Unequal pay for women ably performing the same jobs as men is unfair and idiotic. Why the sex of an employee reduces their pay should be a mystery to all, especially when most men can relate stories of male co-workers receiving equal pay despite being underperformers, shirkers, or just plain lazy. But the issue is nothing new. Faced with a need for self-supporting income in the 1870s, a northern New York woman didn’t wait for society to grant her equality. She instead chose her own path: going undercover in a man’s world. In doing so, she may have also found more happiness than anyone realized at the time.
But life for our subject was difficult from the start, and some of the particulars remain unclear. She was born between 1847 and 1850. One source claimed her parents were Sarah and Samuel Otis of Saratoga Springs, but it was revealed decades later that Sarah was an unwed mother when her daughter was born. It was common practice back then, and even into the mid-1900s, for anyone unwed and pregnant to leave their home area on a trip, an extended vacation, or to visit relatives—just three of many stories commonly used as a cover-up to avoid society’s shame.
Sarah took it a step further, moving to Canada, where the baby was born, and leaving her daughter there for about thirteen years (presumably with a family or relatives). It wasn’t revealed who fathered the child, but within a few years of returning to Saratoga Springs, Sarah married Samuel Otis, a man 24 years her senior. She kept her love child a secret until Samuel passed away in the late 1860s, at which point Sarah’s daughter began living with her in Saratoga Springs.
However, census records reveal two puzzling entries in 1870: living with Sarah Otis was a male 15-year-old Canadian native, Charles Warner, working as a painter and paperhanger. In reality, “Charles” was Sarah’s daughter, who was in her early twenties. Also living with them was a female 14-year-old domestic servant by the name of Alice Shaw. It required plenty of sleuthing to uncover some of the details thus far, but with those unusual living arrangements revealed, the plot had certainly thickened.
For the next five decades, Charles “Charley” Warner lived and worked as a well-known painter and paperhanger in Saratoga County and the surrounding area, providing services in many hundreds of homes. He toiled mostly for Willis Guernsey’s firm and the Walter Prescott Paint Company, both of Saratoga Springs, but also had periods of self-employment towards the end of his career.
In the mid-1920s, Charley’s life began to unravel. Without savings to provide for his needs in old age, he was committed to the Saratoga County Farm (the poorhouse) in April 1927. He complained repeatedly about being housed in the men’s wing, saying he belonged with the women. Administrators believed he was suffering from the early stages of dementia, so when a very frustrated Charley walked away from the home a year later, Saratoga Springs police were sent to track him down. He refused to return to the county facility, and by order of the deputy commissioner of public safety, he was taken to the home of a longtime friend, Harriet Lee, at the Geysers.
But after about six months, Charley left, bothered by what were described as “strange hallucinations regarding Mrs. Lee.” He was again picked up by police and taken to the public safety office, where Dr. Charles Small, city health officer, determined that Warner’s troubles were due to mental issues. Small sent him to the Utica State Hospital (originally titled the New York State Lunatic Asylum) for a complete examination, which yielded unexpected results.
Charley, it turns out, was actually a woman, whose explanation for passing as a man all her life was deemed reasonable and entirely sane: “When I was about 20, I decided that I was almost at the end of my rope. I had no money, and a woman’s wages 60 years ago were not enough to keep me alive. I looked around and saw men getting more money and more work, and more money for the same kind of work women were doing. I decided that I would become a man. It was simple enough. I just put on men’s clothes and applied for a man’s job. I got it, and got good money for those times, so I stuck to it.”
When the news broke in Saratoga Springs, clients and lifetime friends were stunned by the news. Some recalled that many decades earlier in Troy, Charley had married a woman named Alice, but had lived with her for only a few hours. No further details were offered, adding further to the mysteries surrounding Charley’s life, but it’s possible the marriage did occur. If not, it’s merely coincidence that the person living with Sarah and Charley back in 1870 was named Alice. At that time, Charley’s age was given as 15, which appears to have been intentional on the part of her mother—anyone doing the math would then calculate that Charley was legitimate, having been born during the years when Sarah and Samuel were married. But he/she was actually in his early twenties at the time. According to all subsequent records, Charley aged 13 years between 1870 and 1875, when she was actually 28.
Now about 82 years old and preferring to be known as Jane to the staff at Utica, she recounted only bits from her past. Wearing male clothing, she said, had been the norm for her since the age of 10, but the conscious decision to live as a man only came when she was about 20 and in need of a living wage. It was a ruse she maintained for more than 60 years. At the time, she hoped to support herself and her destitute mother, but it didn’t work out. In a peek at Charley’s own future, Sarah had been committed to the county poorhouse in 1888 when she was 77.
But her commitment wasn’t entirely Charley’s fault, as Charley appeared to be covering other expenses as well. Records reveal that by 1875, Jane—as male, 28-year-old Charley Warner—was married to female, 32-year-old H. M. Warner, and that by 1890, Charley was a widower. For three decades to follow, Charley Warner continued living as a man, painting and wallpapering countless homes into old age. No source was ever provided for the surname Warner (perhaps her biological father’s name?).
With one exception, all other records, including the 1870 census information provided by her mother, placed Charley’s birth in Canada. After his true gender was revealed in 1828 at the Utica State Hospital, his personal information was revised by that institution, recording the name as Jane Warner and, for reasons unclear, giving the birthplace as New York. Charley passed away in early 1933, and wouldn’t you know it? According to cemetery records, the gravestone bears the name Charles Warner.
In light of what has changed in recent times for the LGBT community, and the continuing struggle for pay equality, it could be said that Charley/Jane outsmarted society a century and a half ago. If she was lesbian—even if she couldn’t be one openly way back then—she beat the system by marrying a woman. And if she was straight, she finessed the unfair wage system by passing successfully as a man all her life, earning the same pay that males received. Either way, although it’s not a solution open to most people, it was a gutsy thing to do.
Photo: Headline, Seneca County News (1928)