In September 1906, Constable Donnelly of Brisbane arrested William Edwards on a warrant from Victoria for burglary. The policeman already knew Edwards, a popular and personable barman at a city pub. Donnelly made the acquaintance of the short, slightly built Bill Edwards 14 months before.
However, in all that time, he never suspected, until informed by a witness, that Bill Edwards was a woman.
The arrest caused a sensation with “Little Willie” the toast of Brisbane. Women showered him with gifts and sent him love letters. The public subscribed money to his defense case.
Back in Melbourne, with the burglary charges dismissed, Bill cashed in on his fame and took to the stage as ‘The Far-famed Male Impersonator’.
A year later he penned his ‘memoir’ under his birth name, a fictionalised version of his life, designed to entertain.
Life and Adventures of Marion-Bill-Edwards, the most celebrated Man-Woman of Modern Times. Exciting Incidents… Strange Sensations told in a Graphic Manner by Herself.
He posed for photos in both men’s and women’s clothing to illustrate the book.
Although he normally chose not to wear female attire, Bill had no aversion to it.
Indeed, he once very deliberately turned up to a court appearance dressed as a woman, and when satisfied with the resultant sensation, reverted to men’s clothes.
Despite a certain masculine swagger, he apparently looked quite fetching in a dress.
Born in country Victoria in 1874, Marion Edwards became Bill in early adulthood.
“I don’t think the world is much of a place for women.
“They have the same tiresome graft day after day; the same tucker (what the old man and the kids can’t eat!) . . . And no amusements.
“That sort of thing would have killed me if I’d fallen into it.
“I’ve worked like a navvy or a n*****; but it didn’t seem much hardship when I remembered that I had freedom.
“I could have remained a servant — sweated and bullied day and night.
“Instead, I’ve managed to make a decent living at men’s work.” Bill worked hard in those jobs doing everything from house painting to sheep shearing.
He said his first romance happened before he began dressing as a man, while working as a waitress aged just 17.
“I had my first love affair. It was not with a man, but with a woman.”
He also claimed he ‘made hot love’ to many women.
He wrote of his time in Brisbane, “I was a regular ladies’ man, and I derived great fun making love to the barmaids, housemaids, in fact anything that wore a skirt.” Evidence aplenty attests to his success with the ladies.
For a start, he married one. On New Year’s Day 1900, William Ernest Edwards married Lucy Minehan at St Francis’s Catholic Church Melbourne. Although they soon separated, they remained close. Lucy spoke to reporters about her husband in 1906. “She liked her own sex — and they liked her. “In fact, the girls ran after her, for she was a nice man with nice ways that attracted… “Everywhere she went, the girls fell in love with her, never dreaming, of course, that she was a woman.”
But did the women not know?
Despite all Bill’s romantic attachments, not one woman ever accused him of trickery or betrayal. Indeed, they all seemed to remain devoted to him after the end of the relationships.
Perhaps it is telling that both Lucy in 1906 and Annie McClelland in another court case in 1916 referred to Bill as ‘she’ while nevertheless denying knowledge of his gender.
(Annie shared her bed with Bill for the three months prior to her statement.) It suggests the women knew the truth, but to admit it would raise suspicions of sexual shenanigans and that simply would not do in the early 1900s.
Bill continued to work hard all his life in a variety of occupations — horse trainer, bookie, and in hotels and factories. In his later years, neighbours knew he was a woman but nevertheless accepted him as ‘an old gentleman’.
Sadly, when he moved into a geriatric home in his declining years, the establishment forced him to wear women’s clothes — a true travesty.
Bill died three days after his 82nd birthday having lived life to the full.
As to his gender identity, perhaps the last word is best left to Bill.
He appeared in 1916 as a witness in a sly-grogging case involving his landlady, the aforementioned Mrs. McClelland.
After the prosecutor referred to Bill as a ‘reputed’ and an ‘alleged’ woman, Judge Box became determined to know his gender.
After failing to elicit a definitive answer from Annie, he demanded of Bill, “What are you?”
“A poultry dealer,” answered Bill.
When the judge persisted Bill explained the situation perfectly.
“That is immaterial, sex not being of special account in sly-grog selling.”
Judge Box shut up and judged the case before him.
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