Badass lesbians living as men in the 19th century

[Studies in the Psychology of Sex by Havelock Ellis, 1919, vol. 2 “Sexual Inversion” (p 246–250).]

Cases have been recorded of inverted women who spent the greater part of their lives in men’s clothing and been generally regarded as men. I may cite the case of Lucy Ann Slater, alias the Rev. Joseph Lobdell, recorded by Wise (Alienist and Neurologist, 1883). She was masculine in character, features and attire. In early life she married and had a child, but had no affection for her husband, who eventually left her. As usual in such cases, her masculine habits appeared in early childhood. She was expert with the rifle, lived the life of a trapper and hunter among the Indians, and was known as the “Female Hunter of Long Eddy.” She published a book regarding those experiences. I have not been able to see it, but it is said to be quaint and well written. She regarded herself as practically a man, and became attached to a young woman of good education, who had also been deserted by her husband. The affection was strong and emotional, and, of course, without deception. It was interrupted by her recognition and imprisonment as a vagabond, but on the petition of her “wife” she was released. “I may be a woman in one sense,” she said, “but I have peculiar organs which make me more a man than a woman.” She alluded to an enlarged clitoris which she could erect, she said, as a turtle protrudes its head, but there was no question of its use in coitus. She was ultimately brought to the asylum with paroxysmal attacks of exaltation and erotomania (without self-abuse apparently) and corresponding periods of depression, and she died with progressive dementia. I may also mention the case (briefly recorded in the Lancet, February 22, 1884) of a person called John Coulter, who was employed for twelve years as a laborer by the Belfast Harbor Commissioners. When death resulted from injuries caused in falling down stairs, it was found that this person was a woman. She was fifty years of age, and had apparently spent the greater part of her life as a man. When employed in early life as a man-servant on a farm, she had married her mistress’s daughter. The pair were married for twenty-nine years, but during the last six years lived apart, owing to the “husband’s” dissipated habits. No one ever suspected her sex. She was of masculine appearance and good muscular development. The “wife” took charge of the body and buried it.

A more recent case of the same kind is that of “Murray Hall,” who died in New York in 1901. Her real name was Mary Anderson, and she was born at Govan, in Scotland. Early left an orphan, on the death of her only brother she put on his clothes and went to Edinburgh, working as a man. Her secret was discovered during an illness, and she finally went to America, where she lived as a man for thirty years, making money, and becoming somewhat notorious as a Tammany politician, a rather riotous “man about town.” The secret was not discovered till her death, when it was a complete revelation, even to her adopted daughter. She married twice; the first marriage ended in separation, but the second marriage seemed to have been happy, for it lasted twenty years, when the “wife” died. She associated much with pretty girls, and was very jealous of them. She seems to have been slight and not very masculine in general build, with a squeaky voice, but her ways, attitude, and habits were all essentially masculine. She associated with politicians, drank somewhat to excess, though not heavily, swore a great deal, smoked and chewed tobacco, sang ribald songs; could run, dance, and fight like a man, and had divested herself of every trace of feminine daintiness. She wore clothes that were always rather too large in order to hide her form, baggy trousers, and an overcoat even in summer. She is said to have died of cancer of the breast. (I quote from an account, which appears to be reliable, contained in the Weekly Scotsman, February 9, 1901).

Another case, described in the London papers, is that of Catharine Coome, who for forty years successfully personated a man and adopted masculine habits generally. She married a lady’s maid, which whom she lived for fourteen years. Having latterly adopted a life of fraud, her case gained publicity as that of the “man-woman.”

In 1901 the death on board ship was recorded of Miss Caroline hall, of Boston, a water-color painter who had long resided in Milan. Three years previously she discarded female dress and lived as “husband” to a young Italian lady, also an artist, whom she had already known for seven years. She called herself “Mr. Hall” and appeared to be a thoroughly normal young man, able to shoot with a rifle and fond of manly sports. The officers of the ship stated that she smoked and drank heartily, joked with the other male passengers, and was hail-fellow-well-met with everyone. Death was due to advanced tuberculosis of the lungs, hastened by excessive drinking and smoking.

Ellen Glenn, alias Ellis Glenn, a notorious swindler, who came prominently before the public in Chicago during 1905, was another “man-woman,” of large and masculine type. She preferred to dress as a man and had many love escapades with women. “She can fiddle as well as anyone in the State,” said a man who knew her, “can box like a pugilist, and can dance and play cards.”

In Seville, a few years ago, an elderly policeman, who had been in attendance on successive governors of that city for thirty years, was badly injured in a street accident. He was taken to the hospital and the doctor there discovered that the “policeman” was a woman. She went by the name of Fernando Mackenzie and during the whole of her long service no suspicion whatever was aroused as to her sex. She was French by birth, born in Paris in 1836, but her father was English and her mother Spanish. She assumed her male disguise when she was a girl and served her time in the French army, then emigrated to Spain, at the age of 35, and contrived to enter the Madrid police force disguised as a man. She married there and pretended that her wife’s child was her own son. She removed to Seville, still serving as a policeman, and was engaged there as cook and orderly at the governor’s palace. She served seven successive governors. In consequence of the discovery of her sex she has been discharged from the police without the pension due to her; her wife had died two years previously, and “Fernando” spent all she possessed on the woman’s funeral. Mackenzie had a soft voice, a refined face with delicate features, and was neatly dressed in male attire. When asked how she escaped detection so long, she replied that she always lived quietly in her own house with her wife and did her duty by her employers so that no one meddled with her.

In Chicago in 1906 much attention was attracted to the case of “Nicholai de Raylan,” confidential secretary to the Russian Consul, who at death (of tuberculosis) at the age of 33 was found to be a woman. She was born in Russia and was in many respects very feminine, small and slight in build, but was regarded as a man, and even as very “manly,” by both men and women who knew her intimately. She was always very neat in dress, fastidious in regard to shirts and ties, and wore a long-waisted coat to disguise the lines of her figure. She was married twice in America, being divorced by the first wife, after a union lasting ten years, on the ground of cruelty and misconduct with chorus girls. The second wife, a chorus girl who had been previously married and had a child, was devoted to her “husband.” Both wives were firmly convinced that their husband was a man and ridiculed the idea that “he” could be a woman. I am informed that De Raylan wore a very elaborately constructed artificial penis. In her will she made careful arrangements to prevent detection of sex after death, but these were frustrated, as she died in a hospital.

In St. Louis, in 1909, the case was brought forward of a young woman of 22, who had posed as a man for nine years. Her masculine career began at the age of 13 after the Galveston flood which swept away all her family. She was saved and left Texas dressed as a boy. She worked in livery stables, in a plough factory, and as a bill-poster. At one time she was the adopted son of the family in which she lived and had no difficulty in deceiving her sisters by adoption as to her sex. On coming to St. Louis in 1902 she made chairs and baskets at the American Rattan Works, associating with fellow-workmen on a footing of masculine equality. One day a workman noticed the extreme smallness and dexterity of her hands. “Gee, Bill, you should have been a girl.” “How do you know I’m not?” she retorted. In such ways her ready wit and good humor always disarmed suspicion as to her sex. She shunned no difficulties in her work or in her sports, we are told, and never avoided the severest tests. “She drank, she swore, she courted girls, she worked as hard as her fellows, she fished and camped; she told stories with the best of them, and she did not flinch when the talk grew strong. She even chewed tobacco.” Girls began to fall in love with the good-looking boy at an early period, and she frequently boasted of her feminine conquests; with one girl who worshipped her there was a question of marriage. On account of lack of education she was restricted to manual labor, and she often chose hard work. At one time she became a boiler-maker’s apprentice, wielding a hammer and driving in hot rivets. Here she was very popular and became local secretary of the international Brotherhood of Boiler-makers. In physical development she was now somewhat of an athlete. “She could outrun any of her friends on a spring; she could kick higher, play baseball, and throw the ball overhand like a man, and she was fond of football. As a wrestler she could throw most of the club members.” The physician who examined her for an insurance policy remarked: “You are a fine specimen of physical manhood, young fellow. Take good care of yourself.” Finally, in a moment of weakness, she admitted her sex and returned to the garments of womanhood.

In London, in 1912, a servant-girl of 23 was charged in the Acton Police Court with being “disorderly and masquerading,” having assumed man’s clothes and living with another girl, taller and more handsome than herself, as husband and wife. She had had slight brain trouble as a child, and was very intelligent, with a too active brain; in her spare time she had written stories for magazines. The two girls became attached through doing Christian social work together in their spare time, and resolved to live as husband and wife to prevent any young man from coming forward. The “husband” became a plumber’s mate, and displayed some skill at fisticuffs when at length discovered by the “wife’s” brother. Hence her appearance in the Police Court. Both girls were sent back to their friends, and situations found for them as day-servants. But as they remained devoted to each other arrangements were made for them to live together.

Another case that may be mentioned is that of Cora Anderson, “the man-woman of Milwaukee,” who posed for thirteen years as a man, and during that period lived with two women as her wives without her disguise being penetrated. (Her “Confessions” were published in the Day Book of Chicago during May, 1914.)

It would be easy to bring forward other cases. A few instances of marriage between women will be found in the Alienist and Neurologist, Nov., 1902, p. 497. In all such cases more or less fraud has been exercised. I know of one case, probably unique, in which the ceremony was gone through without any deception on any side; a congenitally inverted Englishwoman of distinguished intellectual ability, now dead, was attached to the wife of a clergyman, who, in full cognizance of all the facts of the case, privately married the two ladies in his own church.

When they still retain female garments, these usually show some traits of masculine simplicity, and there is nearly always a disdain for the petty feminine artifices of the toilet. Even when this is not obvious, there are all sorts of instinctive gestures and habits which may suggest to female acquaintances the remark that such a person “ought to have been a man.” The brusque, energetic movements, the attitude of the arms, the direct speech, the inflexions of the voice, the masculine straightforwardness and sense of honor, and especially the attitude toward men, free from any suggestion either of shyness or audacity, will often suggest the underlying psychic abnormality to a keen observer.

In the habits not only is there frequently a pronounced taste for smoking cigarettes, often found in quite feminine women, but also a decided taste and toleration for cigars. There is also a dislike and sometimes incapacity for needle-work and other domestic occupations, while there is often some capacity for athletics.

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21 thoughts on “Badass lesbians living as men in the 19th century

    • I saw a trailer for it a few years ago. Is it trans-ified? Or is it just the straightforward story like these things? By trans-ified I mean implying that she was really transgender and the whole thing was a terrible terrible tragedy. Versus she’s brave and ingenious.

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      • The jury is still out on that one. I found it odd…maybe ’cause it was Glen Close and I find her odd…. not in a good way either. I don’t know. Perhaps a different actress would’ve increased my liking of the movie…

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      • I found it a rather confusing film, like the filmmakers wanted a movie about a person like Albert without ever really getting to know her. She seemed to be more a lesbian or a woman in a man’s role than any notion of transness, especially since the two women-as-men go enjoy a day together wearing women’s dresses, which looked and felt oddly like cross-dressing to me. It was a strange film that I found rather unsatisfying – I do like Glenn Close, but I don’t think the character was developed enough to convey much real interest or depth of motivation. I wish I could have found her brave and ingenious but kind of just felt terribly sorry for her, which to me made me wonder if the filmmakers just had no idea what they were really making a film about.

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        • Yes! The trailer I saw seemed all ‘Oh how tragic’. Vs the disguised women in purplesage’s post. You could make a rip roaring movie about any of them. Also Tragic Gays was the usual way to portray gay people in movies before the 80s and activist efforts. I’ll be leaving that movie alone.

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  1. There was a case in the American plains: a woman who had been widowed. She had from childhood displayed some masculine traits, being of athletic disposition and impatient of restriction. She took her athleticism so far as to join a boys’ swimming team, and was known and appreciated by her teammates for the excellence of her ability. From this circumstance, she had strong muscular development.

    On leaving home, she had several relationships with quite pretty girls. She was perhaps overtaxed in her intellectual capacity, having attended a prestigious university, and had a mental breakdown, causing her institutionalization. She returned to live with her family during treatment.

    Once again attempting to receive an education, she attended an agricultural college and there met a Jewish man who asked her to marry and she accepted. He had a weak heart and she continued to perform physical labor in a domestic context.

    After his death of congenital heart abnormality, she again began associating with pretty women, and increased her physical activity.

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  2. H’lo, P’Sage,

    I always think of the film “The Ballad of Little Jo” when I read these summaries. I don’t recommend the film,as I remember it was uneven and harsh in its extremes, especially the ending, but you can read about it on Wikipedia under the above title and decide for yourself if you want to watch.

    The premise, to live life ‘as a man,’ was a dangerous ruse that made Life both ‘easier’ and ‘harder,’ but allowed the women in these accountings to be the truest versions of themselves, giving them the opportunity to survive and, on occasion, thrive, in a thoroughly male-dominated society.

    Frankly, I admire them for being so brave, there had to be a certain ‘fearlessness’ to even attempt to undertake such a deception, knowing that the consequences of the truth could lead to a beating, prison, even death, or a combination of all three.

    I love these women, theirs are the histories that speak to me more than any others–they are my ‘pirates,’ my ‘outlaws,’ my ‘marauders.’ I claim them as my own, much like distant relatives found in a genealogical search, under a pile of grands- and great-grands-. They are my sisters and aunts, once hidden deep in the ‘family tree,’ but whose stories are far more enchanting and heroic than any others I’ve heard before. It is their blood in my veins…

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  3. Still comes down to sex stereotypes, what a woman is allowed to do AS a woman, and the freedom she obtains passing as a man, including being taken seriously and freely able to lust after and love and committ to other women.

    If these women could have been totally free, they could adopt the male dress and do male trades, be taken seriously as they are and NOT have to “pass” as male. But even now, us out loud and proud Butch Dykes may never go as far because of both sexism and lesbophobias as one that “passes” as male, such as so many modern day FTMs. They probably consider all these their FTM forebearers, whereas we consider them to be our Lesbian forebearers when homosexuality was largely pariah, and so Butch Lesbians HAD to pass merely to survive freely and independently from their families or men. And have access to.other women.

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