Jeanne or Jean Bonnet was born in Paris but moved to San Francisco with their family as part of a French theatrical troupe. By the time Bonnet was fifteen, he was in trouble for fighting and petty thievery, and was placed in the Industrial School, San Francisco’s first reform school.
As an adult, Bonnet was arrested dozens of times for wearing male clothing, an illegal act that got him frequently mentioned in the press. Bonnet “cursed the day she was born a female instead of a male,” according to newspaper accounts. He was quoted as declaring, “The police might arrest me as often as they wish—I will never discard male attire as long as I live.”
Bonnet spent much of his time on Kearny Street and made a fairly good living by catching frogs and selling them to French restaurants in downtown San Francisco. In 1875 he began visiting brothels, convincing the women to leave prostitution and form an all-female gang. Together they supported themselves by shoplifting. One of these gang members was Blanche Buneau or Beunon, who had just arrived from Paris.
Bonnet and Blanche moved to McNamara’s Hotel in San Miguel, just outside of San Francisco, to keep Blanche safe from a threatening ex-lover. On the evening of September 14, 1876, Bonnet was lying in bed waiting for Blanche when a shotgun blast came through the window, killing him instantly. It was eventually determined that the shot was meant for Blanche and was the act of either a jealous lover or a pimp wanting to kill Blanche as “an example to the other girls.” Unfortunately, neither theory was ever proven. The women of San Francisco’s red-light district came out en masse for Bonnet’s funeral.
“Brevities.” Daily Alta California (San Francisco) 17 Dec. 1875, Volume 27, Number 9388: California Digital Newspaper Collection.
“By State Telegraph.” Sacramento Daily Union 16 Sept. 1876, Volume 2, Number 177: California Digital Newspaper Collection.
Mullen, Kevin J. “The Little Frog Catcher”, The Toughest Gang in Town: Police Stories From Old San Francisco. Noir Publications, 2005: 150-5.
Rupp, Leila J. A desired past: a short history of same-sex love in America. University of Chicago Press, 1999.
The San Francisco Lesbian and Gay History Project. “ ‘She Even Chewed Tobacco’: A Pictorial Narrative of Passing Women in America”. A slide show based on primary research by Allan Bérubé, edited and reprinted in Martin B. Duberman, Martha Vicinus, and George Chauncey. Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past. New York: New American Library, 1989: 183-194.
Zagria. “Jean Bonnet (1849 - 1876) frog catcher.” Web blog post. A Gender Variance Who’s Who: Essays on trans, intersex, cis and other persons and topics from a trans perspective. Blogspot, 9 Jan. 2012. 2012.