The Murder of Bessie Barclay’s Venturesome Spirit

Heather Monroe

The dangers of being a mentally ill woman in Edwardian America, who preferred to wear male attire
Bessie Barclay, AKA Jean Thurnherr mugshots. Public Domain Photographs

Jeanne Miriam “Bessie” Barclay was born November 2, 1888, in West Virginia. Attorney Henry Augustus Barcley and his wife, aspiring painter and socialite Lily Adele Ward, adopted the little girl at 11 months old. The family lived in Los Angeles, California — a city Bessie later called “exceedingly dull.” Little did the Barclays know, their new baby daughter possessed an adventurous and untamable spirit. The Saint Paul Globe, Saint Paul, Minnesota, 04 Dec 1904, Sun • Page 10

Bessie’s parents provided her all the privilege and comfort afforded a girl of her social standing. But Bessie was a wild child, incorrigible even. She answered the call of misadventure every chance she got. “What in the world is the matter with Bessie?” her teachers asked. No one could answer, though Bessie herself believed it started around the time she found out she was adopted. Bessie was a bright girl, but she was expelled from school at the tender age of 13.

Runaway The Oregon Daily Journal, Portland, Oregon, 31 Oct 1903, Sat • Page 4

Bessie never enjoyed being a girl, an important fact she wrote about often in her diary. In 1903, 15-year-old Bessie ran away for the first of many times. She only went to the port of San Pedro, likely to watch the ships come and go. In San Pedro, she donned a sailor’s suit and applied for a cabin boy position with a ship traveling north to Puget Sound.

“Have you ever been at sea?” asked the skipper.

“No,” replied Bessie, “but I want to sail. I can do the work all right.”

Bessie got the job. She did the work, just as promised, and even passed for a boy.

One blustery day, a gust of salty wind blew the cap from Bessie’s head, revealing a cache of golden tresses pinned carefully to her crown. The ship returned to port and handed Bessie over to the police.

Bessie’s parents already reported their wayward daughter as a runaway, and police had been looking for her. Officers returned her to her parents at 1321 South Main St, Los Angeles. “I’ll go home,” she told them, “But if I don’t like it there, I’ll soon be off again.”

Bessie didn’t like it. Her mother was bed-bound, and she Bessie became the proxy mother to her younger brother Walter. She didn’t like being a girl; she surely didn’t sign up to be a 15-year-old mother. In July, Bessie ran away to Long Beach, saying she just wanted to have a little “frolic at the seashore.”

As usual, the police sent the unruly girl back home. Bessie tried to fit in. Her mother convinced her to attend a society ball. Sometime during the gala, the girl snuck away, slipped into some comfortable boy’s clothing, and vanished.

Bessie didn’t leave the immediate area right away. Dressed as a boy, and with a new a close-cropped hair cut, she blatantly mingled with associates of the family — no one recognized her. Bessie was so brazen in her male persona that she obtained a job as an elevator boy at her father’s law firm and for six days, rode up the elevator and down, occasionally listening to her father’s complaints about her.

When Bessie tired of being her father’s elevator boy, she left town. She wandered far and near in search of work at traditionally male jobs. This time, she had company in a girl named Jessie Penrod. Like Bessie, Jessie sported menswear, and cut her hair short. The pair told everyone they were brothers Jack (Jessie) and Ray (Bessie) Parker. Together, they worked on the railroad in California, broke horses in Arizona, and even dug ditches in Mexico. When the opportunity presented itself, Jessie and Bessie flirted with girls.

Bessie wrote at length about their grand adventure in her diary. She said it was easy to behave like a man, “I simply acted as I would have liked a young man to act towards me.” But, unfortunately, all good things eventually end.

Bessie wrote that when she and Jessie had $300, they returned to Los Angeles. Bessie walked into her father’s home dressed as a boy. Judge Barclay locked her in a room with barred windows. It was evident to Bessie that she couldn’t live in the house. She picked her way out with a penknife and was on to the next adventure.

Crime The Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles, California, 03 Jan 1904, Sun • Page 11

Bessie found herself broke and alone in San Francisco. With no real prospects, she turned to robbery out of desperation. In August of 1904, Bessie robbed a miner of $380 and hot tailed it south to Santa Cruz, where she spent $107.50 in new clothes. After the shopping spree, Bessie was arrested and charged with grand larceny.

Sadly, her father wrote the jail to tell Bessie her mother died on September 23 in Los Angeles. Even though the relationship with her mom was tumultuous, Bessie was devastated.

Bessie threw herself at the mercy of the court. She declared she was now Miss Evelyn Munson, Munson, being a partner in her father’s law firm. The judge ruled that Bessie settle into a “conventional” life, and satisfactorily conduct herself until she reached the age of majority. This ruling meant no running away, no thievery, and no men’s clothing.

The 15-year-old girl promised she would behave, and left the courtroom with Andrea Andrews, of Associated Charities. She didn’t return to her father’s home. Bessie Ran away three times that year.

Bessie’s adventures garnered much attention from the press. In 1905 Marguerite Scott, age 17, cut off her hair, donned a sailor suit and ran away to Los Angeles, where Officer Folsom arrested her. When asked why she ran away, Marguerite said she read of the adventures Miss Bessie Barclay and would have been delighted to meet her. “We would have made a strong team.”


October 1, 1908, Bessie, who the press called “The Girl Cowboy” married Albert B Thurnherr. She did so under the name Jean Gordon. After the wedding, she took on the name Jeanne Thurnherr. They made their home in a quaint little bungalow at 1911 Henry Street in Berkley, California. It appears the boy tramp wanted to settle down. Though appearances can be deceiving.

For almost a year, Bessie was antic-free, or so it seemed. Then, On September 9, 1909, a neighbor noticed a pretty doily hanging from Bessie’s window. The neighbor, Mrs. Girvin, suspected Bessie of stealing that doily as well as other missing items and called the cops. Bessie was arrested that day but released due to a lack of evidence. The fact is, Bessie enjoyed stealing. She stole for reasons even she didn’t understand.

Bessie denied the allegations despite hours of questioning. Investigators realized they would have a tough time wringing a confession out of Bessie without hard evidence. To that end, they shadowed her moves. The San Francisco Examiner, San Francisco, California,16 Jun 1909, Wed • Page 3

As police secretly surveilled Bessie, she started a fire in her yard. She threw all kinds of merchandise in to be burned. Expensive linens, silverware, and various valuable tchotchkes all destroyed. The police carried out a search warrant to try and salvage some of the wares.

Bessie, once again, found herself in police custody. Marshall Vollmer warned that although she was young, petite and attractive, she was also an accomplished burglar. She and Albert began a string of robberies in November when they lived at the Bon Air Apartment Homes. Bessie stole anything that wasn’t nailed down, including petticoats, silverware, and money orders.

Her husband claimed she was seriously ill. Sometimes, Albert said, Bessie couldn’t be responsible for her actions because she had no idea how to control them. After 20 hours of questioning, Bessie broke and confessed everything. She was also labeled a kleptomaniac.

A Cure The San Francisco Examiner, San Francisco, California, 24 May 1911, Wed • Page 1

Dr.’s dukes, Rowell, and Galbraith of Merritt Hospital in Oakland took a great interest in Bessie’s case. Could it be that her desire to be a boy, as well as her kleptomania were a result of some organic disease? The doctors thought so. The doctors located a spot on her skull that appeared thickened. The pressure created from this thickness created pressure on her brain, causing “mental disease.” They formulated a plan. “The girl is worth saving,” Dr. Rowell stated.

Dr. Harvey Cushing of Johns Hopkins University pioneered a surgical procedure that involved removing portions of the skull to alleviate said pressure, curing the patient of mental illness. The operation, called “Cushing’s Decompression,” had been performed extensively on the East, so Bessie consented in hopes it would save her from herself.

On April 12, 1911, Bessie went under the knife. The surgeons removed a portion of the skull at the back-center of her head. Before the surgery, Bessie told the doctors not to let her live if the operation failed.

When she woke up, Bessie felt like a changed woman. Everyone involved was convinced this was a permanent way to cure her of her gender dysphoria and kleptomania. Bessie believed with her whole heart that the surgery cured her. Life simply felt more livable. She explained, “Even flowers look more beautiful!”

Bessie went home to recover and enjoy her new life in relative obscurity. Though, by October of 1913, Bessie relapsed. The operation was, after all, unsuccessful. Bessie looted diamonds from a jeweler in Pasadena, California. She now claimed the only time she felt the urge to steal, was when she dressed as a woman. She was sent to Patton State Hospital for the Criminally Insane when Judge McCormick declared her a “moral imbecile.” Bessie gladly allowed the world to forget her. Oakland Tribune, Oakland, California, 26 Apr 1913, Sat • Page 1


Bessie and Albert eventually divorced. In 1924, she remarried. This time to a man named Floyd Lester Lattin. The couple lived in Orange, California, where they had one son. Bessie, who now went by Jeanne Lattin, never even made the papers. The two stayed married until her death on June 21, 1961. He died three months later.

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I am a freelance writer, mom, and genealogist from California. I adore rock hounding, and living my best RV life.

Los Angeles, CA

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