By Melissa J. Gismondi
In 1901, on a January afternoon, New York City undertakers buried the body of Murray Hall, a fixture in local politics. One bookseller who knew Hall described him as “distinctively masculine,” if somewhat effeminate. Others remembered Hall as a man who liked cigars, poker, and good-looking women. But Hall was buried in women’s clothing.
Born Mary Anderson in 1840s Scotland, Murray Hall emigrated to the U.S. sometime in the early 1870s. We don’t know much about Hall’s early life except that he became an orphan sometime around the age of six. In Scotland, rumors circulated that Hall began identifying as a man when he migrated from Govan to Edinburgh while dressed in his dead brother’s clothing. Once in the U.S., Hall opened up an employment agency on Sixth Avenue with his first wife. The marriage was short-lived—according to one neighbor, Hall’s wandering eye angered his wife and led to the marriage’s demise.
Passing as a man opened up innumerable possibilities for Hall at a time when women had limited opportunities. Despite calls for women’s suffrage at the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, white women in America did not obtain national voting rights until 1920. Nineteenth-century society expected women to marry, tend the home, raise children, and stay clear of the allegedly corrupting influence of politics.
For Hall, the benefits of passing were immediate. He married the women he loved and became a prominent fixture in Tammany Hall, the corrupt Democratic Party political machine that dominated New York City politics throughout the nineteenth-century. As a member of Tammany Hall’s General Assembly, he worked to secure political appointments and forged a close friendship with State Senator Bernard F. Martin.
Hall’s whirlwind political career ended when he died from breast cancer on January 19, 1901. A voracious reader of medical literature, Hall had known for some time that he suffered from an illness that would take his life. He resisted sending for his doctor, William Gallagher, until just days before his death, because he feared that Gallagher would expose him as a woman.
Gallagher reported Hall’s death to the New York City Coroner and listed him as a woman to “avoid the possibility of any trouble,” as he told the New York Times. But he refused to give further information, stating that “it would be a violation of professional confidence.” The Times described his death as a “masquerade” and the story circulated throughout the city.
The Times interviewed those who had known Hall during his lifetime. Joseph Young, a Tammany Hall Captain, described Hall as a man who’d “line up to the bar and take his whisky like any veteran.” Senator Martin applauded Hall’s political participation and noted that “he was at the polls every election day” and “helped get out the vote.”
Some New Yorkers saw Hall’s passing in a different light. Political opponents of Tammany Hall depicted Hall’s decision to gender pass as partisan, rather than personal. Abraham Gruber suggested that the city instigate a law requiring Tammany politicians to “wear whiskers” to prevent women from participating. State Senator John Raines attributed Tammany Hall’s political success to the fact that it “can dress up the women to vote.”
The voice of Hall’s daughter, Minnie Hall, was notably absent from the coverage of his death. The Times reported that Hall adopted Minnie with his second wife, Cella Lin Hall, twelve years before Cella’s death in July 1898. Even though Hall’s penchant for flirting angered Cella just as much as his first wife, the couple endured and carved out a life for themselves at their home on Sixth Avenue. The Halls amassed a sizable estate, worth between $10,000 to $12,000, which was left to Minnie upon Hall’s death.
The Times believed that it had finally exposed Hall for his “true” identity as a woman, but in its coverage, the paper switched back and forth between describing Hall as “he” and “she.” One article started by referring to Hall as a woman but ended by wondering how Hall—as “a man”—could “impersonate a man without detection.” Clearly, many had difficulty understanding why someone born female would prefer to live as a man.
Murray Hall was by no means the first American to pass as a different gender. But in death, he sparked conversations around the fluidity of gender, long before society had opened the dialogue.
Learn more about another type of passing, racial, in the BackStory episode “Color Lines.“
BackStory Digital Editor & Strategist