The Woman Who Changed New York Politics (As A Man)

“As far as I’m concerned, being any gender is a drag.” —Patti Smith

In A Nutshell

Throughout the 19th century, Tammany Hall was one of the most important political organizations of a booming city—New York. It was a time when women were restricted to duties relating to the home and children, so it’s not surprising that the discovery that one of Tammany Hall’s most vocal—and loved—members, known around town as a solid, hard-working, learned man, was actually a woman. His own daughter didn’t even know about her father’s secret, and sadly she never accepted it, either.

The Whole Bushel

Tammany Hall was a major player in the political scene of the United States; the organization, which had started mainly as a social one, controlled much of New York City throughout the 19th century. Occasionally social, occasionally corrupt, and always at the forefront of Democratic politics, one of the strangest stories to come out of Tammany Hall was that of Murray Hall.

Murray Hall was one of the staple figures throughout the New York City political scene of the late 19th century. Never running for office, Hall was always more comfortable behind the scenes; he was always seen playing poker with politicians and prospective politicians, drinking whiskey and smoking cigars with remarked-upon gusto while making deals to put the right people into office. Some of the most famous photos of Murray Hall show him casting his vote, all the while encouraging other good Democrats to do the same—for his chosen candidate, of course.

Hall was also a rare book collector, often seen in high-end city shops purchasing books for his second wife. Later, he’d appear in public in the shops and at dinner with one or two other women on his arm. That second wife, Cella, passed away in 1898, and Hall would often lament her loss while drunk.

He knew politicians and he made careers, was arrested for assault, and made no secret of his hatred toward his first wife. He was well-read, had a temper that could turn vicious, was more comfortable talking about others than about himself, and often gave the impression of wealth—especially when it came to buying books. Those who knew him, knew him as a solid, good man, and he’d made plenty of friends as part of the Iroquois Club and the General Committee of Tammany Hall.

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It was only after his death in 1901 that the coroner released some news that shocked not only the New Yorkers who had known him, but his closest friends in Tammany Hall and his adopted daughter.

He was a she.

Murray Hall had been born Mary Anderson, a Scottish orphan who made her way to America disguised as her dead brother. The charade continued for decades, as Murray Hall changed and made the landscape of New York City’s politics.

The scandal was huge, not the least of all because Hall’s own adopted daughter didn’t have a clue her father was really a woman; according to all sources, she never, ever admitted such. Hall’s wife had presumably known, but had taken their secret to the grave.

Mary’s ultimate downfall was a tragic one. Not surprisingly, visiting a doctor was out of the question, and unfortunately, no bookseller questioned it when she began to purchase books on science, biology, and surgery. No one knew that she was researching the growth of tumors and injecting herself with morphine in an attempt to slow the cancer that was eating away at her breast. Eventually the doctor was called, but it was too late—after years of self-treatment, Mary had only a short time left.

She died in 1901, at the end of a 25-year reign in New York City politics. She left her daughter a small estate worth about $5,000, and was ultimately buried in women’s clothes.

Show Me The Proof

Smithsonian: The Mystery of Murray Hall
NY Times: Murray Hall Fooled Many Shrewd Men
New York Tribune: Murray Hall Inquest Closed
George Washington University: Tammany Hall

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