Unlocking History

Woman who sought ‘boy’s life’ lands in San Quentin in 1909

Side and front mug shots of a woman with board that says 23767 Jean Thurherr, Age 20, Burg 1st Deg., 1 yr.
Jean Thurnherr, 23767, made headlines a few years earlier when she went by "Bessie" Barclay. She ran away from home, dressed in men's clothing and took jobs under an assumed name. Her father, a prominent judge, struggled with how to deal with his rebellious child. After escalating crimes led to burglarizing homes in 1909, she landed in San Quentin's Women's Ward. Her diary, in which she described the excitement of a boy's life, was used in her trial.

By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor
Office of Public and Employee Communications

Jean “Bessie” Barclay, daughter of a prominent attorney, found life for women in the early 1900s limiting and stifling. Bucking conventional customs of the time, she frequently ran away from home as a teenager, disguised in male clothing. She claimed to be seeking a life of adventure, not one at the beck-and-call of men.

In modern society, her fate would probably have been very different but in that time period, a woman wearing men’s clothing and taking on men’s jobs was unacceptable. By 1911, she found herself under a doctor’s knife to supposedly cure her penchant for thievery.

Girl seeks adventure abroad

“Police catch runaway girl,” declared the headline in the San Francisco Call, Dec. 11, 1903. “Sixteen-year-old Bessie Barclay, daughter of attorney H.A. Barclay of Los Angeles, was detained in (San Luis Obispo on Dec. 10) upon arrival of the train from Los Angeles by City Marshal W.G. Johnson, upon the request of the young woman’s father.

“Miss Barclay was made the guest of the marshal’s family and during the day, upon pretense of taking a walk for exercise, she made an attempt to escape by walking several miles on the railroad track. She was recaptured and now awaits the arrival of her father on tonight’s train.

“Miss Barclay admits that she ran away from home some time ago and donned boy’s clothing, being away about two weeks and creating a sensation in her home city. She disclaims any intention of wrong doing further than to be adventuresome.”

She made headlines again a few months later, working on a road crew.

“Pretty Bessie Barclay … who persists in wanting to be a boy and has repeatedly run away from home to masquerade in male attire and whose detainment in San Diego was reported in yesterday’s Herald will be brought back to her home in (Los Angeles) today,” reported the Los Angeles Herald, Feb. 1, 1904.

“Three weeks ago the police found Miss Bessie working on the Sunset boulevard grade for Stansbury Bros., the contractors. She had been gone from home for 10 days and it was her fifth attempt to be a boy.

“Rigged out in overalls and jumpers, she was industriously plying a shovel … to smooth out some of the rough spots on the new boulevard. She was taken to the city prison and after a few days in charge of the matron, she promised to go home and be good. Her boy’s clothes were taken from her and, attired in the usual garments of her sex, she went back to her parents’ roof.”

An illustration shows a woman in men's clothing. Beside it is a photo of herself wearing women's clothing.
A newspaper illustration shows Jean “Bessie” Barclay in men’s clothing when she was caught working as a bellhop. The illustration is shown beside a portrait of herself. Circa 1904.

Tracking the teen

This time, she was home for four days.

Police Officer W.B. Craig was put on her trail. First he tracked her down to a boarding house, but she had fled. He found she left behind her “frock and gown and lingerie.”

The officer then traced her to Ocean Grove, “where it was found that she had been camping out, this time with a companion, evidently a girl also disguised as a boy. The next heard of her was when, under the name of Roy Parker, she and her girl friend, who called herself Jack Parker, had secured jobs on (a) steamer … as mess boys. At San Diego, they left the ship and registered at the Helping Hand Home, a cheap waterfront lodging house.”

Again, she gave law enforcement officers the slip. She and her companion were gone by the time officers arrived at the lodging house.

Crossing the border

“It was found they had gone to Tijuana on the Mexican border. There Bessie Barclay got tired of the country and returned to San Diego, where she was arrested and placed in jail to await an officer (to) bring her home.

“‘Jack Parker’ is a (16-year-old) girl … whom Bessie Barclay picked up on the road between Los Angeles and Ocean Park. She stated her name was Jessie Penwood and that she traveled in boy’s clothes because she could get over the country with less trouble than if she wore a dress,” the paper reported.

Barclay’s parents decided to “place her in a detention home under order of the court on a charge of incorrigibility, where she will be kept confined until she is of age.”

In August 1904, she was caught stealing men’s clothing.

“Bessie Barclay … has been arrested by the police of San Jose because of her fondness for male attire,” reported the Los Angeles Herald, Aug. 19, 1904. “Bessie has been in various escapades and has run away from home frequently, always with the same mania for wearing boy’s clothing and her fondness for the habit has put her in the hands of the San Jose police on a charge of stealing a suit of boy’s clothes.”

Barclay swiped boy’s clothing from her employer. The store owner didn’t press charges but her parents were weary of her antics. Her father said he was “unable to render any further assistance.”

Humane Society officer Nat Weinberg took her in “with the hope of reforming her,” according to the San Francisco Call, Aug. 25, 1904.

Prison booking photo of Jean Thurnherr with number 23767 written on a board.
Jean Thurnherr, aka Bessie Barclay, found herself in San Quentin in 1909. She was 20 years old at the time.

Thievery lands her in San Quentin Women’s Ward

“The court proceedings was the culmination of a life of adventure which began five years ago when Mrs. Thurnherr, known as Bessie Barclay, the adopted daughter of Judge Barclay, ran away from home on the discovery that he was not her father, and, dressed as a boy, led the life of a cow puncher, elevator man, errand boy, sailor and other occupations,” reported the San Francisco Call, June 15, 1909.

“She strikes a pathetic chord when in her diary she tells of her leaving home on the discovery that Judge and Mrs. Barclay were not her parents. ‘Well, something in me broke right then. … I heard all out-of-doors calling me and I wanted to run away from home, from the foster parents who had been so good to me, from the friends and acquaintances who had all along known that I was not Judge Barclay’s real daughter. I wanted to go out into the world and stand on my own two feet.'”

She also wrote about feeling different.

“But I had never been as other girls. I loved the games of boys and not the pastimes of the girls. I hated girls’ clothing with all its fuss and muss. When I was a little thing mama used to let me romp in boy’s overalls and I cried every time she put me into a dress,” her diary stated.

Riding under gunfire

“Her story of her adventures through Mexico and Arizona would fill a book. On one ranch in Arizona she was shot by (someone) who attempted to kill her partner, ‘Pokerchip Charley,’ with whom she was riding the range,” the newspaper reported.

Thurnherr wrote, “The fellow was after Pokerchip, but missed him and hit me, giving me a flesh wound in the arm. I was afraid they’d find out I was a girl if I laid sick very long, but the wound soon healed and I took to roving again.”

She headed north but was detained again on the request of her father. That’s when she discovered her mother had passed away during her absence.

“I cannot write of the sorrow her death caused me. I suppose the shock of this sort of thing was necessary to show me I have duties as a daughter. Though, only the adopted daughter of a motherless household. If only the law would let me fulfill those duties instead of trying to curb my venturesome spirit. But, there’s no use in pretending otherwise. It’s a boy’s life and a boy’s opportunities and above all, the wide, free life of the mountain range that appeals most to me.”

She was sentenced to one year in San Quentin State Prison on Sept. 8, 1909, and released a year later.

Doctors seek to ‘cure’ thief

After release, she ended up in trouble. This time she landed in the county jail for swiping items from a local jeweler. She was allowed to leave jail to undergo a drastic procedure known as trephining.

Doctors claimed her thieving ways were the result of being thrown from a horse when she was a bronco buster.

“The exact spot in Mrs. Thurnherr’s skull which will be operated upon is about midway between the ears and the back of the head,” reported the San Francisco Call, March 29, 1911.

Doctors believe the injury caused “pressure on the brain, which developed the mania for theft,” the newspaper reported.

“Three square inches of skull was removed … performed by a trio of physicians. Surgically the operation was a complete success. (The doctors) believe the young woman will be permanently cured of her mental waywardness, which has led her to … San Quentin prison,” reported the Mariposa Gazette, April 22, 1911.

Surgery was unsuccessful

In September of that year, she was picked up again on theft charges, this time in Los Angeles. She had saved enough to purchase a train ticket to attempt a reconciliation with her father. While in town, she was arrested.

Even though she was using the alias Alice Taylor, the surgeon assumed it was Thurnherr. He said he still believed she was cured, acting out of desperation.

“They went to the fruit fields. (Her husband) found work picking fruit, while his wife peddled trinkets in the street. … Now comes the story of theft. … If it is true, it is plain that the child was hungry,” Dr. Hubert Rowell told the San Francisco Call, Sept. 28, 1911. “The girl is worth saving.”

She was committed to Patton State Hospital in early 1913. By May of that year, the hospital’s superintendent said Thurnherr would be released because he couldn’t rule her as insane.