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In 1913, she walked down the aisle disguised as a man

  • Written by Story by AMY HUGHES Illustrations by ELLEN SURREY
  • Published in Mysteries
  • Read: 301

IN the winter of 1911, a handsome young man arrived in Meeker, Colorado. He wore a smart suit and introduced himself to the residents as John Hill -- or Jack, as he preferred to be called. No one in that small White River Valley town had ever seen him before. He was in his early twenties, and had come from the east, he said, to be revived by the bracing western winds.

His first job in the town, however, was not out on the plains, but at the local saloon owned by one John Davitt. Handsome and well-mannered, Jack was instantly popular with the Davitt House’s patrons, working his way up from dishwasher to barroom porter, before finally achieving the status of bartender. Though he did not join the town’s men in their drinking -- a quirk which soon earned him the title of “Davitt’s teetotaller” -- the men did not begrudge him his temperance. Jack was adept at minding his own business, turning his attention to a dirty glass or unswept floor when their profanities drifted across the bar towards him. If he heard them at all, or disapproved of their risqué talk, he did not show it, and for this he earned their unspoken respect.

Jack’s stoical charm was not only popular with the men of the town. Enamored by his thick curls and smooth face, tanned from his work on the ranches, the local girls looked with interest upon their newcomer. Within a week of his arrival, they had rechristened him “Handsome Jack,” and within three they had collectively voted him “the most handsome and captivating” man in town, according to the Herald Democrat.

Popular, hardworking, attractive -- Jack Hill was, to all appearances, a very successful Meeker man.

The people of Meeker weren’t to know -- at least not yet -- that this quiet youth who mixed their drinks with sober care and politely returned their blushing glances in the town’s streets had, only six years previously, been living under a very different name in nearby Coal Creek, Colorado. Indeed, as recently as 1907, “Jack Hill” had been known not as a barman but as a teacher -- a young woman by the name of Helen A. Hilsher./

*  *  *
    
Where Helen Hilsher was born or what her life was like before she arrived in Meeker, it is, for the most part, difficult to say. Births were not required to be recorded by the state of Colorado until after the turn of the century, but if the age she gave when living as Jack Hill is to be believed, Hilsher was born in 1891. She lived for a while working as a teacher in Coal Creek, a town about 200 miles from Meeker and where, according to her landlady Mrs. J.J. Ross, she had been “unusually popular.” Despite this popularity, however, Coal Creek was too small an arena to play adequate host to Helen Hilsher’s ambitions. Sixteen years old, evidently intelligent and charismatic, but with little or no family or money behind her, Helen was already itching for a way out, searching the stores of her considerable ingenuity for an answer to the problem of her situation.  
    
In 1909, Helen found the answer she was looking for. She donned a suit and cut her hair, and made the journey 90 miles east -- to the nearby town of Wiggins, Colorado.  
    
It was in Wiggins that “Jack Hill,” according to the newspaper records, first came to life. He arrived without great incident, and immediately took up residence on a 160-acre homestead 12 miles southwest of the town. He was as popular in Wiggins as he would later be in Meeker. Known affectionately among his fellow ranchers as “little Jack” due to his slight physique, he also prolifically courted the town’s women. He even developed a close relationship with one young woman, though her name unfortunately escapes the written record. They were frequently seen out riding together in the Sunday dusk, two slight forms trotting side by side in the dying light. For two years, Jack Hill lived happily in Wiggins.
    
In September 1911 Hill went to Denver with a group of young male friends, brought to serve as witnesses in a legal matter. Hill was there to prove that he was the rightful owner of land bought under the name of Helen Hilsher, and he took it as an opportunity to reveal his past identity to his new friends.  
    
Changing into feminine clothing on arrival at the Denver town hall, Hill presented himself to the group as “Helen” for the first time. Perhaps predictably, the men were disbelieving. According to one report, Helen was forced to remove the wig she had donned for the occasion, and to resume her masculine gait and tone of voice before her friends would finally believe that she was indeed their friend “little” Jack.
    
“It was the only thing to do,” said Hilsher afterwards, speaking to a reporter from the Yuma Pioneer who visited her at her home in Denver. “A woman would not have felt safe out there alone, and I just had to do it. Now that it is all over, I feel awful about it -- but, I am glad I won.”
    
This declaration of victorious and satisfied retreat from the masculine world may have been palatable to local newspapers and their readers, but the story wasn’t picked up in Denver or nationally. It had the air of a completed sideshow, a party trick. As far as the papers were concerned, Hilsher had packed away the circus and costume and settled back into the life proper to her as a young woman in that early phase of the twentieth century. Her jaunt in Wiggins was merely a flight of feminine fancy: a local gossip piece.  
    
This was a false impression.
    
Within months of Helen’s departure from Wiggins, Jack Hill arrived in Meeker.

* * *
    
During his time working for John Davitt, Jack socialized with the women of the town. As a newcomer, and a handsome young bachelor at that, he was no doubt assailed by introductions from his very first morning. He nodded politely as he greeted each of the eligible young ladies who stopped him as he went about his business, watching with a wry glint in his eye as they walked away, or whispered in the shades of doorways as he passed them in the street. He held his secret close to him like a gleaming talisman, but these girls must have caught flashes of it sometimes -- in the way he smirked mischievously at them in full view of their mothers, or the pleasing firmness of his hand as it pressed into each of theirs.  
    
It did not take him long to find a co-conspirator. Within a few months of arriving in Meeker, Jack Hill was observed to have taken an intense interest in one Miss Anna Slifka, a young woman considered by many to be “the prettiest girl in the White River country.” An electric current of unspoken recognition had passed between them at their first meeting: the understanding that in each other they had found an equal to their own ambition, a mirror-image -- a partner in crime. Born in Czechoslovakia, the daughter of a well-to-do rancher and sister of the local cobbler, Slifka enjoyed much the same popularity amongst the town’s men as Jack had found among the women, and by the autumn of 1912 they had become firm friends. Speaking about their friendship and apparent courtship in 1913, the two maintained that they had bonded over their mutual experience of pursuit.
    
“The girls just wouldn’t let me alone,” said Hilsher to the Montrose Daily Press, smiling wanly, “and they worried me to death with hints to take them to parties and other social events. I got tired of it all and I found I just had to tell someone, and confided my secret to Miss Slifka.”  
    
Anna reported the same experience with matching exasperation: “The boys were always chasing me. I didn’t care for any of them. I wanted peace.”  
    
Together, they concocted a solution to their mutual quandary. “We decided together that we would get married to save me from being annoyed by young women,” Hilsher stated to the Lincoln County News. “Also so that both of us could later on appear as men and earn more wages than we ever could hope to earn as girls.”  
    
So it happened that on November 14, 1912, Reverend Robert L. Nuckolls married Anna E. Slifka to John C. Hill at the town church in Meeker.  
    
Did the pair know then that what they had accomplished was a radical act? A historic one? Did they wink at each other from either side of the altar, thrilled with their achievement? We cannot say. Even with all that came afterwards, it is impossible to tell whether their marriage was an act of rebellion, or of rebellious love. We have only their marriage license, and what was reported later on in newspapers.  
    
The couple, newly married, took up residence on their own homestead out at Flag Creek. They were married for ten months before anyone found out their secret.  

* * *
    
On September 19, 1913, a man named W.B. Thompson arrived in Meeker from Denver. What his business was there we cannot be sure, but we do know that he was passing through Victor Slifka’s shoe shop when the slight young man conversing with its owner caught his eye. According to the Lincoln County News, as Jack Hill turned to leave his brother-in-law’s shop, Thompson stopped him at the door.  
    
“You are Helen Hilsher of Denver, are you not?” he inquired, looking into the tanned face, flushing darkly now beneath its crown of shining curls.  
    
Jack denied the name, avoiding the man’s gaze and pushing past him out into the street. His heart was beating like a fist against the inside of his ribs, sweat gathering under the collar of his suit despite the mildness of the September day. Every eye seemed to flash with suspicion as he passed, and his steps seemed unusually loud as he sped towards the end of the street.
    
Looking back as he reached the corner, Jack Hill broke into a run.  
    
Things began to unravel quickly after that.  
    
Back in the shop, Thompson had already alerted Victor to his brother-in-law’s “true” identity.  Enraged, Slifka hurried to his sister and brother-in-law’s homestead, a doctor in tow, finding the couple making frantic arrangements to escape to California. After attempting to bribe the doctor to protect her identity, Hilsher was led to the town jail, where she gave another false name -- that of Helen Halstead -- to the police. As for Slifka, she was marched back to her family home by her brother, forbidden from seeing anyone but her close relations.  
    
Later, in court, the two spouses explained repeatedly that the scheme had been in aid of saving for college tuition at an eastern school. “A working girl hasn’t any chance in the east and I thought I could dress like a man and get work on a ranch in the west where I could earn enough by drawing a man’s wages to start me in a good school,” Hilsher explained, as reported in the Des Moines News. She added to the Oakland Tribune that “Everything was going lovely when I was arrested. We had moved to our homestead and were getting along happily. We were not doing anything wrong or bothering anybody and both of us were saving nicely. I cannot see yet what I have done to deserve arrest.”  
    
The judge opted to postpone the full trial of Helen Hilsher until September 1914. Helen returned to the home of her foster mother in Denver, and one newspaper reported that she had moved from there to Chicago. Anna Slifka remained at home with her family. Their story was seized upon by the press, eventually being connected to Jack Hill’s previous appearance in Wiggins. In her testimony in 1913, reported in a Denver newspaper, Hilsher declared before the court, “I still love Anna.”

* * *
    
Helen’s story is a challenging one for many reasons -- first of all, for its willing complication of the norms of its own time and ours. It would not be unreasonable to look at this story as a piece of transgender history, to take Jack Hill as a trans man. It may also be a queer love story -- the tale of a marriage for love and not merely, as the couple claimed at the time, money. It may equally be read as a story of women working together in service of their ambition, turning an insolent and androgynous face to the gendered systems that confined them. Or, perhaps, the truth of Helen-or-Jack’s gender and sexuality lies in the shades between all of these things, in their extraordinary Tiresian quality, the daring magnetism that, by all accounts, drew others towards it like a brilliant light.
    
Equal to the challenge of telling this story is knowing how to end it. I have so far been unable to find any news of the trial that was scheduled for September of 1914. What we do know is that after Helen -- or, indeed, Jack -- left Meeker for Denver and possibly Chicago, Anna Slifka remained, marrying a man named Fredrick E. Peaslee, 15 years her senior, on June 14, 1918. The records that remain of Anna after that are almost exclusively bound up with the records of the men in her life: her brother Victor’s World War II registration card, the censuses that note the births of her four sons. She lived out the rest of her life in the small town, and died on November 1, 1979, having been a widow for thirty years. She is buried under the same stone as her husband at Highland Cemetery in Meeker.
    
As to her ex-spouse, it has proven impossible to find any records of a Helen Hilsher, Helen Halstead, or a Jack or John Hill that can be definitively linked to the charming wo/man who had so shaken up small-town Colorado in the early part of the century. Efforts to locate the various people connected with the trial -- Dr. Helen or Nina Jones, E. P. Osborne, even John Davitt -- have either yielded nothing at all, or only information that is useless to the establishment of Helen’s movements after 1913. It is possible that she is simply camouflaged within the sporadic catalogues of marriages, births and deaths in the era; that she returned to society in traditional feminine garb and lived out her days quite conventionally, marrying (a man this time), perhaps producing unknowing heirs to her curious history. Maybe she, too, lies beneath a shared headstone somewhere in a cemetery on the prairie.  
    
This end for Helen Hilsher, however, seems unlikely.  
    
When questioned by the Oakland Tribune after her arrest, Helen declared of her time as Jack Hill that “I would not go through with it again for a million dollars. It is all a horrible nightmare to me now that it’s over and I am glad to be wearing dresses again like other girls.” We know what happened the last time she gave such an answer.  
    
It is not so impossible that, as the dust settled back over Meeker, a slight, handsome stranger walked into a distant town. He wore a halo of dark curls and a broad grin, and beneath the breast of his smart suit a roguish heart beats irrepressibly, irresistibly -- ready for a new adventure.