The Mystery of Murray Hall

Hall realized his death would set off a national political scandal, inspiring the genuine wonder that he had never been what he seemed

Murray Hall at the ballot box
Murray Hall at the ballot box Feedloader (Clickability)

One afternoon in mid-January 1901, Murray Hall called a doctor to his home in lower Manhattan, ordered his maid and daughter to stay out of the parlor, opened the buttons of his gray morning coat, and waited to hear how much time he had left. The doctor saw that the cancer on Hall’s left breast had scythed a path clear to the heart; it was only a matter of days. Hall realized his death would set off a national political scandal, and perhaps he took small comfort in knowing he’d escape the aftermath, all the ceaseless queries and lurid speculation, the pious condemnation and bawdy jokes, the genuine wonder that he had never been what he seemed.

Murray Hall, a Tammany politician with a secret

He could predict every story they’d tell. Murray Hall had been a savvy fixture in New York City politics for 25 years, shaking every hand in the 13th Senatorial District, rustling up the vote for Tammany Hall. And indeed, he was right: after his death they’d discuss how, on Election Day, he—they couldn’t quite say she—had actually cast a vote, posing for a photograph at the ballot box; how bold, how brazen that a woman would appropriate the franchise. How strange to think there might be others, too.

One of Hall’s old nemeses, Abraham Gruber, Republican leader of the 17th Assembly District, quipped that there should be a law requiring Tammany captains to “wear whiskers” so no woman could ever cast a ballot again. “You Tammany fellows are a very clever lot,” added State Senator John Raines. “I don’t wonder you pull such an overwhelming vote down there, when you can dress up the women to vote.”

Hall seemed to take solace in habit and was selectively fastidious. If he set down his hat in the middle of the floor, his maid knew not to touch it. He spent his days at Jefferson Market Police Court furnishing bonds for prisoners and his nights at various saloons around the city, playing poker and guzzling whiskey and plotting against Republicans, wisps of cigar smoke fogging his face. Get him drunk enough and he turned his thoughts inward, offered small glimpses of his private self. How he loathed his first wife and missed his second, the latter dead now for nearly two years; they had adopted a daughter and raised her together, a smart girl of twenty-two who shared his quick temper. Get him drunker still and he reversed course, turning outward again, hurling his voice (oddly falsetto, it must be said) across the room, flirting with any woman who passed, once accosting two policemen on the street, putting a “storm cloud draping” under one officer’s eye before they managed to cuff him. His long, tapered hands had the grip of a giant’s.

It was a remarkable deception, but there had been clues—slight clues, the sum of the parts falling far short of the whole. Hall’s face had always been uncommonly smooth, his frame Lilliputian, his feet so small he had to custom-order his shoes. He wore a coat two sizes too large, lending a boxy heft to his shoulders. One old acquaintance recalled him practicing his penmanship, smoothing out flourishes so it appeared to be “in the hand of a man.” He had a secret fondness for romance novels. He once entered a bar on Greenwich Avenue with a woman on either arm, and the three seated themselves at a table in the rear. The bartender took the orders of Hall’s companions, and then turned to Hall and asked, “And what will you have, little old woman?” Hall called the bartender a dozen unprintable names, threatened to throw a bottle at him, and had to be restrained.

There was something else, come to think of it: Hall had grown uncharacteristically reclusive in the past few months, skipping meetings down at the Iroquois Club, cutting back on his bail-bond business. One person saw him more often than most, C.S. Pratt, proprietor of a Sixth Avenue bookstore. Hall had been a loyal customer for years, taking his time perusing the shelves, usually selecting a tome about medicine, including an 1881 volume entitled The Art and Science of Surgery. He always asked to study the books at home before he purchased them, and if they proved to his liking he would pay any price Pratt asked. “He was well read,” Pratt said, “and had no use for light literature.” The bookseller never suspected the desperate nature of Hall’s collecting. Imagine Hall rummaging through the pages, feverish, frantic, memorizing recipes and gathering ingredients: arsenic, conium, iron, iodine, lard, ointment of the hydriodate of potass. He highlighted a passage about physical collisions accelerating the growth of tumors, and sent a letter to the district attorney complaining of being struck by a man on a bicycle. Perhaps he followed the instructions about applying pressure to the breast but still could feel the tumor leaking through his skin, smell its deadly perfume. He must have calculated how much morphine he could inject without losing control of a scalpel. Three months ago, when he had run out of options, he sold every medical book in his library one by one.

Every private moment, real or perceived, was twisted and turned and held up to the light, but in the end Murray Hall told no stories of his own—not even to his daughter, who refused to call her father a “she.” A month after Hall’s death, sexual psychologist Havelock Ellis dug at the roots of his life. Murray Hall was Mary Anderson, born circa 1840 in Govan, Scotland, an orphan who fled to Edinburgh and eventually to America, wearing her dead brother’s clothes. His colleagues offered tributes to the press (“She’s dead, the poor fellow!” exclaimed state Senator Barney Martin), but none of them would attend his funeral. Late on the afternoon of January 19, the undertaker collected Hall from the parlor of his home and brought him to Mount Olivet Cemetery. For the first time in forty years he was dressed in women’s clothes, in death becoming a different kind of imposter, this time against his will.

Sources: Havelock Ellis. Studies in the Psychology of Sex, Vol. II. New York: Random House, 1937; Samuel Cooper and David Meredith Reese. A Dictionary of Practical Surgery. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1854; “Amazed at Hall Revelations.” Chicago Tribune, January 19, 1901; “Serum Treatment for Cancer.” New York Times, June 25, 1895; “Mystery of Murray Hall.” New York Tribune, January 19, 1901; “Tell-Tale Hands.” Boston Daily Globe, January 21, 1901; “Wife’s Relatives Amazed.” Boston Daily Globe, January 20, 1901; “Whiskers for Tammany Men.” New York Times, January 20, 1901; “Death Revealed Her Sex.” New York Tribune, January 18, 1901; “She’s Dead, the Poor Fellow!” New York Tribune, January 19, 1901; “Murray Hall Fooled Many Shrewd Men.” New York Times, January 19, 1901; “Murray Hall’s Funeral.” New York Times, January 20, 1901; “Woman Lives as Man.” Chicago Tribune, January 18, 1901.

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