Who is Edith Chapman? Utah’s early LGBTQ+ History in a Salt Lake City House

By Kelsey Neeley, Salt Lake Community College

A charming yet unassuming house in Salt Lake City is just one historic property that contributes to the East Side Historic District, and it carries with it a small but significant piece of Utah’s history. The East Side Historic District includes almost 300 acres of preserved history of architecture, social and religious history, and development. Constructed in 1906 this Victorian Eclectic single-family dwelling sits on an original 10-acre block in the East Side Historic District and would have housed Utah’s middle working class. This historic building has been associated with the mainstream rich and varied history of Utah, but this property is significant for another lesser known but equally important history.

The Chapman boarding house still stands today looking out on Liberty Park. Photo courtesy Google Maps 2022.

During the 1920s, the simple home at 900 South and 615 East was owned by Edith Mary Chapman, who in today’s nomenclature would have been a member of the LGBTQ+ community. Edith is the daughter of dentist Arvis Chapman and Sarah Ann Briggs survivor of the Martin Handcart Company trek of 1856. After the death of her parents, Edith Chapman inherited this house and property in 1923. Throughout the course of her ownership of the property, Chapman opened her home as a sort of boarding house to other Queer – an inclusive term for LGBTQ+ people – women and was informally known as such.

Among some of the first boarders was an instructor at the LDS School of Music, Grace Nickerson. Other residents would include Dorothy Graham, whose family owned a restaurant where she worked, and which was known to host occasional drag performances by men. What is known about the residents of the boarding house is largely due to Mildred “Barrie” Berryman’s personal writings and informal study of homosexuals, The Psychological Phenomena of the Homosexual, which would be partially published in 1978. In 1924, Barrie moved into Edith’s boarding house after becoming her romantic partner. The boarding house became the center of Barrie’s investigation into the psychology of homosexuality, her notes outline conducting interviews with 24 women and 9 men who reportedly identified themselves as nonheteronormative.

Eventually, Edith and Barrie would go their own ways but not after creating a space for the community in Salt Lake City. Edith moved to California in the early 1930s to continue her academic career after working as a Critic Teacher for the University of Utah. Meanwhile, Barrie would turn her scientific inquiries toward mineralogy and settling down in Woods Cross with her life partner, Ruth.

Being LGBTQ+ is not a requirement to celebrate Utah’s Queer history. After all, a slew of Queer identities has existed throughout all of Utah’s history. Many indigenous people of the Utah region held space for androgynous and intersex identities within their society but would experience persecution for such identities at the arrival of European explorers and settlers. Likewise, Latter-Day Saints experienced persecution for their polygamous sexual identities, though not practiced by every member it was an integral part of Latter-Day Saint belief and practice of 19th century Mormonism. Today LGBTQ+ people still face such political and societal maltreatment for being perceived as different. Though the term Queer is new, the concept is not, and has taken many different forms among many different cultures. This historic property on Salt Lake’s east side is a physical representation of just that, Utah’s interconnectedness despite differences in culture, it is a cause for the solidarity of all Utahans and a reason to celebrate our diverse and unique heritage.