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16 April 2024

Mowry Saben/Ralph Werther/Earl Lind/Jennie June (1870 - 1950) journalist, female impersonator

(This article builds on the October 2022 article in OutHistory “Who Was Jennie June?” by Channing Gerard Joseph Online.  I accept Joseph’s argument that Mowry Saben and Jennie June were the same person, and integrate the two biographies. June – in her Autobiography of an Androgyne and The Female Impersonators – slightly altered the facts of her life such as claiming to be from Connecticut rather than Massachusetts, and that she attended an “uptown” university (presumably Columbia) in New York rather than Harvard. She also altered her birth year from 1870 to 1874. This creates problems: if she says that she was 19, is this 1889 or 1894?

Pronouns? Some writers use he/she for Jennie June which is cumbersome; some use he/him as that is what June did in her own writings. I will use he/him for the Mowry Saben persona and she/her for the Jennie June persona.

AJUS= American Journal of Urology and Sexology; Auto=Autobiography of an Androgyne)

Part I: early life

Part II: publications

Part III:  comments and bibliography 

Israel Mowry Saben was raised in Uxbridge, Massachusetts in a strict Puritan family. Israel was his father and grandfather’s Christian name, and Mowry was his paternal grandmother’s maiden name. His sister three years younger was Jennie May. The father was a noted mathematician, who was disappointed that his son had no talent in that direction. However, his private education gave Mowry fluency in Latin, French and German.

At age 14 Mowry became ‘God-intoxicated’ and attended seven religious services a week in addition to college chapel. He was the leader of prayer groups, preached from the pulpit and spent two hours a day in private devotions. He then realized that he was a ‘female impersonator’ – he told this to his family physician, who did not understand the nature of such, and suggested finding a girlfriend.

In 1891 Saben attended Harvard, at first in the college and then the law school. He became a friend of the poet Edwin Arlington Robinson. He still did preach in the slums. He also became an assistant to the lawyer, Clark Bell who among other cases was representing a ‘cultured and moneyed fellator’ who was being blackmailed by a young man whom he had pleasured. Clark Bell was also the editor of the Medico-Legal Journal.

In the summer of 1892, Saben’s other persona, Jennie June, emerged for a ‘First Nocturnal Ramble’ to New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, and then to the New Bowery. She met Red Mike for the first time.

Later that year, not sure what to make of his androgynous nature, Saben consulted three New York medical professors, two of whom were Drs Prince A Morrow and Robert S Newton. In her third book, Jennie June wrote: 

"The alienist Dr. Robert S. Newton was the third physician whom I consulted but the first who had any inkling of the true nature of my malady. His frankness put an end to my chronic melancholia. I thenceforth merely suffered from it at rare intervals. I ceased the worse than useless longing and praying for a different nature than it had seemed good to the All Wise to predestinate. The alienist opened my eyes. He taught me that the androgyne’s proclivities are not the depth of depravity that every one, even the two preceding medical advisers, had previously given me to understand." 

The other, unnamed, physician 

“gave me to understand as early as 1892 that my case was a remarkable one. This pronouncement incited me still further to keep a record of what life brought me with a view to writing an autobiography some day.”

In November 1892 and April 1893, Jennie June again did a ‘Nocturnal Ramble’ to New York’s Mulberry Street and Grand. Her ‘Fairie Apprenticeship Begins‘. She lived with Red Mike who took much of her money and abused her. She found a gig performing in a night club. (See ‘The Female Impersonator”, AJUS, June 1919). She gave out that her male name was Ralph Werther (from the painter Raphael and Goethe’s famous melancholiac). Saben finally gave up preaching and all church work.

In May, towards the end of his second year Saben was expelled from Harvard, possibly after the police broke up an all-male gathering in his room (Channing Joseph on Mowry Saben), but later other explanations were given: a ‘Nervous Breakdown’ (Auto p99) or “I was expelled from the university for being an androgyne, I came within an ace of suicide although believing that none of my family even suspected my expulsion; I having explained that my New York physician had ordered me to rest my brain on account of neurasthenia, which malady the expulsion had immediately occasioned as a matter of fact”. (II: "The Boy Is Father to the Man) or “But the faculty, through an accident, finally discovered it [female impersonation] and immediately expelled me”.(‘The Female Impersonator’, AJUS, June 1919) or “The wreck of my happy and highly successful student-career was now brought about by a physician whom I had consulted in hope of a cure for my inversion, but not one of the two gentlemen already named. He happened to number the president of the university among his friends, and whispered to him that I ought not to be continued as a student. I was immediately expelled.” (Auto p139)

“In a few weeks I was penniless and a shelterless wanderer on the streets in midwinter. I was driven for shelter to the Bowery, because there alone lodging could be obtained for fifteen cents, and a big meal of coarse and even disgusting food for ten cents.” (Autobiography, p141) Saben was living as Jennie June and the life of a low-class fairie. "The fact that I could now satisfy every day my instinctive yearnings to pass for a female and spend six evenings a week in the company of adolescent ruffians went far towards counterbalancing the many tears I had to shed when there was nothing to divert my thoughts from my condition of an outcast and an outlaw. I never coquetted on Sunday evenings, which I devoted to worship of my Creator at some mission.” (Auto p143)

Jennie also had adventures with soldiers, even visiting them at their army camps. This led to sanctions, leading June to stop using the Ralph Werther name when seeking men or approaching doctors, and using Earl Lind instead – although the books and journal articles that she published in the 1910s carried the Werther name.

One night Jennie met a group of men who took her into a groggery near Water Street in south Manhattan, and gang raped her. 

“I was at last rendered unable to be on my feet owing to spinal trouble, and to excruciating pain in the anus whenever I attempted to walk. I was compelled to enter a hospital.”

Saben returned home. His father’s antagonism had softened. 

“Of course I never gave a true account of our period of estrangement.” (Auto p158).

What happened next is discrepant between the biographies of Saben and June.

Jackson’s Oxford Journal

  • In 1894 Saben is said to have gone to England and studied at Oxford. He was there during the Oscar Wilde trials, during which he was obliged to petition for bankruptcy having liabilities of £388/16/6 after his father stopped his remittances (attested in the Jackson’s Oxford Journal). Somehow he was then able to travel to Germany and study at Heidelberg University.
  • June wrote (Auto p173, 168) that her male persona became an amanuensis to a millionaire septuagenarian and the two were five months in Europe.

By the end of the decade/century Saben/June was back in the US, and in 1899 finally started writing an autobiography re their experiences as an Androgyne – although it will be 20 years before it is published. 

"But in 1900, as soon as I had this autobiography ready, I submitted it to Mr. [Anthony] Comstock in order to ascertain whether it could be circulated. He was then a Post-Office Department inspector, with power to prosecute for shipping 'obscene' matter by common carrier. He read considerable of the manuscript of this book, and stated . . . that he would have 'destroyed' it but for the fact that I impressed him 'as a person not having any evil intent." (Auto, page 24.)

Werther/June arranged to be castrated (orchiectomy) giving the reason that he suffered from spermatorrhoea. Although in his introduction to the first Werther-June book, Alfred Herzog later commented: 

“My belief is, that, feeling as a woman, desiring to be a woman and wishing to seem as much as possible like a woman to his male paramours, he hated above all the testicles, those insignia of manhood, and had them removed to be more alike to that which he wished to be”.

As Saben he became an established speaker travelling across the country giving lectures on Emmerson, Whitman, Goethe, Shakespeare and Francis Bacon, Havelock Ellis, Krafft-Ebing, religion and freedom. One of these lectures, The twilight of the gods, was published in 1903. The lecture series segued into working for newspapers, both as an editorial writer and freelancing.

An approach was made to two more doctors in New York. The first was Robert Shufeldt, an ornithologist, army doctor and eugenicist. A person using the name Earl Lind, presented a manuscript to Shufeldt by the said-to-be recently deceased Ralph Werther – also known as Jennie June. Shufeldt described Werther in a July 1905 paper in the Pacific Medical Journal: 

“Ralph Werther throughout his brief life had, in all anatomical particulars, the form of a man, though bearing to some extent the impress of the opposite sex. His psychic nature always remained distinctly that of a girl, and that, too, of a very amorous and passionate girl. In fact, he was a girl with the body of a boy. Intellectual and educated to a high degree, she passed through the most remarkable life-experience imaginable, from childhood to the day of self-destruction, which occurred before 30 years of age.  During this time, the wonderfully interesting subject of this account kept a very full diary, and scores upon scores of letters, and other matters calculated to shed ample light upon the terrible cruelties and tortures he had passed through.” 

Shufeldt however did realize that Lind and Werther were the same person, and persuaded the same to pose for nude photographs.

Dr William Lee Howard also met with Jennie June, and wrote a 1905 paper about her, “Two Souls in One Body: A Realistic But Scientific Account of a True Psychological”, in The Arena, where she is referred to as Jennie/Karl.

Also that year, Werther/Saben was diagnosed with syphilis, and was seriously assaulted by a gang of boys. He considered taking them to court, but was advised not to.

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