The Murder of Bessie Barclay’s Venturesome Spirit

The dangers of being a mentally ill woman in Edwardian America, who preferred to wear male attire

Heather Monroe
8 min readNov 23, 2019


Bessie Barclay, AKA Jean Thurnherr mugshots. Public Domain Photographs

Jeanne Miriam “Bessie” Barclay was born November 2, 1888, in West Virginia. Attorney Henry Augustus Barcley and his wife, aspiring painter and socialite Lily Adele Ward, adopted the little girl at 11 months old. The family lived in Los Angeles, California — a city Bessie later called “exceedingly dull.” Little did the Barclays know, their new baby daughter possessed an adventurous and untamable spirit.

The Saint Paul Globe
Saint Paul, Minnesota
04 Dec 1904, Sun • Page 10

Bessie’s parents provided her all the privilege and comfort afforded a girl of her social standing. But Bessie was a wild child, incorrigible even. She answered the call of misadventure every chance she got. “What in the world is the matter with Bessie?” her teachers asked. No one could answer, though Bessie herself believed it started around the time she found out she was adopted. Bessie was a bright girl, but she was expelled from school at the tender age of 13.


The Oregon Daily Journal
Portland, Oregon
31 Oct 1903, Sat • Page 4

Bessie never enjoyed being a girl, an important fact she wrote about often in her diary. In 1903, 15-year-old Bessie ran away for the first of many times. She only went to the port of San Pedro, likely to watch the ships come and go. In San Pedro, she donned a sailor’s suit and applied for a cabin boy position with a ship traveling north to Puget Sound.

“Have you ever been at sea?” asked the skipper.

“No,” replied Bessie, “but I want to sail. I can do the work all right.”

Bessie got the job. She did the work, just as promised, and even passed for a boy.

One blustery day, a gust of salty wind blew the cap from Bessie’s head, revealing a cache of golden tresses pinned carefully to her crown. The ship returned to port and handed Bessie over to the police.



Heather Monroe

Welcome readers! Heather Monroe is a genealogist and writer who resides in California with her partner and their nine children. •True Crime• History• Memoir•