February 23, 2011

Lost Milwaukee #4... The Curious Case of Mr. Kerwineo

On May 2nd 1914, a beautiful Saturday afternoon, two Milwaukee police detectives arrested a well-dressed man at the corner of Tenth Street and St. Paul Avenue (now an area below I43). The man, known to hundreds in the city as Mr. Ralph Kerwineo, was so calm during the arrest that he didn’t even bother to put out the cigarette he’d lit as the cops approached him. He was being hauled in on a complaint made by his wife, Mamie. She charged that her husband of ten years… was actually a woman.
Mr. Kerwineo, resident of Milwaukee for eight years.
Cora Anderson was born April 6th, 1876 to an African American father and a half-blood Cherokee mother. She grew up in Kendallville, Indiana, a town so small, she would later say, you could "walk ten minutes in any direction, and be five miles in the county.” Cora eventually found her way to Chicago, where she enrolled in a nurse’s college. Cora was an exceptionally bright girl, but the ways of the school administration disheartened her. “Two-thirds of the physicians I met,” she remembered, “made a nurse’s virtue the price of their influence in getting her steady work.”
Miss Mamie White, aka Mrs. Kerwineo.

In Chicago, Cora met Mamie White, a young girl from Menasha, Wisconsin. Cora and Mamie quickly became inseparable. While the exact nature of their relationship is anyone’s guess, they were soon living together, commiserating about their “women’s place” in the world. They schemed to do something about it.

A private hobby of Cora’s had been “masquerading,” dressing as a man. Mamie knew of this hobby and, so far is know, had no issues with it. One night, on a joke, they claimed, Mamie suggested that Cora go as a man full-time. With a man’s wages, they two could avoid the advances of doctors and make a living on their own. The joke quickly became anything but. The world in which they lived had little to offer unmarried women, even less for unmarried women of color. They went about purchasing a suit of clothing (a piece at a time, as not to arouse suspicion) and Cora gave herself a short-cropped haircut. Cora, adopting a South-American heritage, became Ralphero Kerwineo, and the two left Chicago in 1904 as man and wife.
Cora Anderson in female attire.

 They bounced around the middle-west for two years, trying to find men’s work for Ralph and women’s work for Mamie. Details of this period are scant, but it appears that Cora was spending her time learning how to become Ralph. She studied men, how they stood and spoke. She practiced rolling cigarettes and smoking them. Smoking constantly, she recalled, to perfect the manly aspects of it. She learned to swear and spit. She even began to shave and worked up the courage to visit local barber shops.

After a brief stay in Cleveland, the two made their way to Milwaukee in 1906. There, Ralph found work at the Plankinton House (609 E. Plankinton) as a bellboy. They rented a downtown flat on Seventh street and presented themselves as Mr. and Mrs. Kerwineo. Times were good and no one suspected a thing. Ralph became something of sport, a common sight at down taverns. He even developed the reputation as something of a flirt. He took a job at Gimbel’s as a clerk and later moved on to the Cutler Hammer Company, where he worked in the office. Mamie worked as a coat-check girl at a downtown movie theatre.

But the good times did not last. Ralph’s wandering eye had been a constant source of worry for Mamie. He would return late in the evening or sometimes not at all. Mamie began reading psychology books and was worried that Ralph might be suffering from delusions. After so long in drag, Ralph admitted that he “could not quit being a man.” Mamie was worried that he’d met someone else and would reveal his secret. Ralph had his own complaints, mostly involving Mamie’s housekeeping. “I often got up early in the morning and would wash the windows," he later griped, "and would then go and do a man’s work all day long.”

In the fall of 1913, Ralph left Mamie, getting as far as Chicago before a change of heart sent him home. By the next spring, Ralph had left again. This time, Mamie went to the police and filed a complaint accusing Ralph of abandoning her. An officer, completely unaware the couple were both unmarried women, ordered Ralph to appear before on charges of wife abandonment. In early April, 1914, they both appeared before an officer, Mamie accusing Ralph of neglect and Ralph refusing to return home. Mamie, he said, was bigger than him and had become physically abusive. The officer, perplexed and amused by the ordeal, tossed the charges and told them to work it out on their own.
Dororthy Kleinowski, the second Mrs. Kerwineo.

Ralph, however, had not just met someone else. He’d married someone else. He met Dorothy Kleinowski, a pretty blonde manicurist, at a dance and fell in love. Dorothy was twenty-one years old, one of ten children (six more siblings had died before adolescence) living with her mother in a tiny Oakland Ave cottage. On March 24th, the couple was legally wed by the Justice of the Peace. By the time Mamie had Ralph hauled in to answer for his neglect, he was already settled with Dorothy in a Cedar Street (now Kilbourn Ave) apartment. When Mamie found out about the marriage, she was stunned. “How could he marry another woman,” she would wonder, “Without divorcing me first?”

On May 2nd, she told the police his secret. That afternoon, he was arrested on the ambiguous charge of Disorderly Conduct. For the next week, the Milwaukee “Girl-Man” would be the city’s most famous resident.
Check back next week for part two: Milwaukee's Girl-Man on Trial.


  1. Interesting article, the joke is on Dorothy. Can't wait for the second installment of this story!

  2. I suggest changing "Ralph’s wondering eye" to "Ralph's wandering eye."

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