In the year 1885, after B. Morris Young returned from the second of what would be three missions for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in the Hawaiian Islands, he began performing publicly as a female impersonator under the stage name of Madame Pattirini. Madame Pattirini, styled as a famous Italian soprano, has recently gained queer icon status in social media and through the sale of Madam Pattirini Small Batch Gin, made by Ogden’s Own Distillery in Ogden Utah, which uses the 1901 image of Young’s now famous postcard as its label. This photo has circulated along with a few sneers, side-eye emojis, and more than a few comments posing questions like, “I wonder what his father thought?!”
Young’s father, Brigham Young (the second LDS church president and first Utah Territory governor) didn’t have the opportunity to form an opinion of his 35th son’s stage persona, as he died in 1877, more than a decade before Morris began performing publicly. However, we do have a few clues as to how his father-in-law, Lorenzo Snow (fifth president of the LDS church), may have perceived the act, as Young performed as Madam Pattrini at Snow’s 87th birthday party in April of 1901. According to the Deseret Evening News, Young’s performance was the centerpiece of the evening’s entertainment, and the adoring an unsatisfied audience demanded an encore. I assume from this that Snow was not appalled, even if he was not among the patrons clamoring for more.
“They didn’t see anything scandalous about it at all, “according to Benjamin Park, an assistant history professor at Sam Houston State University. “In the public view, it was seen as a form of performance.”
Connell O’Donovan, a historian working on a historical profile of drag performances in Utah from 1871 to 2021, notes that performances by female impersonators were common in the United States during this period. He estimates more than 200 men performed in women’s dress in Utah between 1871 and 1931 (1931 being the year of B. Morris Young’s death at the age of 77). O’Donovan has found documentation indicating only 10% of these performers were gay, and no evidence that Morris was homosexual. “He was just a performer,” O’Donovan told the Salt Lake Tribune, “and I think performing drag was something he did because it was a good time. It was just a hobby for him.”
These performances were not what modern fans of B. Morris Young may imagine. The acts were comedic in nature, relying on exaggeration and misogynistic tropes to draw laughs. Nor were they performed “underground” or as protests against mainstream culture. Religious scholar Taylor Petrey notes, “Many of his performances were on stages in LDS meetinghouses for all ages.”
The female impersonators of the late 19th century and early 20th century were not celebrating gender nonconformity. In fact, it is possible the humor of their performances centered around the desire of the dominant culture to enforce conformance. At least, it occurs to me that this time period overlaps with the contentious suffrage movement. In Utah, women had gained (1870), lost (1887), and finally regained the right to vote in 1896, 24 years before the 19th U.S. Constitutional amendment was ratified. Women’s suffrage was more positively regarded in the Utah Territory than in other states as many hoped the enfranchisement of Utah women would improve outside views of the plural wives of Utah polygamists as “downtrodden, weak and uneducated,” as stated in the Deseret News at the time. Still, when acting governor S. A. Mann signed the law granting enfranchisement to the white women of Utah, he noted his “very grave and serious doubts of the wisdom and soundness” of the decision by the Utah legislation, accentuating the common national sentiment by those who saw women’s suffrage as an unwanted disruption of the status quo.
I recently attended a show at the Gallivan Center here in Salt Lake City titled “Drag is for Everyone!” sponsored by Quorum of the Queens and X96. There were performances by queens and kings, and the audience was largely composed of families. I noticed that the children in attendance were having a particularly good time dancing and presenting the performers with dollar bills. Mostly I was struck by the joy in the shared experience of performers’ exploring and presenting their gender identity and the audience’s reveling in the music and sparkle of the night. I thought about B. Morris Young and his (in my opinion) undeserved celebration as part of this drag movement that is at the center stage of American politics in addition to literal stages right now.
It seems to me that Young entertained with a spirit of meanness, not joy. This meanness is exemplified by another fact that may not be appreciated by B. Morris Young’s modern fans: Madam Pattrini was not his only character. In fact, the performance most celebrated by the Deseret Evening News article from 1901 was a portrayal of a Chinese diplomat. “There was no one present who could prove that he was not talking in Chinese, because no one understood that language, but he gibbered away in a lingo that sounded very much like the vernacular of the celestials… The second time he carried on a political conversation that was supposed to have taken place between two Chinamen on a train. Once had a very deep basso voice, while the other had a high treble, and the manner in which Mr. Young carried the animated debate out was amusing in the extreme.”
Opposers of LGBTQ rights and drag performances today often state that their concerns are for children who might be exposed to sexual immorality. Studies show, however, the true danger targets trans youth who are at much greater risk of hate crime violence, self-harm, and suicide than their cis-gendered peers, a fact which does not seem to concern the authors of anti-trans bills proposed in record numbers in 45 states this year. This Pioneer Day, I wanted to suggest that – as performances by female impersonators were viewed as harmless to all audiences more than a century ago – perhaps it isn’t the children that are in danger, but the status quo.
Happy Pioneer Day!
Deseret Evening News April 4, 1901