Today’s post was written by Netisha Currie, archives specialist at the National Archives in College Park, MD.
The wonderful thing about the massive amounts of paper that the National Archives has is that there will always be another story to uncover. At the beginning of this year, I came across the article “The First Drag Queen was a Former Slave” by Channing Gerard Joseph, a fellow Oberlin College alum. In it he introduces us to William Dorsey Swann, the first reported drag queen and queer activist in the United States. The article makes reference to a pardon from President Grover Cleveland, and that is where I decided to pull on the string to see what could be found in the Pardon Case Files (NAID 572806), RG 204.
The Pardon Case Files hold almost 1,000 cubic feet of textual records dealing with people who petitioned for Executive Clemency (or a pardon) from the President of the United States. Files can include letters of recommendation for a pardon; correspondence with Congress, governors, or other state officials; reports about the person’s trail; and reports or affidavits from various officials or allies of the petitioner regarding their conduct.
After consulting indexes for the series, I located two case files that could be related to William Swann. The first, J-202, Dorsey Swan (NAID 165128485), contains an application for pardon for the offense of petty larceny. In 1882, Swann pled guilty and was sentenced in September to six months in jail for stealing books from the Washington Library Company, and one month for theft of objects from the home of Henry and Sara Spencer, heads of the Spencerian Business College where Swann was employed.
Interestingly, the next month the Spencers and employees at the Washington Library Company petitioned the President for William Swann’s pardon. The petition gives great detail of the incident and circumstances of the petty larceny, and is very generous in describing Swann’s character: “…he was free from vice, industrious, refined in his habits, and associations, gentle in his disposition, courteous in his bearing…”. The petitioners also note that he was trying to improve his education and provide for his family, and that the Spencers would happily offer lifetime employment as the college janitor. The petition was endorsed by the judge that sentenced William Swann to six months (other people involved in the theft were already released on bail while he remained incarcerated), and the Assistant US District Attorney recommended the pardon. The file however does not reveal if the pardon was ever granted.
The second Pardon Case File I located was P-532, William D. Swan (NAID 165128484). In this file, the federal record reveals one of the points where Swann makes queer history. The existence of these papers is the first instance where an “American [took] specific legal and political steps to defend the queer community’s right to gather without the threat of criminalization, suppression, or police violence.”
On January 1, 1896, William Swann was charged with “keeping a disorderly house” (known to be a euphemism for running a brothel). Newspaper accounts of the day reveal that Swann was actually holding a drag ball (as noted in this clipping from the Evening Star).
After pleading not guilty, a speedy trial and conviction followed on January 3, 1896, and he was sentenced to 300 days in jail, to expire with good time in September 1896. Three months into his sentence, Swann filed a petition of pardon pleading that he was a respectable hard worker with a long record of continuous employment, that the sentence was severe to the crime, and that if released he would “live a proper and law abiding life.” Thirty of his friends and allies (also possibly members of the drag or queer community) signed the petition in a show of support.
Unlike the one filed in 1882, this petition of pardon was not met favorably by the US Attorney. A. A. Birney broadcast the stark disapproval of the life that William Swann lived, stating:
“This petition is wholly without merit. While the charge of keeping a disorderly house does not on its face differ from other cases in which milder sentences have been imposed, the prisoner was in fact convicted of the most horrible and disgusting offences known to the law; an offence so disgusting that it is unnamed. This is not the first time that the prisoner has been convicted of this crime, and his evil example in the community must have been most corrupting.”
While still pending presidential review, the friends of Swann started to call the US Attorney’s office expressing concern over his health. In July, the same doctor that had given him a clean bill of health in March reported that Swann had a disease of the heart, and that the conditions in jail endangered his life. President Grover Cleveland denied to issue a pardon on July 29, 1896, stating, in summary, that the implications of his health were not sufficient to counter the character of his offense.
Although the pardon was not a success, William Dorsey Swann continued to throw balls and thrive as the Queen of Drag, lasting at least until the turn of the twentieth century.
 All information regarding William Dorsey Swann’s life not documented in the Pardon Case Files is derived from this article. A biography, House of Swann: Where Slaves Became Queens, is forthcoming.