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Of vice and female impersonation – meet Ernst, victim or perpetrator?

IToday, I’d like you to meet Ernst Algot Frank. At the age of seventeen, he was arrested in Malmö as part of a major razzia against men who “indulged in immoral practices”. Ernst Frank and various other men were arrested on a square that “everyone” knew was used for casual hook-ups, seeing as it was the centre for Malmö’s tram traffic (? Yes, I was confused too. But because there were a lot of people moving about, it was probably safer to pick someone up there. I wonder if they used some sort of signal to indicate they were interested?)  The group had been under surveillance for some time, ever since someone reported to the police that there were odd, round holes in the walls of the public lavatory at one of the railway stations. Said holes were at hip level—and I am sure we can all understand what they were used for.

The men in question were mostly upstanding men who ran various small businesses. One was a printer, another traded in paper of all qualities, and Ernst Frank himself was an errand boy. Not that anyone would ever consider any of these men upstanding ever again—after all, they’d been more or less caught in the act of enjoying sex with other men, and in 1911, this was a serious, serious crime.

Ernst Frank admitted he had been paid for his services. Quite a lot, actually, making far more money through his sexual services than his normal job. One of his customers was actually the one who shopped him, this despite having been with Ernst Frank at least twice. Maybe he avoided prosecution by throwing the very attractive young man into the arms of the police.

During interrogation, Ernst admitted he’d been doing this since the age of thirteen. He came from a poor home, his father had abandoned the family some years back and his mother was an alcoholic. By selling himself, Ernst was able to move into his own living accommodations. The police were somewhat horrified: such a young man—a mere child, really—and already so doused in sin.

Karl Johan Lidberg, aged 17 (photo Policemuseum in Stockholm)

Ernst wasn’t the only youngster who dabbled in sin. In Stockholm, we have the case of Karl Johan Lidberg whom the police kept a very narrow eye on—especially after he’d stolen a wig to complement his female persona. Karl liked to dress up as a woman—now and then to manage to sneak in to homes and steal—but while it wasn’t forbidden for a man to dress up in ladies’ clothes, the vice detectives back then knew exactly what this was about: illegal sex. Except quite often it wasn’t.

You see, in the last few decades or so of the 19th century and a decade or so into the 20th century, people flocked to theatres to see female impersonators, i.e. men who dressed like women and then performed. Some received rave reviews in the newspapers for their “exquisite femininity”. Drag, dear peeps, was a thing already back then—and it attracted big audiences.

Now, there was nothing new with men impersonating women. Male actors had been playing female leads for centuries, but as real women began to embrace thespian careers, men who had previously made their living playing female roles had to find a new niche. Suddenly, the female impersonator had to become the actual show, which often led to a higher level of comedy in the acts. The Pantomime Dame was born, even if some female impersonators preferred a more artistic content, entertaining through song or dance.

Karl Johan Lidberg as Charles Liedberg, his stage name

Initially, the female impersonators came from the Continent or from the UK. Over time, local talent took over, and by the early 1900s, the performers were mostly young Swedish men who dressed up as a woman—hence Karl Johan’s theft of a wig,  a very pretty redhaired wig that would complement his outfit. Karl Johan had quite some success as a female impersonator, and while he ended up in prison regularly (for vagrancy and theft while dressed as a woman) there are no convictions for sexual crimes. Nor is there any proof that he was homosexual. He was, however, labelled by the police as having  “immoral and unnatural tendencies” – shorthand for homesexual.

Becoming a female impersonator allowed homosexual men to build themselves an official persona, live out some of their suppressed desires. Not that all female impersonators were gay -far from it.

Many establishments hired a female impersonator to entertain their customers throughout the day. Very appreciated. But while some came merely to watch, others came hoping to connect, maybe find someone who shared their desires—the ones the police labelled as unnatural and disgusting.

Some of these female impersonators seemed to have acted as facilitators between men looking for more than a little dance. When Ernst and all those other men were arrested in Malmö, they shared one common acquaintance: Sami B, who by then had a long career as a female impersonator—and as a sex worker. Sami was considered very pretty, with “soft, fluffy hair, big eyes and a petite body”. He excelled at presenting himself as a beautiful woman and was especially lauded for his excellent voice—he even sounded like a woman!

Ernst Frank in dress-up.

Ernst Frank himself posed in female attire (picture from the Police museum—the police would do regular razzias at photographers to collect pics of potentially suspicious characters). Not that he seems all that invested in this pic—he doesn’t look all that feminine, does he? But he admitted to the police that quite often he would powder his face and use make-up, don a female garment and stroll down the streets to pick up customers.

Carl August (photo from the Policemuseum in Stockholm)

In Stockholm, Carl August Lundström also dressed up as a woman—but he invested much more of himself in this than Ernst ever did. Once again, the police kept a narrow eye on him, because he was often seen hanging around one of Stockholm’s parks, Humlegården, where it was known men met other men for assignations. It wasn’t only men dressed up as women who offered services: young soldiers from a nearby regiment were also known to troll for customers among the flowerbeds and shrubs. Most depraved, in the opinion of common man (and woman). Carl August was arrested on at least one occasion for ending up in a fight with the young soldiers—clearly, neither party appreciated the competition.

Carl August doing his female impersonation (photo Policemuseum Stockholm)

Obviously, homosexuality was as common back then as it was now but most kept their inclinations secret—they had to. I imagine there were many discreet love stories between men (and women) playing out in the salons of the entitled. And if you were rich enough,  you could hire someone to come to your home, safe from any peeping toms or morally indignant people.

The problem for Ernst and Karl and Carl August was that they were poor and thereby obliged to do their work on the streets, offering their services in public lavatories with holes cut through the outer wall.

Due to his age, Ernst was sentenced to only six months of hard labour. The men arrested with him all got between four and eight years hard labour—plus their lives were permanently ruined.

Once done with his sentence, Ernst made his way to Stockholm but found it hard to find a job—which led to him being arrested again for vagrancy and shipped off for a further 12 months of hard labour. Yay him.

In 1922, Ernst was arrested yet again. In the in between years he’d signed up for military duty (yes, at the regiment close to Humlegården) then progressed to janitorial jobs. But he apparently still offered sexual services, even if he tried to argue that he no longer charged for them, so reasonably there was no crime. Except there was, seeing as he’d been having sex with a man. Yet again, Ernst ended up in prison.

What happened to him after his third prison sentence we do not know. The last “sighting” we have of him is in 1928 when he arrives in a US harbour from Toronto. According to the Customs documents, Ernst stated he’d spent the last four years working a ship’s cook.  After this, he disappears, and I can’t help but hope that he somehow found a home and a better life over there, in the land of dreams, than the one he left behind here in Sweden. But we will never know.

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