Shorty gets busted

On 15 January 1850, a young woman nicknamed Shorty was seen spending money with abandon in the groggeries of the New York City slum Five Points. A constable arrested her, because he thought that the money—more than sixty dollars—must have been stolen.

In fact Shorty had earned it. As she explained to the judge, and as the New York Herald reported the next day, at the end of a three-month stint in prison for prostitution, Shorty had dressed as a sailor, gone to Nantucket, and signed up for a whaling cruise. “In this disguise this young woman maintained her position among the other men in the forecastle for over seven months,” the Herald wrote. She wasn’t discovered until after the ship had rounded Cape Horn. Then the captain turned her over to the American consul, who sent her home to New York. In Five Points she was spending her wages.

It’s intriguing that it was Shorty’s money, and her prodigality with it, that didn’t look altogether gender-appropriate. In New York, she dressed femme, more or less. The Herald reporter described her thus:

This singular female has a very good looking countenance, short stature, and broad build; her hair was cut short; she both chewed and smoked tobacco, and talked sailor lingo very fluently. . . . Her manner of walking and movements of her body would appear to the observer as if she was a young man dressed up in female clothing.

Upon hearing Shorty’s explanation, the judge released her.