Jeanne Bonnet: Cross-dressing Frog Catcher

The same year French socialite Juliette Récamier died was the same year that Jeanne Bonnet was born in Paris. At the time Bonnet’s father belonged to a French theatrical troupe. The troupe decided around 1852 to relocate to San Francisco, and Bonnet’s father decided to move with the troupe and took his family with him to California.

Bonnet had been educated for the stage, and so after arriving in San Francisco she played in various juvenile parts and became a theatre favorite. Unfortunately, soon after the move, Bonnet’s mother died. To make matters worse Bonnet’s 16-year-old sister was incarcerated in the State Insane Asylum where she died too. Bonnet’s father, who was disabled, then left to find work in Oakland in the mid-1860s and it did not take long before the abandoned Jeanne Bonnet found herself in trouble.

Jeanne Bonnet - American Theatre role

Newspaper theatre advertisement showing Jeanne Bonnet in the role of the May Queen in Daily Alta California, March 4, 1864. Author’s collection.

With no adults in her life and her sister not with her, newspapers reported that she then became wayward often getting drunk and fighting. By the time she was fifteen, she was sent to the San Francisco reform school, the first school of its kind in San Francisco and called the Industrial School.* According to the San Francisco Chronicle the school “opened in May 1859, to great acclaim and high hopes,”[1] but unfortunately, it was “brutal and corrupt” with most inmates being from immigrant populations.

San Francisco’s Industrial School. Author’s collection.

In the late 1800s, the French were the largest minority in San Francisco (nearly 30,000) and the city had more French restaurants than any other city in the world. After her release Jeanne Bonnet decided to take advantage of this fact and began working as a frog catcher hunting for frogs in Lake Merced. It enabled her to earn a good living supplying French restaurants with the delicacy that they then served with clarified butter, lemon juice, and garlic.

Bonnet also began to assume male attire just like English actress Charlotte Charke did in the 1700s. Purportedly the main reason why Bonnet dressed like a man was to catch frogs, although in her male attire she could have also easily passed for a boy of eighteen. Of this fact The San Francisco Examiner stated:

“She was called little because for a man she was small; for a woman she was of medium height, strong but slender. Her brown hair slightly curly, was kept closely cropped; her face was tanned brown by the sun; her dark gray eyes had a steady penetrating glance, in which there was a mixture of hardness and kindness. Her general appearance was that of an exceedingly wise, shrewd and independent lad who had grown to be a man before ceasing to be boy. Her hands were small, but brown with tan and hardened by the basket. In her dress she was careless, for her work would not permit neatness. For trousers she commonly wore overalls; above these a shirt of dark wool and a rough sack coat; a boy’s shoes and a boy’s black woolen hat completed her outfit.”[2]

Although she claimed the main reason for wearing male attire was her job, she was also strong-minded, liked to flaunt conventional laws, and thought the prohibition against women wearing men’s clothing “arbitrary and oppressive.” She also saw female attire as too restrictive for frog catching and argued that trying to catch frogs with trailing skirts was impossible. Nonetheless, the law at the time stated that the clothing a person wore had to match a person’s sex at birth.

Jeanne Bonnet catching frogs

Jeanne Bonnet catching frogs. Author’s collection.

Because Jeanne Bonnet constantly violated the law by dressing in male attire, she was arrested numerous times. One of her first arrests resulted in the Daily Alta California reporting the following:

“The case of Jennie Bonnet, the female frog-catcher, who was arrested for appearing on the street in male attire, was called. Her counsel entered a plea of guilty, and in mitigation stated that the girl’s business was frog-catching, and that she could not, without great inconvenience, follow her vocation in proper attire. He would promise, however, that she would not again be seen in the frequented portions of the city in male dress, but would doff the clothes after day’s work was concluded. The Court then imposed a fine of $10, which was paid at once, and Jennie departed in peace.”[3]

Although her attorney may have claimed that she would “doff” her clothes at the end of her workday, she did not. The continuing arrests also did nothing to deter her from dressing as a male and neither did the ever-increasing fines that she was saddled with for her male-dressing crimes. Moreover, she was often beaten up, derided, and mocked for wearing male attire, which also did not stop her from declaring several times to friends that her wardrobe would never change and in fact according to the St. Louis Globe-Democrat:

“On one occasion she stated in open Court that the police might arrest her as often as they wished, and the Court might send her to jail, but that she never would change her dress as long as she lived.”[4]

In 1875, Jeanne Bonnet got into more trouble. She began visiting brothels and convinced some fallen women to leave prostitution. Perhaps one reason why she may have wanted to help prostitutes, was that she was a fallen woman too. According to the San Francisco Chronicle in January of 1872:

“Jeanne Bonnet, a French woman of ill-fame, last evening made an attempt to end her existence by taking laudanum. She has for some time past been living with a man at No. 930 Kearny Street. Last night, about 9 o’clock, her paramour, on reaching the house, heard groans proceeding from the bed-room. Going inside he discovered that she was breathing very heavily and acting as if in great pain. He ran out and notified Dr. Johnson, who found that she had taken laudanum. Restoratives were applied, and about an hour afterward she was resting quite easy. Loss of money and property are supposed to be the causes of the rash attempt.”[5]

Jeanne Bonnet dressed as a male

Jeanne Bonnet dressed as a male. Author’s collection.

Whatever her exact reasons for encouraging prostitutes to leave their brothels, some reports alleged that she and some prostitutes formed an all-female gang. To support themselves the women then shoplifted and committed other crimes. Details of the all-female gang and their crimes were provided by the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph in the 1930s:

“At night they dressed in men’s clothes and, carrying guns, they raided warehouses, stores, hotels, the Coast dives, gradually piling the cellar of their house with loot. But the Vigilantes began to look out for the mysterious band and a couple were shot one night. ‘Women in men’s clothes,’ screamed the papers. ‘Look out for women bandits.’ … And from then on fashionably dressed women frequented jewellers and other rich stores, coming away with stolen loot hidden in their full skirts. At night the prettiest of them would stroll through the Coast and let herself be ‘picked up’ by a likely looking man. They would be shadowed by other members of the gang until they reached the first secluded spot. Then the escort would be slugged, robbed, stripped, and left for the police to find next morning.”[6]  

As interesting as this account is, it appears to be a 1930s invention not based on reality. However, among the women who supposedly agreed to be part of this gang was a new Parisian arrival, Blanche Beunon. Born in 1852 as Adèle Blanche Beunon, she became lover to Arthur Deneve (sometimes spelled Denene). He was a thin man with a mustache and glossy black hair. Purportedly he worked as an acrobat and circus performer and settled in San Francisco where he became member of the Clodoche circus troupe, although he later claimed he opened a chemical distillery.

There are some reports that Deneve married Beunon (although that appears to be untrue as a marriage certificate issued to him shows he married a woman named Annette Barnay). Nonetheless, the story goes that because he greatly disliked Jeanne Bonnet he told Beunon to stay away from her. Beunon promised she would but a month or so later she resumed her friendship with Bonnet and Deneve didn’t take it well:

“He took to drink, and broke up housekeeping. He discovered that his wife had pawned many valuable articles, and that all his money was gone. His friend rallied around him, gave him a benefit, obtained $500 for him, and got him an engagement in Havana.”[7]

The same night that Deneve supposedly left for Havana,** 14 September 1876, was also the same night that 27-year-old Jeanne Bonnet died. According to the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, Beunon and Bonnet were going to bed when the incident happened:

“Jeanne called for a glass of liquor, after which the landlord was requested to arrange a blind which had fallen. Jeanne sat on a chair smoking a pipe. When the landlord left, the two women undressed. Jeanne sprang into bed while Blanche was unlacing her gaiters. Jeanne was in the act of drawing the clothes over her when there was a crash of glass, followed by report of a firearm. Blanche exclaimed, ‘My God! what is that?’ Her companion replied, ‘Blanche, I am struck by a bullet. It is ended; I die; I follow my sister.’ Assistance was at once called, but ere it arrived, Jeanne, ‘the frog catcher,’ was dead.”[8]

Another version published in 1893 by the San Francisco Call provides slightly different details:

“On the night of the 14th of September, 1876, Jeanne and Blanche met in McNamara’s saloon,*** a wayside resort at San Miguel, now called Ocean View, and at 9 o’clock the two women went into an adjoining room to retire for the night. A shade at the window had fallen, and McNamara was called to replace it, but in doing so tacked it askew. The lower end hung so that any one standing on the road could look into the room. Jeanne had got into bed and Blanche was seated on the edge unlacing one of her shoes. There was a knot in the lace and Blanche leaned forward to untangle it, when a shot was fired through the window, the charge entering at the point where the shade was aside. The charge of buckshot passed behind Blanche and lodged in Jeanne’s body, and she died in a few minutes.”[9]

Map of San Francisco in 1876. Public domain.

There were several different versions as to who had ordered the murder and why. The first was that Bonnet had arranged for Beunon to escape Deneve by staying at the farm of a French-Canadian, Pierre Louis (also sometimes referred to as Louis Dufranaut), and his wife Carolyn. Supposedly, Deneve had bribed Louis with $2,000 to kill Beunon to get even with her for leaving him. However, when detectives arrived Louis and his wife had absconded having resettled in Canada where he paid $900 in cash for a farm.

Another story was that a wealthy Italian merchant on Market Street was infatuated with Beunon and spent a great deal of money on her. He wanted to marry her if she remained faithful but when he learned she had taken up with Bonnet, he decided to kill her. His plot was then foiled when she leaned forward and the bullet struck Jeanne Bonnet instead.

A third version was that Bonnet was the actual target. There were two differing explanations as to why. The first was that Deneve wanted to get even with Bonnet for having persuaded Beunon to leave him and the second explanation was that Jeanne Bonnet had interfered with and discouraged prostitutes from working at French brothels and pimps paid Louis to kill her.

There was also the following published in the Los Angeles Evening Express that pointed to another person somehow being involved in Jeanne Bonnet’s murder:

“A man named [Ernest] Gerard, a friend of Arthur Denene, who have been living with Jennie’s companion, was arrested last night on suspicion of being concerned in the murder, or at least knowing something about it, as he had frequently made threats against the lives of both women, but he affirms his entire innocence and ignorance. The inquiry is being actively prosecuted.”[10]

Two days after her death, Bonnet’s funeral was held. It was a small affair with women from San Francisco’s red-light district in attendance. Bonnet was buried afterwards at the Odd Fellow Cemetery but in the 1930s her body was transferred to the Greenlawn Memorial Park in Colma, California, when nearly 26,000 graves were reburied in a marked mass grave designated as the “Odd Fellow Section.”**** At the time of Bonnet’s death the Daily Alta California gave a one-line report:

“The funeral of the girl, Bonnet, took place yesterday afternoon, from the Morgue, and was largely attended by the peculiar circles of her acquaintances.”[11]

At autopsy conducted by the San Francisco Coroner Swan noted that eight pieces of buckshot were discovered inside her and that she had two exit wounds. Further information about the autopsy resulted in the following reported being published in the Daily Alta California:

“The deceased was lying on her right side, and the shot was fired across her feet and diagonally to the bed. Six shots struck her; one in the left side, another fracturing the collarbone, and two entering the left arm, the lungs etc. The wound in the neck severed the large vein and alone would have proved fatal. The principal wound was produced by the ball that entered the left side between the sixth and seventh ribs. It severed the large intestine and pierced the stomach, diaphragm, and heart, and lodged in the upper lobe of the left lung. The Coroner’s autopsy results in proof of six shots having been received; five bullets are in his possession and one remains in the body, not yet extracted.”[12]

An inquest was held and four days after the murder with no new information, which was indicated by what the Sacramento Daily Union published:

“The jury found a verdict to the effect that she came to her death from a gunshot wound inflicted by parties unknown.”[13]

As to Blanche Beunon, she was discovered about a year later by an officer of the law in “utter destitution and dying from an incurable disease of the throat.”[14] He ordered her taken to the County Hospital where it is believed she died after suffering from throat cancer.

Despite evidence pointing directly to Deneve and his friend as being the involved in the murder of Jeanne Bonnet, her murder would never be solved. However, supposedly, in late 1879, the chief detective, Captain J.W. Lees, received a letter from Louis’ wife after he committed a brutal assault against her. Carolyn said that she feared her husband and confirmed that Louis had killed Bonnet. Supposedly, Lees rushed to Canada to arrest Louis but found that he had committed suicide a day earlier by hanging himself.


*Today the site where the school once stood is the main campus for City College of San Francisco. 
**Some reports state that he snuck back into San Francisco and killed Bonnet.
***Today it would be located at Sickles Street and San Jose Avenue.
****To learn more about the transfer of these bodies visit Odd Fellows Cemetery – Colma

References:

  • [1] G. Kamiya, “Corrupt, inhumane reform school was SF’s first form of juvenile justice,” San Francisco Chronicle, March 17, 2018.
  • [2] W. C. Morrow, “The Story of the Little Frog Catcher,” The San Francisco Examiner, March 27, 1892, p. 19.
  • [3] Daily Alta California, “Police Court,” August 1, 1874, 8887, p. 1.
  • [4] St. Louis Globe-Democrat, “Tapped on the Shoulder,” December 14, 1876, p. 2.
  • [5] San Francisco Chronicle, “Seeking Death,” January 31, 1872, p. 3.
  • [6] Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, “How the ‘Queen of the Shanghaiers’ Snared Unwary Sailors,” February 23, 1941, p. 76.
  • [7] St. Louis Globe-Democrat, p. 2.
  • [8] Ibid.
  • [9] The San Francisco Call, “The Frog Catcher,” May 2, 1893, p. 8.
  • [10] Los Angeles Evening Express, “The Bonnet Murder,” September 16, 1876, p. 2.
  • [11] Daily Alta California, “Coroner’s Intelligence,” September 17, 1876, Number 9660, p. 1.
  • [12] Daily Alta California, “Murder at San Miguel,” September 18, 1876, Number 9659, p. 1.
  • [13] Sacramento Daily Union, “Murder of Jeanne Bonnet,” September 18, 1876, Number 178, p. 1.
  • [14] The San Francisco Examiner, “Another Unfortunate,” April 6, 1877, p. 3.

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