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Sequatchie County High School

The Death of an Icon

Marsha P. Johnson and Her Unsolved Case

G Perry

English III B Block

Mrs. Layne

November 5, 2018
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What groups or communities make you feel at home? Well, for some of us, we have to

create or help create a community where we belong. Marsha P. Johnson did just that. For her, she

helped in the creation and liberation of the LBGT+ community. She worked most of her life as a

human rights advocate, only for the NYPD to quickly close her case after ruling it as a suicide

(Chan). But you probably have no clue what she did or why she would be so important as to

write a paper on her. Well, get nice and comfy and learn as I share the life and death of a

generous and grossly overlooked icon of the modern times. Note that I will be using “she/her”

pronouns to refer to Marsha even before she decided to use the pronouns herself in order for the

paper to remain consistent.

On August 24, 1945, Marsha (birth name: Malcolm Michaels Jr.) was born in Elizabeth,

New Jersey (Ryan; Chan). Now, Malcolm wasn’t your average little “boy.” When she was only

five years old, Malcolm began to wear dresses around the neighborhood (Kasino 00:07:53-

00:07:56). When she was around the age of thirteen, she was raped by a neighbor’s boy

(00:04:45-00:04:50). Deciding enough was enough and in need of a change in scenery, Marsha

decided to pack a bag of clothes and $15 and move to New York right after she graduated from

Thomas A. Edison High School in 1963 (Chan).

After coming to New York, Malcolm began working as the only job available to her: a

sex worker. (Chan). In need of more money as a poor, homeless sex worker, she began dressing a

little more femininely, effectively becoming a “butch makeup queen” (Kasino 00:14:36-

00:14:42). After the decision to become a queen was made, Malcolm decided on the drag queen

name “Marsha P. Johnson”, gaining the “Johnson” from Howard Johnson’s, a local restaurant she

would often hang out at (00:37:38-00:37:41). She later would answer what the “P” stood for in

her name with a snap of her fingers and a “Pay it no mind,” even when asked about it in court for
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charges of prostitution (Duberman 188). Shortly after becoming a butch makeup queen, Marsha

stumbled upon Stonewall Inn, a gay bar that was one of many gay bars in the United States that

had ties to organized crime, and became not only a full drag queen, but one of the very first drag

queens to show up to the bar (Haider-Markel; Kasino 00:14:36-00:14:42; Marcus 00:03:59-

00:04:01). After deciding on becoming a drag queen, Marsha began making outfits from

materials and clothing that she already had with anything else she could find in the trash (Kasino

00:10:27-00:10:32). Despite this, she was able to create the most unique and eye-catching outfits

anyone had ever seen, gaining the attention of anyone who happened to see her on her rounds on

Christopher Street (Chan).

Marsha also quickly gained popularity around Stonewall and Christopher Street for her

generosity, even gaining the nickname “Saint Marsha” (Kasino 00:22:50-00:23:04). She was

known for her genuine care of others and their lifestyles, which led her to giving money and her

own clothing to those she deemed needed and gaining interest and appreciation of others’

religions, despite being a devout Christian herself (00:23:00-00:23:09, 00:13:17-00:13:31,

00:41:51-00:42:01, 00:42:04-00:42:36). This made her an excellent example of the human rights

activist she was soon to be known as.

Life as a marginalized black, queer, gender-nonconforming, poor, homeless sex worker

was a hard one (Chan). Marsha was constantly arrested and would disappear for weeks to months

at a time (Kasino 00:35:30-0035:46). Not only this, but even other drag queens and sex workers

would harass her, calling her an “it” (00:14:21-00:14:33). So when the Stonewall riots began, it

gave her the perfect outlet to let out her frustrations.

The Stonewall riots were very important, albeit controversial, riots that were started in

order to fight against the police brutality at the time (Matzner 1). Although she is credited with
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the creation of the riot that began on June 28, 1969, the myths are not historically accurate, and

Marsha even denies them herself (Tran). Instead of throwing a brick or shot glass like in the

myths, Marsha worked together with her fellow “street kids”, becoming “the vanguard of the

movement”, as her friend and fellow activist Sylvia Rivera would later claim, not minding

“getting our heads bashed in” by the

police during demonstrations (Fig. 1)

(qtd. In The Death 00:15:59-00:16:12).

The Stonewall riots that she

participated in were the sparks of the

Gay-Rights Movement in America, but

they weren’t the only things she did to

help the LGBT+ community in her

lifetime. Marsha was also a member of


Fig 1. Marsha P. Johnsons (located left holding an umbrella)
the Gay Liberation Front and would attend
and Sylvia Rivera (located far right) demonstating with other
their meetings regularly (Duberman 235; gay-rights activists for Intro 475 (Manuscripts).

Kasino 00:15:28-00:15:34). Along with this, Marsha also helped with AIDS victims and the

stigma against AIDS victims during the AIDS crisis that primarily took place within the LGBT+

community (Kasino 00:39:48-00:40:03; Chan). Also, she helped create STAR: Street

Transvestite (now Transgender) Action Revolutionaries with Sylvia Rivera in order to help the

local transgender youth with a safe place to stay and means of getting food for the night as well

as clothes on their backs (Kasino 00:24:17-00:24:34; Chan). All in all, she was a very well

known political icon of the gay community during the 70s-90s. In fact, she was so famous that

the popular pop artist and photographer Andy Warhol painted and photographed Marsha’s
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portraits and included them in his “Ladies and Gentlemen” series of trans people’s portraits

(Ryan).

Despite all of her hard work, Marsha was still effectively homeless during the early 70s

(Kasino 00:07:53-00:07:56). She often resorted to sleeping in the movie theater on 42nd Street

while the admission was $.99 and underneath the flourists’ sorting tables in the NYC Flower

District (00:08:44-00:9:31, 00:08:19-00:08:24). She didn’t have a guaranteed place to sleep until

Randolf “Randy” Wicker’s “adopted son” Roy asked if she could stay due to the freezing

temperature outside (00:09:45-00:10:08). Randy had met her years ago while writing an article

for The Advocate on her while she was in a mental institution for taking drugs, and thus

originally had a negative perception of her, but allowed her to stay, and she stayed with him for

twelve years (Marcus 00:04:51; Kasino 00:09:45-00:10:08, 00:10:05-00:10:08, 00:20:13-

00:20:25). He grew to like her and became a close friend of hers, but whenever she would have

to leave the “gay apartment” they lived in, she would have to leave the building in “normal”

clothes used to cover her drag clothes while she made her way to Christopher Street to work for

the day (Kasino 00:11:39-00:11:48, 00:11:49-00:12:12). Everything at this point had been

pointing to Marsha’s life getting better, with her gaining popularity as a cultural icon and gaining

stable housing, but these pleasant times were not meant to last.

On July 6, 1992, Marsha’s body was found floating in the Hudson River (Chan). The

NYPD quickly ruled the cause of death as a suicide, which was questioned by the many people

who knew her to not be suicidal at the time (Chan). Unsatisfied with the police’s decision and

feeling like the police brushed off the case, a small memorial was held around where her body

was pulled and a parade was organized in order to honor Marsha and protest how the police had

handled the case (The Death 00:13:45-00:13:49, 00:12:32-00:12:39). Now it wasn’t out of place
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for “street walkers” to disappear and their cases to run cold, but considering how popular she

was, many people believed it to be a covered up murder (00:45:11-00:45:27; Ryan). Later in

1992, police reclassified her cause of death to be drowning from unknown causes, but no further

investigation was done (Chan). Although there is no cold, hard evidence of how Marsha has died,

many theories have sprang up throughout the years.

First and foremost, the initial assumption the police made was suicide (Chan). Although

she had her history of mental breakdowns before she passed, many of her friends and family did

not believe she committed suicide. When asked about the possibility of Marsha taking her own

life to be the cause of death, Randy Wicker stated: “... it certainly was not suicide. That was an

insult to the family,” (The Death 00:12:23-00:12:26).

If not suicide, then what? The overwhelmingly popular (Chan). Although it’s not 100%

proven, there’s a large quantity of evidence to make a case for it. Towards the end of her life,

Marsha was expressing concern of the the mob being after her (The Death 00:14:42-00:14:48).

This brings up the question: why would the mob be after her? Well, it's very well known that

Marsha was very close to Randy Wicker, and around the time Marsha was expressing her fear of

the mob after her, Randy was working on his campaign to expose and replace the members of the

Christopher Street Festival Committee (00:57:49-00:57:56). The reason Randy wanted to expose

them was because they were rumored to not only be part of the mob, but also to have been

pocketing the money earned from the food and merchandise stands located at the end of the pride

parades that was supposed to be donated to charity organizations (00:58:03-00:58:20). Although

he had good intentions, Marsha complained that Randy was trying to mix her up in the drama

and that knew messing with the mob could get someone killed, and she wanted no part in it

(00:56:23-00:56:57). The only problem, it seems. with this theory is that Marsha was the one
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who died, not Randy, who was the one who was actively challenging the Committee. Although it

seems like an easy theory to shut down because of this, there is a surprising twist. In The Death

and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, Victoria Cruz, the Anti-Violence Project (AVP) employee who

tried to find an answer to the case found a very interesting callt to AVP (01:01:44-01:05:18). In

the report, a threat was made that what had happened to Marsha was going to happen to Randy

as well if he was to continue his campaign against the members of the Christopher Street Festival

Committee (01:01:44-01:05:18). Although not solid proof, it does help back the murdered-by-

mob case that's most widely accepted to be the true cause of death of Marsha.

Another case of rooted in murder has been made as well. Although the evidence to back it

is a little scattered, the possibility of murder by a your average Joe is also plausible. The AVP

received a report from a man by the name of Rodger McFarlane on the 5th of July that Marsha

was being followed by two men by the Hudson River (The Death 01:03:45-01:04:35). Although

it conflicts slightly with McFarlane’s report, Randy also did his own investigation and found

some interesting evidence of his own in 1992 (Randolph). Randy was informed that an

eyewitness to the scene reported seeing a single suspect and later reported the scene to the police,

but very little was done about it (Randolph). To go along with this, five years later, the same

suspect appeared in a Christopher Street bar (Randolph). The suspect boldly claimed that he was

luring gay men into taking him into their houses, where he would rob them and he suspect also

hated “faggots” and was not only happy to kill them all, but had done so in the past, specifically

saying he had “put a number of them into the water,” (Randolph). Again, the evidence of an

average Joe being a murderer who killed Marsha isn’t the best, but it’s something.

Finally, the last theory as to what caused Marsha’s death is it just being an accident. In

The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, Victoria Cruz had Dr. Michael Baden look at
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Marsha’s autopsy report (The Death 01:23:32). One fact that was discovered from the autopsy

report was that Marsha was confirmed to have been alive and breathing when she first went into

the water (01:23:34-01:23-30). Another fact that was discussed was that the hole in Marsha’s

head was most likely caused by debris bumping into her while her body was floating in the warm

water of the Hudson River, according to Dr. Baden (00:05:33-00:05:36, 01:23:34-01:23:38).

Along with this, Marsha’s body did not have any other physical or impact injuries, ruling out the

possibility of a violent assault, but not homicide (01:24:03-01:24:15). In fact, “poss[ible]

Homicide” was written and circled on the autopsy report (01:22:14-01:22:17). Dr. Baden also

explained that even if she was to have fallen into the river by complete accident, if she was being

followed or chased at the time, her death would still be counted as a homicide (01:25:09-

01:25:20). Whether or not it was an accident or a malicious attempt to kill her and make it look

like an accident, we’ll never know unless someone confesses or the police find the answer in

their investigation.

No matter the way Marsha passed, the news of her death was still a tragic, heartbreaking

event to her friends, family, and fans. For many, she is a source of inspiration for the those who

identify with parts of her life and identities. Thankfully, we can hope to see Marsha gain her

rightful justice in the future, as the NYPD officially reopened her case in 2012 in order to

investigate the case with a fresh, new look (Chan). Nothing new has came up in the case since it

was reopened, but anyone affected with her passing will hopefully get to know what happened to

the great, generous, and lively Marsha P. Johnson. Rest in power, Marsha.
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Works Cited

Chan, Sewell. “Marsha P. Johnson.” Overlooked, The New York Times, 8 Mar. 2018,

https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/obituaries/overlooked-marsha-p-johnson.html.

Accessed 24 Oct. 2018.

Duberman, Martin. Stonewall. New York, Plume, 1994.

Hairder-Markel, Donald P. “Stonewall uprising.” World Book Advanced, World Book, 2018,

www.worldbookonline.com/advanced/article?id=ar755678. Accessed 23 Oct. 2018.

Kasino, Michael. “Pay It No Mind - The Life and Times of Marsha P. Johnson.” Youtube, 15 Oct.

2012, www.youtube.com/watch?v=rjN9W2KstqE.

Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library. "Intro 475 demonstration at

City Hall, NYC (Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson, Jane Vercaine, Barbara Deming,

Kady Vandeurs, Carol Grosberg)." The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e3-c6ba-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.

Marcus, Eric, host. “Marsha P. Johnson & Randy Wicker.” Making Gay History, season 2,

episode 2, Making Gay History, 2018, www.makinggayhistory.com/podcast/episode-11-

johnson-wicker/.

Matzner, Andrew. “Stonewall Riots.” glbtq, 2004, glbtq 2015, pp.1,

www.glbtqarchive.com/ssh/stonewall_riots_S.pdf.

Randolph Wicker. Description on “Marsha P Johnson - People’s Memorial.” Youtube, 29 June

2011, www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Kmv0twbaGM.

Ryan, Hugh. “Power to the People: Exploring Marsha P. Johnson's Queer Liberation.” Hugh

Ryan, 7 Sept. 2017, http://www.hughryan.org/recent-work/2017/9/7/power-to-the-people-

exploring-marsha-p-johnsons-queer-liberation. Accessed 23 Oct. 2018.


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The Death and Life of Marsha P Johnson. Directed by David France, performances by Randy

Wicker, Matt Foreman, and Dr. Michael Bade, Netflix, 6 Oct. 2017, Netflix,

https://www.netflix.com/title/80189623.

Tran, Chrysanthemum. “It Doesn’t Matter Who Threw the First Brick at Stonewall.” them., 11

June 2018, www.them.us/story/who-threw-the-first-brick-at-stonewall. Accessed 24 Oct.

2018.