EXCLUSIVE: In 1888, in front of 20,000 people, 21-year-old Gordon Lawrence caused a riot after being arrested in the middle of Melbourne for “female impersonation”. It’s a forgotten Australian true crime tale that is likely to become a modern day sensation and may even create ‘new’ queer heroes for today’s generation. Yael Grunseit with this investigation into gender, sex, transgression and art.
It was a Saturday night in Melbourne almost 135 years ago when over one thousand enraged citizens crowded outside a city police station demanding that Gordon Lawrence – “the great female impersonator” – be handed over to them. Amongst the crowd baying for blood on the evening of September 29, 1888 were hundreds of disgruntled men who had glanced admiringly at Lawrence only a few hours earlier during the Melbourne Centennial Exhibition.
Lawrence’s crime? Winking at men walking past, who by all accounts very much enjoyed the attention.
It is reported that Lawrence attended the Exhibition in a wig of golden ringlets and a stylish vintage dress revealing a “dainty figure”. With a face full of make-up to cover a beard of short black hairs, Lawrence’s female illusion was “so perfect that it was impossible to detect the deception”. Their appearance was described as being “sufficient to excite the interest of the whole promenade” at the Avenue of Nations section within Melbourne’s Exhibition building. Tens of thousands of people happened to be there on the day.
“[Their] slender figure, set off to advantage by a stylish costume, and aided by an occasional coy glance, made her the object of a good many admiring glances”, The Age reported.
Another newspaper meanwhile was taken aback by Lawrence’s expert use of make-up.
“His cheeks and lips were painted, and his eyebrows neatly pencilled,” the Melbourne Argus reported.
“His slight figure, small feet and hands, and feminine voice completed the illusion, and with his fair curly wig carefully fixed on, it was difficult to believe he was a man.”
It was only because Lawrence was linked to a perpetrator of a supposed diamond robbery a few months prior that a local police officer – a fittingly named Detective Michael Sexton – recognised Lawrence to be a man.
Following a brief scuffle “in the presence of twenty thousand persons” where “the young lady’s fashionable hat was knocked off” Lawrence was eventually charged by Detective Sexton with the crime of “female impersonation”.
In actuality, the recently jailed so-called diamond thief was Lawrence’s partner or “chosen associate”, who like Lawrence was also an actor. Detective Sexton later claimed in court that Lawrence “belonged to a gang in Sydney who were suspected of most abominable practices”. Detectives further alleged the gang “was a party of personators” who “practice loathsome and unnatural offences”.
It is likely the so-called “abominable practices” related to the “personators” arousing men whilst dressed as women and perhaps engaging in other sexual acts too. Police in Sydney had been watching Lawrence and associates for over 12 months. Almost a year before Lawrence’s arrest, two associates faced court in Sydney in July 1887: “It was found that they were in the habit of walking the streets at night, impersonating females, and having powder and pearl cream upon their faces. They were in the habit of jostling men in the street and making use of disgusting expressions”.
One of those jailed associates was the “effeminate looking” George Tremain aka George Harrison aka ‘Carrie Swain’. The group Lawrence and Tremain belonged to would regularly take aliases after famous female actresses and singers of the era. Having first come to the attention of police in 1887, Tremain would go onto become a “notorious character” known across Sydney for “his singular liking for dressing up in feminine garments and frequenting the theatres and other public places”.
One Sydney detective would later tell a court room in 1891 that he had known of Lawrence and Tremain’s group for about six or seven years, and that they wandered “round the streets dressed in female clothes for a certain purpose”. The police officer also informed the court – to the “great horror” of the sitting judge – that there “were a number of young men following the same degrading practice”.
Getting Lawrence safely to the police station and then to Melbourne’s city watch house though was no easy feat for Detective Sexton. Hundreds upon hundreds upon hundreds of men who only moments before had been locking loving eyes with Lawrence now wanted them dead. And that’s no exaggeration.
The hectic scenes were described by The Age in a near-breathless tone:
In keeping with the remarkable serendipity of this forgotten Australian true crime tale, Detective Sexton happened to be a journalist with the Bendigo Advertiser before becoming a police officer. He had joined Victoria’s police force just a year before the sensational arrest of Lawrence. Such was its notoriety across Melbourne and beyond, Detective Sexton still happened to be dining out on the story of capturing “the great female impersonator” a full 12 months later.
At the station, Detective Sexton went to great lengths when assuring his colleagues that Lawrence’s sex was actually male. It is said that Lawrence “looked like a woman” and “spoke like a woman” so much so that some officers were disgusted that such a “serious mistake” and “gross outrage” had been thrust upon an “innocent girl”.
“An innocent girl”: Gordon Lawrence caused a sensation in Melbourne and across the Australian colonies in 1888 (Image: Rebecca Stewart)
Detective Michael Sexton: Responsible for capturing “the great female impersonator” Gordon Lawrence at the Melbourne Centennial Exhibition in 1888 (Image: Supplied / Trove)
It is reported that Lawrence stole their “female attire” from a doctor’s wife, Mrs Henry, who happened to be married to the actor’s former employer. Lawrence had for a number of weeks worked as a male attendant to her husband, Dr Henry. During their employment a number of articles of “female attire” were said to have gone missing, however the doctor and his good wife did not suspect that Lawrence had stolen them.
Lawrence’s stolen wardrobe at the time of their arrest consisted of “several summer dresses, under clothing, ten fans, medicines, paints, puffs”.
Lawrence had only arrived in Melbourne from Sydney just six weeks before their arrest. During their fateful outing at the Exhibition, Lawrence had been in the company of their landlady, the middle-aged Mrs Broughton, with whom they had been lodging with in Fitzroy. Mrs Broughton – described as being “portly, buxom and grave” – claimed that she was not aware Lawrence “was a man” in all the time of having known them.
So, what was Gordon Lawrence? A transwoman, a camp gay man, a drag queen, non-binary, or something else?
Historian Noah Riseman, an academic at the Australian Catholic University, believes the answer isn’t a simple one.
“We don’t know. Gordon Lawrence does not fit the norms of gender and sexuality”, he says.
“What Gordon Lawrence is proof of is that diverse genders and sexualities have always existed. This isn’t something new”.
Sally Goldner is a proud Melbournian and one of Australia’s much admired voices for trans people over the past few decades, which has seen great progress in recognition and rights.
Now in semi-retirement, the “trans re-lator and educator” explains that society in the present day has the capabilities for much more appropriate language when it comes to gender expression.
“We are creating it for ourselves and that’s a win”, Goldner tells True Crime News Weekly.
“People before us including Lawrence didn’t and had to put up with very inappropriate labelling. The language used for Lawrence could be inappropriate for today’s standards, but we at least have to acknowledge it.”
The Melbourne Centennial Exhibition at which Lawrence exhibited their unique talents in 1888 had been organised to ‘celebrate’ a century of British colonial settlement in Australia. Upon their arrest, it was suggested Lawrence was “no novice at masquerading as a woman”. Almost 135 years later, perhaps it’s time Lawrence receives the rightful celebration they deserve rather than the incrimination and punishment they did receive.
The Trial: “Something more than mere acting”
Gordon Lawrence’s trial for “female impersonation” lasted all of half-an-hour. And took place just a couple of days after their arrest. Yet it caused an utter sensation. Largely, for the plain fact that Lawrence chose to attend their case while once again in the full guise of a woman.
Newspapers across the Australian colonies reported on Lawrence attending the court room while dressed in “a black dress, with red flounces, and jacket with blue and white stripes, a woollen shawl, fan, and parasol”.
There was immense interest in the case. The Western Star was detailed in its summary of the trial, excitedly reporting:
David Hunt, author of the best-selling historical series, Girt, explains that “cross dressing was seen as a crime against the natural order of things”.
Similarly, Professor Riseman says that Australian society didn’t really know how to view cross dressing.
“I think that’s one reason why it was such a spectacle,” he tells True Crime News Weekly. “The closest thing they could do was read it as homosexuality, perhaps the other way is to see at as a vice”.
Lawrence certainly lent into the spectacle of their trial; uttering a “wild shriek” and sensationally fainting when sentenced to six months imprisonment by the court. Lawrence was subsequently carried out by two policemen, after which they slid to the ground, leant against a wall and “winked at the constables”. Lawrence would end up serving their sentence at Pentridge Prison.
Hunt tells True Crime News Weekly that Lawrence’s story is proof that “people have been living queer lifestyles ever since modern Australia came to be and even before that”.
“Women Impersonating Men” in the 19th Century
Whilst a man impersonating a woman was viewed by the Australian colonial governments by the late 19th century to be a petty crime, Hunt explains that a woman impersonating a man was seen to be committing the crime of “petty treason, punishable by death”. As such, there was an even greater stigma attached to women impersonating men. This was largely because by impersonating a man, a woman could provide for greater material, economic and property benefits for herself in an era when women had few formal rights.
In 1885, Louisa Clark Wells was arrested in Port Adelaide for dressing in men’s clothing. Luckily, during her trial no proof could be found implicating Wells of the crime, so she was eventually freed. Several constables however “bore testimony to the defendant being a person of bad repute” and as such the trial judge found that if Ms Wells “was found masquerading in any public place she would be liable to a penalty”.
The Avenue of Nations in the Melbourne Exhibition Building for the Centennial Exhibition of 1888 during which Gordon Lawrence was arrested for “female impersonation” (Image: Supplied / State Library of Victoria)
Sydney resident Annie Gardner, a “well-known vagrant”, wasn’t so lucky though. She was given a fortnight’s imprisonment in 1889 after being caught by police “attired as a navvy”. Unrepentant in the slightest, Gardner told the court she had “adopted male costume to escape detection” because she “was tired of being sent to gaol”. Gardner also helpfully informed the court that dressing as a man had real economic benefits, and that she had been successful in gaining employment as a “manual labourer with the pick and shovel for some weeks”.
Other women living their lives as men were deemed mentally ill and subsequently sent to hospitals, sanitariums and asylums.
This includes the remarkable case of Ellen Tremaye who posed as a man by the name of Edward De Lacy Evans for upwards of twenty years. The Bendigo Independent reported in 1879 that Tremaye was an “unfortunate and misguided woman” who after a forced long stay in a lunatic asylum continued to “progress towards mental and physical convalescence, and in the course of a few weeks will probably be fit to receive her discharge”. The newspaper report continued:
Attmeyer had donned “her husband’s clothes and walked through the centre” of Melbourne. After being arrested, she was referred to as “not right in the head” and “remanded for medical treatment”.
Ellen Tremaye aka Edward De Lacy Evans who ‘impersonated’ a man for over 15 years, married twice and apparently had two children (Image: Supplied / Trove)
Australian newspapers of the era meanwhile were also publishing articles from the wire services over in Europe carrying detailed reports of women impersonating men for sometimes upwards of ten years.
In 1865, it was reported that London citizen Sarah Geals, who introduced herself to others as William Smith, had been engaged in “male impersonation” for at least a dozen years. It was one of Geals’s friends who had eventually revealed her female identity to her employer, Mr James Giles. Subsequently, Giles fired Geals but allowed her to live in his home, “treating her like a sister” but “acted towards her more like a brother”. One evening Giles returned home and described that Geals, in an out of the ordinary manner, held a pistol to his head. Giles escaped, called the police and had Geals arrested. Geals was then imprisoned, “charged with attempting to shoot the complainant with a loaded pistol”.
Parisian high society was also the scene for “a curious case” combining gender and employment.
In 1888, it was reported as far and wide as Victoria’s Colac Herald that a woman had successfully run a well-known printing business in Paris while living as a man for over a decade.
“The woman came to Paris dressed as a man in 1878, and, in partnership with her lover has since been at the head of an important printing office”, one newspaper article states.
“Till now neither the printers whom she directed nor any of her customers or other people into whose society she was thrown ever suspected the truth”.
It was said that as the woman had “given rise to no scandal of any sort” it was possible the Parisian police may grant her demand for “authorisation to continue to dress in man’s clothing”.
In respect to these forgotten queer histories, Hunt explains that Australian and colonial history is often portrayed as great explorers, great pastoralists, and political figures doing ‘big things’.
“The smaller stories of people living unconventional lives are interesting because they show that Australia was a much more diverse place” he says.
Unlike these women, some men however were not subject to any form of legal punishment for their gender nonconformity.
In 1887, the “very respectable citizen” James Thomas Franklyn, a man found to be posing as a woman, received no punishment. It was reported that Franklyn, in “female clothing”, attempted to steal the horse of a Chinese man named William Ah Choo. During Franklyn’s trial Ah Choo and two other Chinese men recounted the attempted robbery and “female impersonation”.
In favor of Franklyn’s corner though were some of the town’s most powerful people. The Mayor of Goulburn even testified in court to Franklin’s “high character”. One can assume the mayor’s testimony impacted the decision of the bench to “discharge the accused”. Franklyn happened to be an important “government officer”. He was “the overseer in the Railway Department at Goulburn”.
In a similar case a decade later, Henry M Cardon was found to be wearing women’s clothes, arrested, and discharged by a court in 1898 because it was found he was not harming anyone.
The Resident Magistrate in the case said, “that he had been thinking over the matter, and he now considered that the accused did not disguise himself for any evil purpose”.
Others though in the preceding decades had been dealt with much more harshly. The arrest of Lawrence during the Exhibition reminded The Bulletin magazine of an incident from two decades earlier, in the 1860s. According to the short report, a “stately lady known as The Great Eastern” who it was claimed “nightly did the block in Eastern Hill, Melbourne” and had “quite a string of fashionable youths in her train” was sentenced to Pentridge Prison for 15 years after one “astute detective” realised the “gushing creature was not a frail daughter of Eve”.
Police & Gender Non-Conforming People Today
It is clear that cross-dressing or gender expression of any sort beyond a narrow binary was viewed as a behaviour rather than an identity. Professor Riseman explains that even homosexuality was seen as “a behaviour that you could choose not to do”.
He adds: “Queer expressions were seen as naughty and criminal”.
Kane Race is a Professor of Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney, who like many had not yet heard of Lawrence’s story until True Crime News Weekly brought it to their attention.
Hearing about Lawrence’s case, Professor Race draws striking similarities between the police treatment of Lawrence and the police treatment that transgender youth are subject to in Australia today.
“There is a sense where the criminalisation of Gordon Lawrence for being gender non-conforming in public connects up to some of the challenges that marginalised queer and transgender people experience today, that are not really captured in dominant narratives of lesbian and gay and transgender rights,” he says.
He suggests too that there are also valid connections between the moment when Detective Sexton forcibly removed Lawrence’s wig at the public event of the Melbourne Exhibition in 1888 and drug detection laws in modern Australia.
“The huge amount of discretion to search and publicly humiliate anyone the police don’t really like the look of has disproportionately affected queer and transgender people, as well as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities,” Professor Race says.
Published in 2021, the Health and Wellbeing of Transgender Australians: A National Community Survey found that in 2018, 63% of trans Australians experienced verbal abuse and 22% were physically assaulted. The study concludes that widespread discrimination in the health and social sectors contribute to these staggering statistics.
“Along with the misuse of power within the police and courts system, in terms of trans people we still have media sensationalising,” Goldner says.
By openly telling and celebrating the story of Gordon Lawrence in the present day, Goldner suggests that “we aren’t dragging us down” or reliving the historical vilification of gender diverse people. Instead, she says, “these histories allow us to progress”.
“Whilst of course we know there is distance to travel, if we keep pushing we’ll get there,” Goldner adds.
Novelist Fergus Hume: At the height of his fame, the English crime-fiction writer gave Gordon Lawrence £20 for reasons that remain unknown but may have been linked to blackmail (Image: Supplied / Wikipedia)
Lawrence’s story is one punctuated by humour and fantastical drama, yet it is also an all-too-familiar narrative that also exposes the grave injustices of the Australian legal system historically and into the present day.
“Anything that allows us to think about the relationship between gendered self expression, sexual self expression and how that is targeted by the law and by enforcement and police, in fresh ways, is really valuable,”, Professor Race concludes.
Although depicted by police at the time as a lower-class ruffian with loose morals, it is likely Lawrence’s natural charms and association with the theatre afforded the actor some sway with their so-called social betters.
Lawrence was even known by the famous English novelist, Fergus Hume, who for some reason gave the young actor £20. Hume was the author of The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, a blockbuster book based on his own experiences of poor urban life on Little Bourke Street in Melbourne in the late 19th century. The book was self-published in 1886 and became a great success. A film based on the book was aired on the ABC ten years ago. Hume is now widely credited as one of the creators of the modern crime-fiction genre.
Hume had reportedly given the money to Lawrence when both were in Sydney in early 1888 for reasons that still remain unknown. Based on the limited evidence, there is a suggestion that the famous author had possibly given the money over after being blackmailed by Lawrence and his associate, “a coloured Shakespearean actor” believed to be Antoine (or James) Bollars, a young actor from Trinidad. Bollars was himself eventually arrested in Melbourne in mid-1888 just a few months before Lawrence’s turn at the Exhibition.
In 1885, British legislation was introduced that criminalised “gross indecency” between men, with the law quickly becoming to be known as “the blackmailer’s charter”. The Irish novelist and wit, Oscar Wilde, was known to have paid a number of men between £10-£100 following the law change. Hume, who never married and even wrote a homoerotic novel, is long thought to have been a gay man. As a colony of Britain at the time of Hume’s encounter with Lawrence and with Australia more than ten years away from Federation in 1901, the legislation equally applied as far away as Sydney or Melbourne as it did in London.
It is highly likely Lawrence had travelled to Melbourne from Sydney to be closer to Bollars after the Trinidadian actor was sentenced to three years imprisonment at Pentridge Prison on charges of “indecent assault on a male person”. The charges stemmed following an incident in July 1888 where Bollars picked up a wealthy young man in Melbourne’s city centre and got him to sign an I. O. U. for £7 in the wake of a “strange” encounter. Bollars had originally been accused of stealing a diamond pin from the victim, but the diamond was later discovered in the overcoat of the victim.
With both Bollars and Lawrence having been sentenced to Pentridge after their respective trips to Melbourne in 1888, the couple were reunited in prison for at least a few months before Lawrence was released in early 1889.
Due to the incident with Hume happening in early 1888, some months before Lawrence’s arrest, the timing suggests the money wasn’t handed over to the actor in pity to use in his trial defence. In any case, the anecdote involving Hume suggests that the young actor, despite their criminal background, possessed a demeanour that could seemingly charm and disarm anybody.
Three years after their “extraordinary” court case, Lawrence appeared as an actor in a comedy show at Sydney’s Criterion Theatre. Going by their previous performances in court, there’s a good bet Lawrence was also a big hit when they took to the stage for a week of shows in November 1891. The Brough-Boucicault Comedy Company which Lawrence was a part of for the week-long run of shows was still regarded more than three decades later as containing “probably as fine a collection of comedians as ever existed”. Ironically, the company was known for performing the works of Wilde.
Perhaps it is only in the 21st century though when Gordon Lawrence will get the star billing they truly deserve across Australia and beyond.
– Additional reporting and research by Serkan Ozturk
– Feature illustration and images of Gordon Lawrence drawn by Rebecca Stewart