It was a cold December day in 1921 when Boston police tracked down James Wilson Hathaway. The bespectacled and neatly suited gentleman was finally going to be apprehended for the attempted theft of an automobile.
Sensing Hathaway may not surrender willingly, the officers made it clear they would use force if necessary. Suddenly, in a feminine voice, the suspect asked the officers, “Would you hit a woman?”
The person under arrest was neither James Hathaway nor, as he had long been claiming, a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The person was not a man at all.
The person beneath the topcoat was 39-year-old Ethel Kimball, who already had a history of arrests, the first being for forgery in the summer of 1904.
In 1910, she had married Frank Wilson, a contractor from New York. The couple settled in with her parents, Frank and Mary, and her three younger siblings on Foster Street in Boston.
The marriage lasted about two years, and in 1911, she was arrested again for a stunt she pulled at a Massachusetts Oldsmobile dealership. Telling the salesman she was interested in buying a certain $5,000 auto, he offered to take her for a test drive. Along the way, she had him stop to pick up several of her friends. Finally, she directed him to an inn, which was her actual destination for the evening. For this, she was sentenced to serve two months at the Brighton House of Correction.
Although Kimball was let off the hook that December day in 1921, she was soon taken into custody again after it was learned that she had falsified information to obtain a marriage license. On Nov. 23, 1921, she entered City Hall in Boston with 30-year-old saleslady Louise Marguerite Aechtler to obtain a license to wed. Kimball told the clerk that her name was James Hathaway and that she was employed as a bank teller. The two were then legally married.
At the hearing, Aechtler described how Kimball had been successful in winning her heart. Kimball’s own testimony was that it had all been a joke, but she pleaded guilty to the charges.
Kimball’s marriage ended and she went on to rack up arrests, one in May of 1922 and another in October of 1923. She continued being brought in off the streets of Boston for dressing as a man, her masculine swagger and upscale walking stick backing up her claims to be such personas as “Professor Faulkner,” an instructor of music. She served sentences for falsifying information and other petty crimes at Sherbourne Reformatory for Women, Suffolk County Jail and Norfolk County Jail.
On March 17, 1924, she sauntered into another city hall, this time in Hartford, with a woman named Pearl Davis at her side. Having been chauffeured to the location in a luxurious car, they told the clerk they were real estate broker James Wilson and his 45-year-old fiancée, Ambrey Hill, a Hartford housekeeper.
The couple knew they were living dangerously. They had already been arrested the previous month for falsely registering at a Massachusetts hotel under the names “Mr. and Mrs. Scully,” for which they were both sentenced to pay fines.
As soon as they obtained their marriage license, they went to South Congregational Church in New Britain and were legally married by the Rev. George Hill.
Less than one month into the marriage, Kimball and Davis were arrested again, charged with perjury for lying to the court clerk about their identities. Ethel appeared at the hearing in her masculine attire while Pearl appealed the conviction, stating that she had no clue her husband was a woman. They were both sentenced to serve 30 days in jail.
Two years later, in New Hampshire, Kimball was arrested once again for signing into a hotel with a woman as “Mr. and Mrs. Wilson.”
On Oct. 30, 1930, Kimball rented an apartment in Cranston, telling the landlady that she was employed a butcher and would soon be moving in along with her spouse and children. The following morning, at 2 a.m., police noticed a suspicious gentleman walking through Cranston. As Kimball was apprehended, she asked, “Can’t you give a girl a chance?”
The officer was greatly confused. At the station when she was asked to give her identity, she claimed to be Gladys MacKenzie, the wife of Manhattan college professor Lionel Mackenzie.
That afternoon, the police made contact with Lionel, who told them that his wife, Gladys, was there at their home in New York, but that he suspected the woman in question might be his wife’s friend Ethel Kimball.
Dr. John Kelley was called in to examine Kimball and give a report on her gender. Despite the results or what anyone felt she should or should not be doing, she appeared at the court hearing clad in a gray suit, brown overcoat and bowtie. A dapper hat covered her shortly clipped dark hair as she stood before yet another judge.
Kelly Sullivan is a Rhode Island columnist, lecturer and author.