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09 January 2012

Jean Bonnet (1849 - 1876) frog catcher.

Jeanne Bonnet was born in Paris and raised in San Francisco, one of two daughters of French theater players. Their mother died, and soon after the sister, at age 16, was incarcerated in the State Insane Asylum where she also died. The father, who was disabled, left to find work in Oakland. Jeanne was in and out of the Industrial School (juvenile detention), and made a living catching frogs and selling them to French restaurants.

When in the Industrial School, Bonnet had gained entry into the boys’ section and then attacked the largest boy, just to show that she could. Bonnet was often arrested for fighting, and for wearing male attire. He visited brothels as a customer, and had several run-ins with pimps after encouraging their women to leave them. In 1874, Bonnet was hospitalized after ingesting laudanum.

In 1875 Blanche Beunon arrived from France with Arthur Deneve and their child. Deneve was a friend of Ernest Gerard who shot Jean Bonnet early 1876 and then visited him in hospital. Beunon and Deneve broke up, and Deneve took the child and returned to France.

Beunon turned to Bonnet, and Gerard accosted them in the street, accusing Bonnet of luring Blanche from Arthur, assaulted both of them and then called a police officer to have Bonnet arrested for wearing male clothes.

After hearing that Gerard was threatening to throw acid in Blanche’s face, Jean took her, first to stay with a Frenchman, Pierre Louis and his wife, and then to McNamara’s Hotel at San Miguel Railway Station. On the night of September 1876, there was a shotgun blast through the window and Bonnet was dead.

Gerard was suspected but had a strong alibi. Then the police heard either that Deneve had offered $2,000 to Pierre Louis to kill Blanche as a example to the other girls, or that L’Amant d’Blanche, another jealous lover of Beunon, had paid Louis. In either case it was not intended that Bonnet be killed. However Louis and his wife had fled to Montréal, and later Louis hanged himself before he could be arrested.

L’Amant d’Blanche took Blanche back, but she died of throat cancer six months later.
  • Allan Bérubé. “Lesbian Maquerade: Some lesbians in early San Francisco who passed as men”. A Slide lecture, San Francisco, June 1979. Reprinted in Gay Community News, Boston, Nov 17, 1979. Reprinted in My Desire for History: Essays in Gay, Community, and Labor History. The University of North Carolina Press, 2011.
  • The San Francisco lesbian and Gay History Project.  " 'She Even Chewed Tobacco': A Pictorial Narrative of Passing Women in America".  A slide show based on primary research by Allan Bérubé, edited and reprinted in Martin B. Duberman, Martha Vicinus, and George Chauncey. Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past. New York: New American Library, 1989: 183-194.
  • Kevin J. Mullen. “The Little Frog Catcher”, The Toughest Gang in Town: Police Stories From Old San Francisco. Noir Publications, 2005: 150-5.
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Both Bérubé and Mullen persist in referring to Bonnet as 'she' and 'Jeanne', presumably because the only primary sources are newspaper accounts which in 1876 would refer to Bonnet in that manner.  We do not actually know that Bonnet called himself Jean, but, as most English speakers do not pick up on the difference in pronunciation between Jean and Jeanne, it is likely.  Jean presented as male and went to brothels as a man.  He would not undermine his own presentation by insisting on a female name.

4 comments:

lezbeehonest said...

Interesting.

P Dreco said...

Your thesis is very interesting. I was a good friend of Kevin Mullen and have much of his research material. What evidence do you have that Bonnet was male or transexual?

Zagria said...

Have you read other accounts of 19th century trans men? The early and continued cross-dressing, the getting into fights. Bonnet fits well into the pattern. What evidence do you have that he was not? Did he dress female when at home - or anything like that. Did he express resentment at being forced to live like a man?

P Dreco said...

Zagria, after doing more research I agree with you that Jeanne was a male. I will be writing about him in my next column in the San Francisco Examiner.