods. She tried to maintain a low profile after the crime but authorities quickly caught up with her, and newspapers ran her name in the headlines.
“I read in the papers all about them looking for me, but I did not try to get away when the constable came after me: they had guns and handcuffs. They pulled the guns on me and tried to make me throw up my hands. I wouldn’t do it, and bluffed them both out.”
Her courageous display had little impact. Myrtle was arrested and placed in the Whitman County Jail while she awaited trial. She speculated her fate while she passed the time. “You can’t send me to the reform school; I’m too old for that. The only place you can send me is the penitentiary. Send me as quick as possible; I am lonesome in this old jail.”
She got her wish on November, 1905 when she was convicted of bringing stolen property into Washington State and was sentenced to two years in the Walla Walla State Penitentiary. After stealing from her father’s employer, he was not eager to defend her. But after six months in prison, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, one of the largest women’s organizations in the world, began advocating for Myrtle — using their political sway to demand a pardon from the governor.
The Temperance Union, along with churches in Walla Walla, drafted a petition arguing that Myrtle’s “bringing up consisted in being worked as a farm-hand without a mother’s training or a father’s proper counsel.” The petitioners alleged that she only stole the horses as a “means of getting away from a life of monotonous drudgery.” And that “a young girl has now as her daily companions women of the lowest type, hardened criminals, whose close association will result in her becoming an incorrigible and a woman of the streets.” The petition was circulated among parishioners and page after page of signatures were collected.
The Temperance Union arranged for Myrtle to be placed in a school should she be pardoned, and they corresponded with the governor to assure him that they had a plan. The Good Shepherd School of Spokane “is not an Academy but a home where wayward girls are taught habits of virtue and industry to make them useful members of society, they only go to school part of the day, while the rest of the time they are taught plain and fine serving housework etc.” Myrtle sent a signed statement to the governor confirming that she would remain at the school for a full three years.
The governor denied Myrtle’s request for pardon and consequently she spent the next year in prison. While incarcerated she continued to dress in men’s clothes, on one occasion even fooling a guard to thinking that a man had snuck into the women’s ward. Her behavior was not bolstering her case for a pardon.
However, in June of 1907, after serving over three-quarters of her prison term, the governor extended a pardon to Myrtle. Instead of heading to the Home of the Good Shepherd as originally planned, she married a man nearly twice her age only three weeks after she was released from the penitentiary. Perhaps the marriage was a condition of the release, but whatever the case, after the marriage Myrtle's historical trail goes dim.
Cross-dressing, especially female to male, was rather common in the American West. But the reasons why an individual like Myrtle Tipton cross-dressed are often unclear. Maybe they cross-dressed to gain access to something generally reserved for men. Maybe they cross-dressed because men’s clothes were more comfortable for hard labor. Maybe they cross-dressed because at that moment they identified as male. Or maybe they cross-dressed because they liked how it felt to wear men’s clothes.
For more about cross-dressing in the American West, take a look at Peter Boag’s Re-Dressing America’s Frontier Past.