Monday, March 11, 2019

Lamenting what we'll never know about Phyllis J. Stalnaker Harris

This is a post about Phyllis J. Stalnaker Harris.

She died 58 years ago, in January 1961, at the age of just 35. That probably would have been the end of it. An anonymous woman originally from the Midwest who died young after living a non-notable life in California, away from the spotlight.

But Phyllis was "revived." With the help of the internet. Decades after she or anyone else could advocate for her.

She didn't quite suffer the ignominy of becoming a full-blown meme. But her existence was nonetheless reduced to a punchline.

The image of Phyllis at the top of this post is a cropped-in version of her police booking shot from decades ago. It was featured on a wall at the San Diego Police Museum earlier this decade, and it appears to have been first noted on Twitter in November 2013.

But it really springboarded into the internet consciousness in October 2014, when her image was the main one accompanying an article on San Diego City Beat headlined "San Diego Police Museum seeks a new home." Phyllis is the dominant image and the lead of the story by Susan Myrland:
"She was a weedhead and a tramp. In 1944, that was enough to get Phyllis Stalnaker arrested. Her booking photo shows a pretty young woman sporting a jaunty striped top with a herringbone blazer and fashionably dark lipstick. She gives the camera a wary glance."
Weedhead and tramp. Ha ha, said some on the internet. Tweets, Pinterest posts, Tumblr posts, Reddit threads, Facebook posts ... many full of snark ... spread Phyllis' face across cyberspace. Weedhead, tramp. Weedhead, tramp. Weedhead, tramp. The only words tagged to her short life.

But of course that wasn't her whole life. Not hardly.

The thing is, we'll never know most of her history. But here's what is available, from online sources such as Find a Grave.

  • She was born Phyllis J. Stalnaker on October 19, 1925, in Nebraska (possibly in the vicinity of Columbus).
  • Her parents were Archie Laverne Stalnaker (1900-1946) and Mildred Clara Crawford Stalnaker (1907-2001). Mildred was a seamstress and member of the San Diego Zoological Society. She's buried in Mount Hope Cemetery.
  • She had a young brother, Gorden Rex Stalnaker, who lived from 1927-2007 and served in the Navy in World War II, and two other brothers: Darrell D. Stalnaker and Archie L. Stalnaker.
  • Shortly before her 15th birthday, she was seriously injured after being thrown from a horse. (That's per the October 10, 1940, issue of the San Diego Union.) That would have been about four years before her arrest.
  • At some point she married James Harris and they lived at 7575 Pacific Avenue in Lemon Grove, California (San Diego County).
  • She died on Jan 2, 1961, in San Diego, California. No cause of death was cited, though she was in a hospital when she died. Her service was in a mortuary, not a church. She's buried in Mount Hope Cemetery. According to her obituary, she had lived in San Diego County for 25 years at the time of her death. She did not have any children. Her three brothers were all living in Lemon Grove at the time of her death.
That's about it. There have been a half-dozen or so Reddit threads about her over the years, most of them riffing off her mug shot and charges. Rarely anything serious, although I did find this cached comment from about four years ago:
"Funny to some of us now because we take our freedoms for granted. But in 1944 in San Diego, charged as a tramp meant that the police officer didn't like her being where she was found on the streets. The law (CPC 647e) was only declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1983 (103 S.Ct. 1855, 1860] Rehnquist/White dissenting). Freedom isn't free. Rarely is it gained by blowing up foreigners around the world."
Rest in peace, Phyllis. I'm sorry we don't know more about your accomplishments, hobbies, favorite movie stars or happiest moments.


  1. Yes sad there is not enough respect for this woman.

  2. It does look like she is about to smile in her mugshot.

  3. Highlighted by Reddit, given flesh by you. Thank you.

  4. Her photo was posted this morning on Pictures in History. Thank you for adding to her story.

  5. Thank you for making her something more than a Facebook post that says "Weed head, tramp."

  6. oh for goodness sake. the entire point of the meme is the obvious fact that she was much more than the label law enforcement or society put on her. sheesh.

  7. It's funny: the San Diego police of that time may have done her a strange favor -- by labelling her that way, they elicit our sympathy for her, and seems a heroic free spirit. I think she has a really soulful look in her eyes. I wish I could've known her.

  8. Imma use this quote: "Freedom isn't free. Rarely is it gained by blowing up foreigners around the world."

  9. I don't know how I came up on this thread. When I looked into it it just made me really sad. Thank you for sharing a little bit about her life. Unfortunately she probably died because of domestic abuse.

  10. You look at those eyes - you see more than any earthly records could have collected; you see Phyllis J. Stalnaker's soul.

    There's Vivian Maier who recently became known post-mortem too - she and her body of work that immortalized dozens of individuals through single snapshots too. And there's Elizabeth Short of course - another one who died too young, whose life became reduced to two words: Black Dahlia. And now, as if by a delayed miraculous twist of fate, the world knows they exist.

    Their lives were prematurely ended and their dreams went unfulfilled for the most part - but their souls must be smiling now, in eternity.

  11. I believe all us souls are attended to, whether we are honored at a funeral, or end up anonymously in a mass grave.

  12. Phyllis has a lovely headstone, someone took care in doing that for her