Eva McCleery was a transgender woman who lived in Salt Lake City in the early 20th century. I found two 1911 Salt Lake newspaper articles on McCleery that revealed a life briefly spinning out of control after a scandalous revelation. Using census records, Polk directories, newspaper articles, and Ancestry.com I pieced together the life of Eva McCleery and her male counterpart, Michael, an English cobbler.
There was no term at the time for people who identified as opposite of their biological gender. People who had undetermined genitalia or had both were termed as having hermaphroditism. Today the term intersex is used to describe a discrepancy between the external and internal genitals. William was not intersex.
In the 19th century, most cities had laws prohibiting cross-dressing or what was known as “masquerading as a member of the opposite sex.” In effect, the anti-cross-dressing laws were flexible tools for the police to enforce society’s normative gender identities. Today there are no laws against cross-dressers.
Female impersonators, as a form of entertainment, however, were not only popular in Vaudeville and theater but also seen as wholesome family entertainment. These performers were billed as female “illusionists”. The only other acceptable form of cross-dressing in the 19th and 20th centuries was in “Freak Shows” which featured Bearded Ladies and half-man half-woman exhibits. Eva was not a female impersonator or seen as a “freak”. It made her life all the more remarkable because she didn’t fit any of the prescribed categories and was dealt sympathetically in the press.
William McCleery, was born Oct. 11, 1849, in Liverpool, England to an Irishman named William McCleery and an Englishwoman named Ellen Billion. William Sr. was a bootmaker by trade and William Jr. worked the same trade before immigrating with his parent’s family to Salt Lake City in 1875. After converting to the Mormon Church the McCleery family settled in South Jordan.
As a child, William told a reporter that for 10 years he worked at the “cobbler’s bench in England dressed as a girl.” “I had a lot of fun,” he said, “and many a young spark made love to me.”
However, at the age of 27 in 1877, William married 16-year-old Ida McClure. They had five children together, Lottie, Deseret, Lawrence, William, and Earl. William and Ida divorced in 1911 after their children were all grown.
Evidently, William’s wife and children were aware of his wearing women’s clothing and assuming the identity of a female. A reporter wrote: “William McCleery’s family have known for years of his peculiar disease, if such it may be termed. They have not regarded his temporary lapses from masculine supremacy seriously until his story became public.
The fact is, as we learned yesterday, McCleery is a man, the father of a family but always obsessed by a longing to be a woman. To gratify as possible this unusual desire, he wears women’s clothes even to the extent of calling on his son and grandchildren dressed in feminine garments.
His son Lawrence and his brother Nephi of Murray declare his desires to emulate femininity comes over the shoemaker frequently and that at such times he becomes decidedly effeminate and for the moment forgets entirely he is a man….His son objects seriously to his father being termed a woman. He has known that his parent masqueraded at various times as a woman, but was not aware of the cause until yesterday when he was enlightened by his uncle and his father.”
William, after being discovered wearing women’s clothing by patrons of his shoe shop, sought out a newspaper reporter from The Salt Lake Tribune, hoping to salvage his reputation and business by first claiming she was a woman passing as a man. The article’s headline read: “WOMAN PASSES FOR YEARS AS A MAN” and “William” H. Cleery [sic], Salt Lake Shoemaker, Finally Divulges Identity.”
McCleery then divulged a fantastic story that he was biologically a woman passing herself off as a man. “Hundred of citizens of Salt Lake who have for many years patronized “William” H. Cleery [sic], shoemaker in the basement of 50 South Main Street will be greatly surprised to learn that the quiet unassuming little cobbler is a woman. After a disguise maintained for a score of years with a very few in the secret, the woman divulged the secret yesterday.”
“Yes I am a woman,” admitted “Eva” to the Tribune reporter. “For 20 years I have worn male attire and for eleven years of that time, I have conducted shoemaking shops on Main Street of this city. Few if any guessed the secret of my identity until on an Ashton Avenue street car the other night I saw that several passengers had in some manner discovered the fact that I am a woman. I then resolved to resume female attire when again went on the streets.”
In the article, William called herself Eva McCleery “as the woman was known before she doffed the feminine name with the garments of the sex.” Eva detailed an elaborate fiction on why as a woman she dressed as a man. “About 20 years ago , in a spirit of curiosity I put on men’s clothing. I found that I could work so much better at the bench unhampered by my skirts, that I continued the practice. It soon became second nature to me and I discarded female attire altogether.”
The reporter referred to McCleery as “Mrs. McCleery” in the article, unsuspecting that he was a divorced man and father of five children. Mrs. McCleery said, to explain the “manly” habit that folks had observed, “I learned to smoke,” she said with a shudder, recalling her early struggles to overcome a woman’s repugnance to the weed. “I practiced hoarsening my voice and tried to cultivate a taste for manly pursuits and amusements.”
Eva said she conducted a shop in the basement of the Utah National Bank building, and in the guise of a man, rented the place and set up business for herself. “I continued at this location for six years said Mrs. McCleery” and built up a good business. “I do good work,” she added proudly. “ I am not afraid to put my work in competition with the best men-shoemakers in the country.”
The reporter also referred to Mrs. McCleery as a “good looking ‘man'”. “Mrs. McCleery makes rather an attractive appearance in men’s clothing. Her gray hair, worn rather long, is brushed back from a face touched lightly by the passage of time. Her slight and slender figure is perfectly erect and neatly clad in a business suit, and she creates the impression of being what she really is — a business “man” of standing in the community.”
“But all levity is abandoned and the little woman is quite serious when she discussed her future. ‘I prefer wearing male attire but if there is any objection from anyone I will never again don trousers,’ she says. ‘Dr. Mary Walker and other women are permitted to wear men’s clothing and I don’t see why anybody should object if I should but I am ready to give up that form of dress if anyone objects.” And with just a little quiver of the lip and a suspicion of a tear in her eyes, the elderly woman concluded, ‘But I beg permission to dress as I please while at work at my bench.’”
After the article was printed the Salt Lake Herald scooped the Tribune, revealing that Eva was in actuality a man who was “obsessed” with believing he was a woman. “The medical profession throughout the United States has been discovered in the disclosures concerning the life of William McCleery, the Salt Lake shoemaker, whose shop at 50 South Main Street, has been made a place of wide interests by publication of a weird story told by McCleery of his being in reality, a woman and of having masqueraded as a man for more than 20 years. It was discovered yesterday that the life history told by McCleery was, in reality, the invention of a mind so distorted by pre-natal suggestion that for sixty years McCleery has been mentally dominated by the instincts and preferences of his twin sister, who was still-born.”
“According to the family, William McCleery was a twin, the other, a female child, being stillborn. This they say is the secret of his longing to be a woman. The influences exercised upon the male infant by the stillbirth of his twin sister were such that McCleery cannot resist the desire to emulate womankind. When these impulses sweep over him, male reasoning seeks flight and to all intents and purposes, he becomes the twin sister. Stranger still, he involuntarily assumes feminine mannerisms and his voice becomes soft and low.”
“McCleery’s relatives bear him out in every statement he makes concerning his peculiar dual personality, though they regret the notoriety it is bringing to them. They repudiate the suggestion that he is deranged. McCleery appears sane enough and all his replies are lucid and convincing.”
McCleery told the Herald Reporter, “No I cannot resist the feeling to be a woman in the least. Why only last night I donned my female dress and took a ride in the street cars. Almost every Sunday, when I see handsomely dressed women going to church, the desire to be one of them comes over me and I work myself into a fever if I do not give way and change to woman’s finery, Arrayed in a complete outfit, I am calmed as soon as the spell works itself out, and I change again to male dress.”
When asked why McCleery informed newspapers previously that he was a woman, McCleery said that “he was a woman”. “McCleery said that so many people had seen him when he masqueraded and had recognized him when they came to his shop that he thought the easiest way to prevent his affliction becoming known was to give out that he is of the weaker sex.”
McCleery is not found in newspaper reports after this time. His ex-wife had moved away from Utah to Portland, Oregon with a teenage son and remarried. McCleery never remarried but remained in Salt Lake City living much of the remainder of her life as Eva.
The 1920 United States Census enumerated McCleery as Eva McCleery and listed her sex as female. She stated she was a 69-year-old widow born in England. Her occupation was listed as a shoemaker in a shop she owned. She is listed as an Alien having never been naturalized.
Eva appears in the Polk directories for various years in the 1920s as the widow of William McCleery.
The 1930 Census showed McCleery was living with his eldest daughter Lottie and her husband John E. Leonard and was listed as the father-in-law of Leonard and enumerated as William McCleery, an 81-year-old male with no occupation. His birthplace was given as Northern Ireland.
In 1932 McCleery passed away at the Salt Lake County Infirmary. The official cause of death was from a “hypertrophied prostate”.