Gender has complexities beyond the physical definition, and George Wilson’s performance of gender seems to have puzzled and exasperated early 19th-century newspaper editors. (There were a number of “George Wilsons” in the early nineteenth century, and some of them had the bodies of women and the lives of men. This George Wilson appears not to be the one married to Eliza Cummins and arrested for drunkenness in 1836.)

Wilson was a thief, a sailor, a jockey, and one of several immigrants from England who found themselves in America. Also, an incredibly obstinate individual. And tough.

At first, this tale of a Baltimore horse thief fascinated newspaper editors, who tucked paragraphs from Baltimore newspapers into their own. Things became complicated, however, as Wilson refused to give another name and apparently didn’t have the usual story of a lovelorn young woman seeking her beloved. Wilson’s stubbornness while in prison also was a source of fascination, probably because that toughness wasn’t what editors expected of a woman.

Soon, however, the interest seemed to fade. Wilson turned out to have a history as a thief and—possibly—as a prostitute, instead of being a desperate woman finding herself in a bad situation. Wilson didn’t cooperate with those trying to solve or investigate the situation. There were hints that Wilson was a member of the upper class, which Wilson wouldn’t confirm. Then Wilson’s sentence was commuted, and a wealthy patron arranged for the immigrant to return to England—and Wilson refused to leave prison until it was too late.

In the coverage, the Baltimore Sun was the most caustic, making social commentary and charting the uglier aspects of Wilson’s criminal career. The Sun was pessimistic about Wilson’s honesty and reported Wilson’s later criminal activity in Kentucky.

In its first story, the Sun took the opportunity to lambaste the younger generation for grooming and garb that the editor felt wasn’t gender-appropriate. Among other things, the detailed descriptions of clothing, grooming, and mannerisms provide a snapshot of antebellum ideas about presentation of gender.

[Notes: Betty Finiken was a character in the play Gretna Green, by Samuel Beazley, which premiered in 1822. Jacques Strop first appeared in L’Auberge des Adrets, a play by Benjamin Antier (1823), and was so popular that the actor portraying him made him a central character in Robert Macaire (1835); Strop is a con artist, played as a comic figure.]

“Influence of Bad Example” (from The Baltimore Sun [Baltimore, Maryland] 19 February 1838; p. 4)

The attention of the knowing ones at the Horse Market, was attracted on Saturday morning by the appearance of a comely youth neatly dressed in a light fustian frock coat, blue pantaloons, velvet vest, and fur cap, who gallantly rode up the street upon a sleek-sided, well-fed bay steed. A crowd soon collected around the horse and rider, some admiring the former, and others scrutinizing the latter. The effeminate appearance of the stranger might have raised a sneer among the grooms, but they are too close observers not to have noticed that bloods of the first water now use every endeavor to appear like ladies’ waiting maids, and with their beardless chins shaded by perfumed and flowing ringlets, seem only to want petticoats to metamorphose them into very good looking “Betties.” On this account, perhaps, the youth was set down as a modern fop in disguise who to raise the wind to pay his barber’s bill, had been obliged to sell his horse. The stranger having intimated a wish to dispose of the animal, a bargain was soon struck, by which it was agreed that the horse should be transferred to the purchaser in consideration of the sum of $25, current money, which was a great bargain, for he was evidently worth at least $75. “There is many a slip between the cup and the lip,” saith the adage, and it was in this instance aptly illustrated; for as the purchaser was about paying over the money, another stranger appeared, in breathless haste, and entered a protest against the transaction. He represented himself as a Mr. Magness, from the vicinity of Belle Air, Harford county, and stated that the horse had been stolen from his farm about 2 o’clock on Saturday morning. The youth who had sold the hose, not being able to contradict the statement, was arrested by officer Smith, examined before Justice Keys, and committed to prison. The prisoner was placed among the male convicts, under the name of George Wilson; but Mr. Magness having mentioned to the Warden that the marks of footsteps around the stable appeared to be those of woman, [sic] a personal examination of the youth was instituted, which showed to the satisfaction of the matrons who made the examination, that the prisoner was a bona fide woman. She was divested of her disguise, clothed in the proper garments of her sex, and placed in the female apartments. She there stated that she was a native of Yorkshire, England, had been dressed as a man for three years, during which period she had been employed as a laborer upon the canal, and performed other labors usual for those of the stronger sex. Some one gallantly offered to go her security, but the offer was declined by the magistrate.

A few words to our young exquisites. You see from this case, the effects of your attempts to unsex yourselves. If you will insist upon playing Betty Finiken in the drama of life, it is not strange that a damsel occasionally should seize the unmentionable and appear as Jacques Strop. Do therefore, good sweet fellows, leave perfume to the musk rat, mincing your steps, shear off your “unlovely love-locks,” and we shall no more be astonished by a woman turning horse-thief and riding like a jockey 21 miles upon a cold frosty morning.

“The Female Horse Thief” (from Baltimore Commercial Transcript [Baltimore, Maryland]; reprinted in The Perry County Democrat [Bloomfield, Pennsylvania] 8 March 1838; p. 3)

The female in male attire arrested the other day for stealing a horse, was brought into the City Court yesterday, and being arraigned at the bar, plead [sic] “guilty” to the indictment.

The conduct of this woman has been very singular. She is said to be a native of Yorkshire in England, and came to Baltimore in the capacity of a sailor, working her passage. She refuses to tell her name or to give a satisfactory account of herself. She is said to be [a] woman of education, [and] may have seen “better days.”

A piece appearing in the Baltimore Gazette before 27 March 1838 was reprinted in various forms in other newspapers; the Lancaster Intelligencer appears to have reprinted more of the unavailable original than did other papers. Wilson here is very much not the usual dainty 17-year-old editors often condescended to. Physically tough, Wilson resembled a man. There also was the earlier conviction for theft. It’s clear that as far as editors were concerned Wilson wasn’t acting the way a woman ought. (The New York Daily Herald titled their extract of the Gazette’s piece “Flogging Female Prisoners” and italicized the sentences about Wilson being beaten; see 27 March 1838; p. 1.)

“The Female Horse Thief” (from Baltimore Gazette [Baltimore, Maryland] reprinted in Lancaster Intelligencer [Lancaster, Pennsylvania] 3 April 1838; p. 3)

The Baltimore Gazette gives the following account of the female horse thief recently apprehended in that city, and sentenced a few days since to two years imprisonment in the Penitentiary. The only name the Amazon will acknowledge is George Wilson, and her fierce and untractable spirit will probably set [at] nought all efforts to render her submissive to the discipline of the prison:

This female is certainly a very extraordinary individual, and her personal adventures, if she could be induced to relate them, would doubtless form a volume of uncommon interest. But she is silent in almost every particular in relation to herself. A few things mentioned to her fellow prisoners have been repeated, and they only create a desire to know more of her character and history. At a very early age, say thirteen or fourteen, she assumed male attire, which she has worn with but one or two brief intermissions, for nine or ten years, undiscovered. She entered very young as a sailor before the mast, and has crossed the ocean in that capacity eight or nine times. For stealing, she was some time since confined in the New York state prison for two years—fifteen months of which time was passed in solitary confinement. While there, she steadily refused to work, and every effort of punishment or persuasion failed to have the least effect upon her. The solitary confinement was resorted to for the purpose of breaking her determined spirit, but it was vain. Lashings on the bare back, a regimen of bread and water for weeks at a time, and various other punishments were resorted to, but she remained unmoveable in her determination not to work, and was only relieved at times from this severe treatment by direction of the physician, who frequently found nature yielding to severity, until the term of her imprisonment expired.

In our state prison, she is equally incorrigible. No punishment which has yet been inflicted, or kind persuasion that has been offered, can move her from her fixed resolution not to work when imprisoned. Under the severest punishment, she shows not the slightest sign of anger or emotion; and will strip to receive the lash with as much apparent unconcern as though she were going to bed—nor does she cringe under the stroke. Her determined perseverance is a source of much pain to the keeper, who cannot allow of any insubordination, and has therefore to inflict such punishments as the regulations of the institution demand in cases where prisoners refuse to work.

In stature she is somewhere about five feet eight inches, and as muscular as a pugilist. Her face looks like the face of a man. It does not show any thing like a wicked spirit; but is settled, stern, and thoughtful—never relaxing into a smile. She, of course, knows nothing of woman’s work. She can handle a needle with no further dexterity than will enable her to sew a button on her pantaloons. She openly avows her determination to steal whenever she cannot find suitable employment in which to obtain a living. A year or two since she was in Baltimore, and being closely pursued by the minions of the law, changed her clothing for female attire, and remained for a few days on the Point, until she could safely venture out again.

Take her all in all, she is a singular and hardened creature, utterly setting at nought all the regulations of law, and following the bent of her warped disposition, regardless of the smiles or frowns of the whole world. She is an English woman by birth, and has intimated her intention of having her life written out and published when she returns to her native country.

“Peter Paragraph” provided the Baltimore Sun with a story that has all the usual elements: the abandoning sweetheart, the desperate young woman dressing as a man in order to find her lover. Here, Wilson is the product of an overindulgent father and a tempestuous upbringing. There’s a child. A shipwreck is added to the story. It’s a lot of adventure for someone in her early twenties.

[Note: In the 19th century, “cute” was a shortening of the word “acute,” meaning a sharp thinker.

Letter, by “Peter Paragraph” (from The Baltimore Sun [Baltimore, Maryland] 28 March 1838; p. 1)

[For the Sun.]

Messrs. Editors.—The circumstance of a female being now confined within the walls of the Maryland Penitentiary for the offence of horse stealing, committed while she was in the garb of a man, brings to my mind a circumstance related to me by an English gentleman, which may throw some light upon the history of the extraordinary individual calling herself George Wilson. A gentleman of the name of Bruce, who had amassed a large sum of money by trading in horses and certain operations of the turf, known only to the initiated, purchased an estate in the West Riding of Yorkshire, with the intention of retiring as a country gentleman, and devoting the remainder of his days to agricultural pursuits. He was a widower, and had an only child, a girl, about seventeen years of age. He was too fond of the girl to bear her long from his presence, and resolutely rejected all the offers of his female relatives to take charge of her. She h[a]d been consequently carried with him on all his excursions around the country, and whether at the fair, Tattersall’s, or on the race course, Tom Bruce was seldom seen without the chubby face of his daughter smiling by his side. Thus nurtured among jockies, [sic] and educated in the stable, young Charlotte soon acquired tastes and habits very unsuitable for one of her sex, and at the age of 12 years was almost as knowing in matters of horse flesh as her father. By her own request she was clothed in male attire, and thus habited she had ridden several races over the course with much benefit to her father and his club, for whom, by her superior skill and management, she had won some hotly contested heats. Her only playmates were the stable-boys, one of whom was her avowed favorite. Jack Wilson was a cute Yorkshire lad, and saw the advantages of keeping in the good graces of an heiress; with this object in view, he used such arts as soon firmly attached to him the affections of this young Amazon, who saw in him her beau ideal of perfection—a stout, well built fellow, and an accomplished jockey.

When Bruce took possession of the estate he had purchased, he was seized with a sudden desire of seeing his daughter a fine lady, and for the purpose of polishing her manners, which had become somewhat rough, and of acquiring other accomplishments than those generally practised in the stable yard, she was sent to a fashionable boarding school, and placed under the immediate surveillance of a French governess. Miss Charlotte was here entirely out of her element, and completely astounded the young ladies with her knowledge of the slang dictionary, shocked all sense of propriety by mounting the old coach horse and riding bare-backed, in manly fashion, to the neighboring races, where she finally earned her expulsion from the school by selling the horse and betting the proceeds upon a favorite courser. She now returned to her father’s house where she renewed her intimacy with her favorite Jack Wilson, who was an inmate of the house, in the capacity of a groom. The father, though he admired Wilson as a jockey, did not approve of him as a son-in-law, and as his daughter was now nearly eighteen years of age, and not very remarkable for her decorous behavior, (she being as often attired in the close fitting dress of a jockey as in a habit more becoming the modesty of her sex,) he thought it prudent to remove the object of her affections, and thus prevent any disagreeable accidents. With this object in view, Jack was sent to America, to take charge of some high trained English hunters which a Yankee Nimrod had purchased of his master. But “the stable door was locked after the horse had been stolen,” as Bruce expressed it, for he in the course of a few months found himself a grand-father, though his daughter was not a wife. His rage was unbounded, and he punished his daughter for a fault he himself had brought about, by inflicting upon her the most severe personal chastisement. Her spirit rebelled against such tyranny, and watching the opportunity of her father being at a fox chase, she dressed herself in his best suit, mounted his fleetest steed, and galloped away to the nearest seaport in hopes of finding a vessel ready to sail for America. She found no difficulty in disposing of her horse for a good round sum, with which she set out on her travels. Totally ignorant of what part of the world her lover was in, she took passage in a vessel bound to Malta, still preserving her disguise, and representing herself as the son of a British officer belonging to the garrison. Her father, as soon as he had recovered from the effects of the carousal that generally wound up his field sports, missed his daughter, and started in pursuit of her. He traced her to the town from whence she had sailed, but was unable to ascertain the name of the vessel, or the port of her destination. Large rewards were offered for her return to her father, who at length got a clue to her place of retreat. One of his majesty’s cruizers [sic] had fallen in with a wreck off the coast of Spain which appeared to be entirely abandoned; but on boarding it, the apparently lifeless body of a youth was found lashed to the stump of the mast. He was carefully removed and placed under the surgeon’s care, who in employing the necessary means of resuscitation, discovered that the rescued person was a female. Life was with difficulty restored, and on revival she was furnished with proper clothing from the wardrobe of the captain’s wife, but she evaded answering all questions as to her name and the circumstances that placed her in the extraordinary situation in which she was found. Upon the arrival of the cruizer at Portsmouth, a purse was raised for her among the officers and crew, and she was placed in comfortable quarters at the principal inn of the place. The circumstance being much talked of at the time, it came to the ears of Mr. Bruce, who happened to be in the neighborhood. From the description of the person, he knew it must be his daughter, and driving up to the inn with his curricle he had the pleasure of seeing his dutiful child preparing to take her departure for London. She quietly suffered herself to be seated in her father’s vehicle, and coolly requested him to settle her bill at the inn. While the old gentleman was absent on this errand, the young lady gave reins to the horses, and away they dashed, leaving hostlers, grooms, and father transfixed with amazement. What became of the curricle and horses is not known, but she was traced to London, where it was ascertained that she had shipped as cabin boy on board a vessel bound to Greenock, in Scotland. Her father followed her, but arrived there only in time to ascertain that a youth, answering the description he gave, had the previous day sailed as one of the crew of a brig bound to New York. This was the last he heard of his daughter, and though several years have elapsed since then, he still continues his search for her, and offers the reward of 2000l. to whoever will induce her to return home.

If you think my supposition, that Charlotte Bruce and the extraordinary female now confined in the Penitentiary under the name of George Wilson are one and the same person, is correct, I hope you will publish the above imperfect sketch of her life, and add such connecting links as will bring it down to the period when she was convicted of horse stealing. By doing so, you would greatly oblige many of your readers, but particularly your unknown friend and sincere well-wisher,

Peter Paragraph.

[Our correspondent, we think, has made out a pretty good case, and though he is somewhat lengthy in his communication, we cheerfully give it a place and comply with his request that we should publish such portions of the history of “George Wilson” as may have come to our knowledge. The individual known under this name is a woman, who at the February term of the City Court was convicted of horse stealing, and sentenced to two years imprisonment in the Penitentiary. She is, we believe, a native of Yorkshire, England, and her advent in this country happened, some three or four years back, in the city of New York. She had been there found habited in a sailor’s dress, creating some disturbance in the street, for which she was brought before the police magistrate and committed to Bridewell among the male prisoners. Not liking her companions, she disclosed her sex, and the circumstance led to some inquiries as to the motives for her disguise. She spun them a long yarn about the sole keeper of her maiden heart having crossed the ocean to come to America, and left her to sigh alone. She could not bear to be separated from him, she said, and for the purpose of finding him she had disguised herself as a sailor and shipped at Greenock for the United States, under the name of David Bruce. She had been seeking her lover when the officers arrested her for resisting the importunities of a damsel who took her for a sailor boy. This story delighted the Gothamites, who are as fond of romance as a Parisian, and all the novel-reading spinsters, the sentimental Julias and the sighing Rom[eo]s clubbed together and made up a handsome sum to further the search of the damsel-errant after her truant lover. But what was their horror when a few months after their heroine was tried at the Quarter Sessions, for horse stealing! She was found guilty, and sentenced to two years hard labor at Sing Sing; but hard labor was not according to her fancy, and during the whole term of her imprisonment neither threats, persuasion, nor punishment could ever induce or compel her to work. On her discharge she insisted upon her male clothes being returned, and clothed in them she has since been at times working as a common laborer, and when dressed in her proper clothing she has generally been the inmate of a brothel. Our readers are acquainted with the particulars of the offence for which she is now undergoing punishment, and we will merely state that here, as in Sing Sing, she resolutely refuses to do any work.]

The Sun struck again once Wilson was released from prison. The ire here is palpable, as the Sun details Wilson’s refusal to cooperate by returning to England, the refusal to keep wearing women’s clothing, and the refusal to cooperate by pleading “not guilty.” Here was someone found to be a woman who just wasn’t acting the way a woman should. It’s in keeping with their first article, where young men are scolded for not acting the way a man should.

George Wilson (from The Baltimore Sun [Baltimore, Maryland] 27 November 1838; p. 2)

George Wilson, alias Charlotte Wilson, alias Bruce, the female horse thief, was some time since pardoned by the executives. An English lady of high standing, engaged and paid for her passage in a vessel to England, laid in $20 worth of sea stores for her, and sent her $30 in money, for the purchase of clothing. Miss Charlotte was informed of her being pardoned, and the arrangements made by her benefactress—she received the money, but positively refused to go on board the vessel, or to leave her cell until she saw fit, and the vessel therefore sailed without her. The next day it pleased her to go forth, and she took her departure. Whither she has gone no one can tell, but it is probable she procured another suit of male attire, and when she is tired of walking will press into her service the first palfry that suits her fancy. Her whole course of conduct, from the time of her arrest until her discharge, has been marked with the greatest stubborness, [sic] and opposition to the will or advice of every one. At the time of her arraignment she was advised to plead not guilty, but she persisted in pleading guilty. Previous to sentence being passed, it was intimated to her that if she would consent to be sent to England, a pardon would be procured for her; this offer she rejected, with the observation that she had twice broken the laws of this country, and she deserved to be punished. She was consequently sent to the penitentiary. Previous to leaving jail, she expressed an earnest desire to regain possession of the man’s clothing in which she was arrested, and was particularly anxious to obtain the bridle that was on the horse she had stolen. The bridle she said belonged to her, and she might have use for it at some future time, for said she you know the old saying, “give a Yorkshire man a bridle and he will soon find a horse.” Her demand, however, was not complied with, and she was highly indignant at the refusal. While in the penitentiary she refused to work, and no discipline could subdue her resolution. Her unyielding stubborness was fully displayed in her rejection of the means of returning to Europe. Who this extraordinary female is, and what could be the motive for her throwing aside the habiliments of her sex, remains a mystery. That she is of good family, and that her history is known to some persons in this country, may be considered highly probable, from the circumstance of several Englishmen of rank taking great interest in her, and their ladies affording her assistance. During her confinement in the penitentiary, the institution was visited by an English nobleman and a member of the diplomatic corps, but as soon as she had an intimation of the rank of the visiters, she threw herself upon the floor and concealed her face, refusing to allow them to see any features by which they could recognise her. Her conduct at times gave reason to suppose that she was insane; that however might have been the effects of her entire loss of the finest feelings of her sex, and her abandonment of modesty of thought and action; but be she who she may, she is an extraordinary being, and seems determined to set all order and law at defiance. Her life and adventures would be a curiosity, and we hope will be given to the world before long.

Wilson seems to have continued to live as a man at least part of the time. Also as a thief, as the Sun reported. Whether Perkins was Wilson is a mystery; whether Wilson was Charlotte Bruce is unclear. And what happened next may never be known.

“At Her Old Tricks” (from The Baltimore Sun [Baltimore, Maryland] 14 February 1840; p. 2)

By a letter from Madison county, Kentucky, we are informed that a female who was arrested for horse stealing while habited in male attire, has been sentenced to two years confinement in the penitentiary. Our correspondent asks us if she may not be the same woman who performed the same feat in this city sometime since, under the name of Charlotte Wilson. She now goes by the name of Perkins. There is little doubt that she is the same individual, and we have long been expecting to hear of some of her exploits, as she remarked, when leaving here, that she was true Yorkshire, and only wanted a bridle if she had that she would soon find a horse. It appears that she has now not only found a horse but a home. Who or what this strange being is, still remains a mystery. If she had desired to return to England, the opportunity was afforded her while here, through the benevolence of an English lady; but she preferred playing the knight errant, and has pursued her adventures into a country where horse-thieves are not much respected.

Some stories unfold like a complicated flower.

(Note: “along shore” is a variant of “alongshore,” which gave rise to “alongshoreman,” an archaic form of “longshoreman.”)

“Police Office, Aug. 12: A New Sort of Laborer Along-Shore” (from New York Journal of Commerce [New York, New York] 13 August 1836; p. 2)

On Friday night one of Police officers [sic] saw a person, having the appearance of a seaman, and who said his name was James Walker, lying intoxicated at the corner of Pearl and Chatham streets, and brought him to the watch-house. On arriving there the officer searched the prisoner’s person, and whilst doing so, was not a little astonished to hear the seemingly rough and drunken seaman address him in a soft, effeminate tone of voice, and say “Oh dear, don’t tickle me.” This caused the officer to more closely examine the prisoner’s countenance, and the features were sunburnt and weather-beaten, he thought they appeared somewhat feminine, and having imparted his suspicions to a female who was in the watch-house, she looked at, and spoke to the prisoner, and by some sort of free-masonry known only to the ladies, she at once pronounced the apparent tar to be a member of the soft sex, and she was accordingly locked up with the other females for the night, and brought before the magistrate yesterday morning. On being asked who she was and what was her motive for dressing in man’s apparel, she stated that her name was Jane Walker; that she was a native of the old country, and had been engaged to marry a young man who went to Quebec and had sent her money to go out and join him. That she accordingly left her parents and went to Quebec, where she was informed her lover had gone to New-York, and that having no means to follow him, she had sold her clothes, purchased man’s apparel, and in that guise worked her way on to this city. Here, however, she was equally unsuccessful in discovering the object of her pursuit, and being without friends, and finding by experience how much more independent she could be as a man than as a woman, she determined to retain her assumed character, and had worked along shore for the last two years, and that yesterday evening having drank rather too freely with her male companions, she became intoxicated, and was in that state taken to the watchhouse. [sic She was committed for further examination.

“A Discovery” (from Evening Star [New York, New York] 13 August 1836; p. 2)

An intoxicated person, apparently a man, was picked up in the street and conveyed to the Police Office, when it was discovered to be a woman in male attire. Her assumed name, to suit her dress, was James Walker, but her real name is Jane Walker.—Her story was one of disappointed love. She had been the plighted one of a young man who left Ireland for this country, and who, after a short absence, ermitted home to her money to pay her passage, which she took and arrived at, Quebec, but could not find her lover, after staying there some two or three months. Hearing he had come to this city, (this was about two years ago,) she determined to see if she could not find him, and with this intent, thinking that she would be better protected from insult by assuming the garb of a man, she put it on, and has ever since worn it, and has never been suspected, although she lived, slept and worked altogether amongst males. Her purity and virtue are unimpeachable. She has worked along the docks and slips, in the hopes of finding her lost one, for the last two years, yet she has been unable to discover him. She has parents residing in Ireland. Her abode is in Tillery street, Brooklyn. She was taken care of, and the Magistrates lectured her on throwing aside her feminine dress. She is 30 years old, but care and trouble have left the furrows of more advanced age upon her cheek.

The Rhode-Island Republican included other details from, perhaps, another version of this story.

“A Man Turned Out to Be a Woman” (from The Rhode-Island Republican [Newport, Rhode Island] 17 August 1836; p. 2)

James Walker, brought up in a state of gross intoxication on a cart, from the corner of Chatham and Pearl streets, being examined, states as follows: That she is a woman, and her right name is Jane Walker, and that she lives in Tillery street, Brooklyn, with a person who lives near a distillery, but whose name she forgets. That she follows all kinds of laboring work for a living, principally working along shore. Has been in this country better than three years, and was born in Ireland, and is about 30 years old, and has worn the male attire for two years, and first put it on in Quebec, Can[a]da. That she left home at the solicita[t]ion of a young man to whom she was engaged to be married, who sent out after her and also sent money to pay her passage. That when she arrived in Quebec she could not find him, and after stopping three months and hearing that he had come to this city, she was desirous of coming here to try to find him, and not having good cloth[e]s or any means of bringing her here, she put on the male attire, believing also that it would the better enable her to find him and save her from insult, and also the better enable her to work for her living; further, that she has never been able to find her friend who is a ship-carpenter by trade, and has worked along the docks and about the ship yards for the purpose of endeavoring to find him. Further, that she has slept with and worked among males altogether ever since she put on male attire, and has never been suspected, and has always lived virtuously, having never yet known man. That she generally wore drawers, and took other precautionary measures to prevent exposure, and has never divulged her secret to any being. That she has parents living in Ireland, who knew of her coming out here but to whom she has never written. The five dollar bill found upon her is all the money she had, but has another dress (male’s) in Brooklyn, at her boarding house.

The wretched creature states that she is 30 years of age, but care and exposure appear to have laid their hard hand upon her, and she appears to be older than that. The Magistrates spoke to her of the impropriety of her course. She has been taken care of.

“Awful Disclosure” (from New York Herald [New York, New York] 15 August 1836; p. 2)

Jane alias James Walker, who figured in the morning papers conspicuously last week, has come out with a counter-statement.—She is now living with a young woman named Elizabeth Cumings, [sic] as her husband to whom she was married in Scotland. This girl, she under the guise of a man, induced to come to this country, from a Cotton Factory in Glasgow, and although Elizabeth has long possessed the secret of her husband’s sex, she has, mirabiledicta kept it. Had it not been for the drunken frolic, which exposed her, she would probably have lived the remainder of her life in peace and quiet. The she husband is still in custody, as there may be some things hidden which should be disclosed.

“She husband” was one way in which Walker was described; the usual was “female husband.” (Pronouns appear to have become a source of entertainment for the Daily Commercial Advertiser, which referred to Walker as “he she” several times in a story reprinted in The Long-Island Star [Brooklyn, New York].)

This paragraph appeared in several newspapers across the country—including ones in which a paragraph about Walker did not appear in a previous issue. The piece transcribed here may be the origin of those other pieces.

“Police Office—August 13th: Extraordinary Case of a Female Husband” (from New York Journal of Commerce [New York, New York] 15 August 1836; p. 2)

A paragraph appeared in this paper on Saturday relative to a female who was found intoxicated in the street, on Friday night dressed in man’s clothes. The account she gave of herself turns out to be also false, or at least she has since told a different story, in consequence of a further and more extraordinary discovery having been made in relation to her. On Saturday morning a decently dressed woman called at the Police Office and asked to see James Walker, [(]the name by which the female called herself before her sex was discovered) whom she said was her husband. This woman was informed of the discovery which had been made, and was permitted to see the person in question, to whom however she declined speaking, and went away. In consequence of this occurrence, James or rather Jane Walker was again brought before the magistrate, and underwent another examination, in which she stated that she was a native of Liverpool, that her real name is George Moore Wilson, and that George is a name commonly given to females in England; that both her parents died when she was very young, and that when she was twelve years old, in consequence of being ill treated by her friends, she ran away from them, put on boy’s clothes, and made her way to Scotland, the native place of her parents. When she arrived there she went to work in a factory, still retaining her boy’s dress, and remained in it until she had nearly arrived at manhood, when she married a Miss Eliza Cummings, with whom she set sail for Quebec two days after their marriage. A few days after her marriage she imparted the secret of her sex to her wife; but notwithstanding this the two females have lived together ever since as man and wife. Fifteen years have passed since their union, during which it appears they experienced a great variety of fortune, but kept the secret of the husband’s sex so well that it never before transpired, and remains even unknown to the wife’s father who has resided for some years with them. As the first account which this woman gave of herself appears to be false, this one may be also untrue, but it stands corroborated to a certain extent, by the wife having called to see her on Saturday, and by the vexation and rage she evinced on hearing that her husband’s sex was discovered; and also by a marriage certificate having been found on the prisoner’s person, certifying that the marriage was solemized [sic] at the time and place which she stated in her examination. The magistrate considered the matter altogether so extraordinary, that he has detained her until it can be more fully enquired into.

A New York paper called the Times (there were several in 1836) appears to have had a more detailed version of Walker’s story, including the text of the Walkers’ marriage certificate. And such a thicket of pronouns in one of the paragraphs! (Notes: “Small clothes” were knee-breeches commonly worn in the 18th century; here, the phrase probably is used to describe George Wilson’s clothing. “Shew” was an early spelling of “show.” The “New York Times” originating this piece isn’t the current New York Times, which was first published in 1851.)

“New Mode of Matrimony” (from Monmouth Democrat [Freehold, New Jersey] 18 August 1836; p. 2)

From the New York Times, of Monday last.
New mode of Matrimony.

We gave, in our paper of Saturday, an account of a person who had been brought to the police office in a state of intoxication, wearing men’s clothes, but who declared herself next day to be a woman. Since then something more singular has come to light. She has told a different story from the first, and it appears was actually married to a woman in 1821, and they have lived as man and wife together for fifteen years—this one wearing the breeches, and the other taking care of the house.

The circumstances which led to the developement [sic] of this mysterious affair, are as follows:—On Saturday, a decent looking man went to the Bridewell and enquired if there was not a man there named George Wilson, who had been committed the previous day in a state of intoxication. Capt. Swain told him there was no man answering to his description, but there was a woman, who had been brought up dressed in men’s clothes. He said it could not be the one he was seeking, as he and his wife had lived in a part of his house in Forsyth street for some months, and his wife had now sent him to look for him. Capt. Swain, however, suspecting that his prisoner must be the one he alluded to, shewed him to him, when he at once recognised him as being his tenant. He could hardly believe his eyes, for he said he had actually seen his marriage certificate, and he said he would go and bring it. In a short time afterwards he came to the Police office accompanied by his own and the prisoner’s wife. The prisoner was then sent for, and questioned on the story he told on Friday, which he declared to be all false, and then equivocated as to his sex. The oath of a Physician was requisite on this point, which was given, and the man declared to be a woman. Here then was a mystery.—Two women stood in the Court room, one in her own proper habiliments, and the other in small clothes, who had passed as man and wife, reputably and unsuspectedly, for several years. The wife, on being questioned, threw herself upon her rights, and not only refused to answer questions, but was impudent to the Magistrate for asking her, and was walked out of the office. She did not deign to speak, and hardly to look, at her husband. The lady that came with her requested that her name might not be asked, for she had no idea as to the company she was in, and felt ashamed of it. Persons in the neighborhood had frequently seen Mister Wilson go to the pump for water, and perform other errands.

The following is the account which Mr. George Wilson now gives of himself. Taken in connection with the woman who calls herself his wife, and what is really known about them, the probability is that it is true. The story is certainly entitled to rank among the marvellous, and we give it in her own words:

Jane Walker, being further examined says, that what she said in her last examination is entirely false, and further says that her right name is George Moore Wilson, and that she was christened by that name, and that there are many females in Scotland bearing males’ names. That she was born at 20 Atherton street, Liverpool. Her parents were Scotch—that she was brought up in Scotland. Parents are both dead. Her father died when she was six years old. Mother died when she was about nine years old. It was after their death that she went to Scotland to live, owing to bad usage of her step father. That she ran away from her grandmother when she was 12 years old, and after she was a short distance from her home she put on male’s attire. That she bought the clothes she then put on with five shillings her grandmother, Mrs. Mary Wilson, had given her to buy a bladder of snuff with. That she put them on, expecting she should be pursued, that she lived in Glasgow about three years, and worked in a cotton factory the whole of the time, that she was married to Miss Elizabeth Cummings on a Friday, and left there on the following Tuesday for Quebec, Canada, via Greenock. That his wife, Elizabeth Cummings, did not know she was a female until after they were on board ship, and had left Greenock. That after she was married she went back into the country some distance to a place called the Shaws, and left word with an acquaintance of her relatives that George Moore Wilson (meaning herself) was in Glasgow, who requested them to send word to her friends. That the aquaintance spoken of was named James M. Duff, a cotton spinner, with whom deponant had formed an acquaintance, but who was entirely ignorant of whom she was or of her sex. That she worked in a man’s garb all the time she lived in Glasgow, that herself and wife arrived in Quebec and went immediately to Montreal, and then to New Limerick, where they purchased a farm of one hundred acres for one hundred dollars, and lived on the same from June to March, when her money being run out, she came on to the United States, and went to Patterson, New Jersey, and worked in a Cotton Factory.—That she worked about at different places, and while in Albany she learned to make fur caps, which is her present business. That she has been in the country altogether about 15 years, that after she had been here seven years she sent for her father-in-law, (her wife’s father,) and family, who arrived in this city, when she and her father-in-law, with family, went to Patterson, where she worked in the Cotton Factory of Clark & Robinson, and her father-in-law worked for Mr Collett, for nearly a year, and when they had collected money enough together, her father-in-law (whose name is Edward Cummings) and his family left for Canada, and are now living on her farm there, of which she has before made mention. That she worked in a Cotton Factory in Glasgow with her father-in-law for two or three years before coming to this country, who never knew but what she was, what she appeared to be and what she passed for, viz: a male. That he thinks so to this day, notwithstanding their having worked and lived together. That the marriage certificate now here, dated Glasgow, 2d April, 1821, between Geo. Wilson cotton spinner, and Elizabeth Cummings, signed Wm. Clugston, Sess. Clerk, and John M’Farline, minister is the original marriage certificate between herself and wife. That her grandmother, with whom she resided in Scotland, lived in Ayrshire, and is named Mary Wilson. That she does not know her precise age, that herself and wife worked latterly at the Fur cap making, and worked last for Mr. Barrow in Water street, near Burlingslip, that herself and wife had never accumulated any money nor done any more than make a living. That she continued to wear the garb of a male to enable her to get along better through the world.

The following is a copy of their marriage certificate:—

Glasgow, 2d April, 1820. [sic]

That George Wilson, cotton spinner, Bridgeton, and Elizabeth Cummings, residing there, have been three several Sabbaths lawfully proclaimed in the Barony Church, in order to marriage, and no objections offered, is attested by

WM. CLUGSTON, Sess. Clerk.

The above mentioned parties were married by me at Glasgow 6th April, 1821.


There appears to be more about this strange marriage, and the subsequent course of the parties, than at first meets the view, and Wilson was remanded to Bridewell until such time as the mysterious affair can be more fully and satisfactorily explained.

The New York Sun included other details and a touch of editorializing. (And appears to have misheard what George said about his name, miscalculated what day George was originally arrested, and misunderstood where George bought 100 acres of land.)

“A Female Husband” (from New York Sun; reprinted in Newbern Spectator [New Bern, North Carolina] 26 August 1836; p. 1)

James alias Jane Walker, alias George Moore Wilson, the man woman—On Friday evening, the female picked up in the street drunk on Thursday evening, in male attire, underwent an examination, on which occasion she told a long rigmarole story of her having followed to this country a lover whom she had failed in finding, and included in her tale quite a series of romance which duly appeared in several of the papers next morning as a veritable instance of romance in real life; the whole of which turns out to be a fabrication. The facts of her life are, however, highly romantic. The facts of her life are, however, highly romantic. She was born in Liverpool of Scotch parents, who afterwards returned to Glasgow, and there both of them died before she was 12 years old. She subsequently lived several years with her relatives, whom she afterwards clandestinely left, and assuming male attire, (which she says is a very common thing with females in Scotland,) and the name of George Moore Wilson, obtained employment as a male in a cotton factory. Whilst so employed she entered into a bona fide courtship of a young woman named Elizabeth Cummins, [sic] who belonged in Glasgow, and whose father was a superintendent in the factory in which she worked; and to whom, after being duly published three successive Sabbaths, at the parish church, she was married, in that city, on the 6th April, 1821. Having between them accumulated some money, they soon after left for this country; and it was not till they had partly crossed the Atlantic that her bride discovered that for a husband she had one of her own sex. The discovery, however, she says, did not in the least appear to disappoint her wife; and they have continued to this time to live and labor together as man and wife in harmony and love; the wife having never disclosed to even her nearest relations, the secret of their singular situation.—They first landed in the Western World at Quebec, and proceeded thence to Montreal, whence they emigrated to Indiana, and finally settled at New Harmony, where they purchased for $100, and still possess, a farm of 100 acres, on which an uncle of the wife’s is now living. They soon became dissatisfied there and returned to this section of the Union. At Paterson, N. J. they worked sometime in Mr. Robinson’s cotton factory; afterwards they removed to Albany, where they learned to make fur caps; and subsequently they came to this city and continued at the latter occupation; and at the time of the unlucky drunkenness which has led to a final explosion of this most singular of all connubial ties with which we were ever acquainted, were living harmoniously together at No. 47 Forsyth street, as veritable a man and wife, for aught that was known to any body acquainted with them, as the most thrifty couple in the city. This is the true story of this woman’s singular life, as told by herself, corroborated by her wife, and an acquaintance who knew them prior to their marriage; and it is stated by the latter that this singularly situated pair have, during the fifteen years of their union, maintained a fair character in all respects. The wife is rather a hard visaged woman, 30 or 35 years of age, and appears to possess a rather fiery temper, which she displayed pretty considerably when Mr. Lownds had her brought up to question her on Saturday evening. The female husband is still held in detention, till some further information can be obtained respecting her; as suspicions are entertained that there is something at the bottom of all this which does not yet appear.

The trope of the deserted woman dressing as a man in her search for her lover was strong: it’s apparent that George was depending on it to minimize trouble after being arrested. The plan was working until Elizabeth and acquaintances showed up at the police station. The final sentence in the last two transcribed pieces seems a graceful segue out of what was becoming a story difficult to cover; surely officials weren’t that discombobulated that two women would wish to live as husband and wife.

George and Elizabeth received their marriage license on 2 April 1821; the marriage was performed on 6 April 1821 in Barony, Lanark, Scotland. On the license, Elizabeth’s last name is recorded as “Cummins.” (The Sun seems to have seen the original and been careful in recording the information; either the Times recorded the name as “Cummings,” or it was “corrected” by the Monmouth Democrat.) (See Scotland, Marriages, 1561-1910. Salt Lake City, Utah: FamilySearch, 2013. via Scotland, Select Marriages, 1561-1910 [database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2014.)

What happened next? Unfortunately for us, the Wilson family vanishes from readily available newspapers, except for reprints and summaries of the situation. I’ve not found an indication that the marriage was officially dissolved.

Charles Williams is yet another individual we learn about because of a crime—in this case, the theft of a pig. (Or maybe more than one; it’s unclear.) Williams’ life as a sailor may have been going badly, or perhaps the theft of the pig was a hiccup in a successful career; there are a lot of reasons to steal a pig.

What seems to have been important for 19th-century editors—the story appears in several newspapers—is that this African-American sailor would be housed in the women’s prison instead of the men’s, and would be performing the labor expected of female prisoners, instead of the hard labor of “getting out stone” which was expected of the men. This is the only story I’ve found concerning Charles Williams.

“Female Sailor” (from Commercial Advertiser [New York, New York] 30 January 1834; p. 2)

A black, named Charles Williams, aged 26, dressed in seamen’s clothes, was convicted at the Special Sessions, on Tuesday, of stealing swine, and was sentenced to four months imprisonment at the penitentiary on Blackwell’s Island, and made to get out stone. While undergoing a metamorphosis of clothing by the officers of the prison, it was discovered that the sailor was a female. She state[d] that she was born in Boston but brought up in Providence, from which place she went several voyages to sea, and was recently discharged from one of our national vessels. The keeper was induced to disregard so much of the sentence as related to the convict being made to get out stone; instead of which, he directed that she should be habited as the rest of her sex, and put at the labour usually required of them in that institution. It is said to be a moot case among the lawyers, whether the sentence can be legally executed.

To a landlubber, it is just amazing how many “female sailors” appear in 19th-century newspapers. Elsewhere, too: a play titled “The Female Sailor” was performed in antebellum America, and the trope of the deserted woman shows up in songs and stories so often that it may have given sailors arrested for wearing “unsuitable” clothing an explanation for their actions that observers found reasonable. Some such took the job in order to travel across the ocean; some may have begun that way, but found that that life was more natural to them than the life they would have lived as a woman.

Margaret Wood appears to have been one of the latter. An immigrant from Scotland, Wood found no job in New York, but was successful as a cabin boy on one ship and as a sailor on another. (One wonders how bad conditions on the Plato were, given that the captain resorted to taking the sailors’ belongings hostage, so they wouldn’t desert.) Life as a female servant didn’t appeal to Wood, who apparently was back in men’s clothing once the ship was in New York.

Did Wood identify as a woman or as a man? The female clothing in Wood’s trunk hints at “woman.” But Wood’s reluctance to wear that clothing in public seems to hint otherwise. The two stories about Wood follow some of the traditional patterns of these stories as reported in 19th-century American newspapers: a description of the individual—usually emphasizing attractiveness—and the attempts by authorities to force that individual into clothing that would uphold the status quo.

[Notes: The two quoted lines in the second story are a variation of ones in a ballad popular in the 19th century. Titled “Revengeful Lover” in a chapbook printed in 1820, it tells the story of a young woman whose betrothed is “pressed … and sent to sea.” She disguises herself as a man and follows him. Learning that he is planning to marry another, she calls “for sword and pistol ready” and shoots both Willie and his intended bride as they walk on the seashore on the Isle of Man. In so doing, “[b]y young and old she was commended,” and she ends by marrying the captain of her ship and “now in splendour she does ride.” (Five Songs. England: np, nd; pp. 7-8; at google books) That the clothing Wood appropriated are coyly referred to as “inexpressibles” may hint that they are underclothes, since trousers and pantaloons are mentioned in stories in other 19th-century newspapers.]

On Friday last (from Georgian [Savannah, Georgia] 4 June 1832; p. 2)

On Friday last a Scotch lass, of favorable appearance, 16 or 18 years of age, was discovered on board of the ship Emperor, working with, and in the same garb, as the sailors. Her story has excited considerable attention, and we have learnt it thus: Being unable to obtain employment in New York, where she landed from Scotland, she procured a seaman’s dress, and shipped on board of the ship Plato as Cabin Boy. During the passage to this port the mate beat some of the seamen, and the cabin boy also twice, when the captain on arriving here, fearing they would desert, locked the chests in the cabin, and the cabin boy’s being found filled with women’s gear, instead of seaman’s duds, the owner was compelled to confess the imposition, and was turned adrift on shore. She afterwards (still in male attire) agreed on board the Emperor to work her passage to New York, and she was actually engaged in the arduous labor of discharging ballast, when the number of persons whom a rumor of the mal-appropos discovery on board the Plato, kept curiously gazing around the Emperor, attracted Capt. Fay’s notice, and the cheat was again discovered and confessed with tears and manifest distress. Capt. F. however humanely kept her on board, had her properly apparreled, and means to convey her to his family as a domestic. The President of the St. Andrew’s Society, and other gentlemen of character, have tendered any assistance to the girl that she may want.

“A Female Sailor” (from Morning Courier and New-York Enquirer [New York, New York] 4 June 1832; p. 2)

It will be recollected by most of our readers, that a female was discovered a short time since in Savannah, where she had arrived in a vessel from New York, disguised as a sailor boy. It appears that she has again returned to our port, and in the same attire, having performed the ordinary duty of cabin-boy on the voyage. She appears to be about 18 years of age, and has a countenance far from disagreeable; her figure strong set, but not “dumpy;” and her whole appearance is rather pleasing than otherwise. On seeing her at the Police Office yesterday, many were the conjectures relative to her choice of dress, and her appearance in this public office. One whispered, that perhaps she, like a late Liverpool heroine, was in search of some “truelove sailor,” and appeared before the magistrates to solicit their aid in her search for him; whilst others imagined she had acted towards some perfidious lover after the manner of the lady who

“Shot young Willy Taylor,
All as he walked on the sea shore.”

But alas! for all the romance of the story!—the truth came out: she was there for stealing a pair of inexpressibles, and some other articles, from the house in which she boarded, before her voyage to Savannah. It appears the complainant saw her on Tuesday evening, and recognized her as the same person who had left him sans culottes, and he immediately had her carried to the Watch-House, from whence she was committed to Bridewell yesterday to answer the charge.

Her trunk was brought to the Police Office, and found to contain a quantity of female apparel, but it was with the greatest difficulty she could be forced to doff her boy’s dress for one more suitable to her sex. She gives her name as Margaret Wood, but refuses to answer any other question.

Theater in early 19th-century America could be a … lively place. Patrons occasionally shot each other. Prostitutes sometimes plied their trade there. Even the least rambunctious crowd might call out advice to the actors or throw pennies on the stage to express disapproval of a performance.

One night in May 1828, the show included a drama in the audience, as a police officer quibbled with an audience member about the latter’s identity. It’s a lively scene, as James laughs off the officer’s suspicions before being arrested for—well, thereby hangs a tale of social structure. As a man, James H. appears to have been financially secure. As a woman, Mary Ann H. found it difficult to make a living except by prostitution. (In a later incident, a woman temporarily disguised herself as a man because, she pointed out, as a woman she could earn $4 a month, while as a man she could earn at least $20 a month; she was hired to cook at a lumber camp at $30 a month.)

James’ story follows a familiar pattern: the victim of a seductive rascal, abandoned and desperate. Was it true? Who knows. The trope was such a staple that it could have been concocted in order to appeal to the magistrate. James, however, appears to have been comfortable living as a man, judging by the protests.

The story was reprinted in various newspapers—at least one of which added its own editorial quibbling. The original appeared in the New York Morning Courier, unavailable to me. The reprints don’t make it simple to figure when James was arrested, given that they state simply that it happened “Saturday night.” The earliest I’ve found is in the Daily Chronicle of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on May 22. James probably was arrested around May 17.

The rendition appearing in the Chronicle took the chance to be amused at the expense of New York City. (Ah, Philadelphia: halfway between New York, New York, and Washington, DC, and perpetually convinced it’s in the shadows of both.) The Daily Chronicle was one of the earliest papers to reprint the story, excerpting the original on May 22. It is evident that the editor was reminded of similar tales in London newspapers, several of which were reprinted in various newspapers in the U. S. The first and last paragraph in this piece are the editor’s comments and summary, in a font larger than the one used for the extract from the Courier; instead of changing font size, I’ve indented the quoted section. In this context, a “roadster” is a horse ridden or driven for pleasure and light work, rather than for pulling a wagon or plow.

Our New York brethren (from Daily Chronicle [Philadelphia, Pennsylvania] 22 May 1828; p. 3)

Our New York brethren have often boasted of the rapidity with which their city is overtaking the great commercial towns of England. It must be confessed that, in some respects, their pretensions are well founded. The Morning Courier, of yesterday, relates an incident which might well be thought to have been transferred from a London paper. A young woman, in male attire, was taken from the Bowery Theatre, on Saturday Evening, by Hays, the police officer. When brought before the Magistrates, she gave the following account of herself:

Her father is a boat-maker, in some part of Canada; she was seduced from her parents by a young man, who subsequently abandoned her.—She was then reduced to the necessity of resorting to the means which wretched, unfortunate females employ, for procuring subsistence. Becoming, in a short time, disgusted with the life she was obliged to lead, and in order to avoid the snares of the wicked, she resolved upon assuming male attire, in which she was of opinion she would procure better wages than as a female servant. It was about twelve months ago she assumed the breeches, since which time she has filled the several situations of horse jockey, waiter, and travelling gentleman, adopting each profession when circumstances rendered it adviseable. [sic] The equestrian is her favorite mode of travelling, and at present she is possessed of a first rate roadster. She lamented exceedingly, her being obliged to resume the petticoats, and to leave off her masculine exercises, which she greatly preferred to those of the softer sex.

The Magistrates, it appears, determined to commit her to the care of the Guardians of the Alms House.

More thorough reprints appear in later papers.

“Singular Capture” (from the New York Courier; reprinted in the United States’ Gazette for the Country [Philadelphia, Pennsylvania] 27 May 1828; p. 1)

On Saturday night, at the Bowery Theatre, information was given to Mr. Joseph L. Hays, who is placed there to regulate the disorderly spirits who frequent the upper regions of that place of amusement, that a very handsome, interesting young lady, was disguised in manly habiliments, and, for some undefinable purpose, was endeavouring to conceal her sex from the knowledge of the public. She was pointed out to him, sitting in the third tier of boxes, amongst the nymphs, whom she was amusing with her numerous anecdotes. They were all mightily pleased, until Joseph interfered with their fun, by asking the would-be young gentleman if his name was not Miss Mary Ann H—? She vowed and protested that her name was Master James H—, and appeared to treat the disposition which was manifested to unsex her, with mixed ridicule and contempt. The truth, however, could be no longer concealed, and it was found that Miss Mary Ann had inserted her neat proportions into a handsome pair of Russia duck pantaloons, the capacity of which she completely filled.

Miss Mary Ann was brought, this morning, to the Office, where she gave the following account of herself: Her father is a boat-maker, in some part of Canada; she was seduced from her parents by a young man, who subsequently abandoned her. She was then reduced to the necessity of resorting to the means which wretched, unfortunate females employ, for procuring subsistence. Becoming, in a short time, disgusted with the life she was obliged to lead, and in order to avoid the snares of the wicked, she resolved upon assuming male attire, in which she was of opinion she would procure better wages than as a female servant. It was about twelve months ago she assumed the breeches, since which time she has filled the several situations of horse jockey, waiter, and travelling gentleman, adopting each profession when circumstances rendered it advisable. The equestrian is her favorite mode of travelling, and at present she is possessed of a first rate roadster. She lamented exceedingly, her being obliged to resume the petticoats, and to leave off her masculine exercises, which she greatly preferred to those of the softer sex.

The Magistrates of the Police are determined, we believe, to commit her to the care of the guardians of the Alms House.

The Salem Gazette includes more specifics, with a stunning amount of moralizing. (The phrase “rioting on the wages of iniquity” is weirdly delightful.)

“New York Police: Singular Case” (from Salem Gazette [Salem, Massachusetts] 27 May 1828; p. 3)

We have to record a painful scene which occurred at this office, and which was calculated to excite any rather than ludicrous ideas. The sight of affliction is at all times disagreeable, and the circumstance we have to mention appeared to excite commiseration and sympathy in no common degree. A young female, whose name is Mary Ann —, was this morning placed at the bar, in male clothing, in which disguise she has been figuring for the last twelvemonth, under the assumed name of James —. She was recognized in the Bowery Theatre, on Saturday night, by some of the frail sisterhood, with whom she had been formerly acquainted, and by them pointed out to an officer, who brought her to the Police. Some time ago she left her father, who is a tradesman or mechanic, in Canada, and after that she led for a short time, the usual life of a helpless, fallen, unprotected woman. Disgusted with this course, and finding that her character had been irretrievably ruined, as a woman, she was desirous to regain it in some other manner—a life of infamy had no allurements for her, and she preferred laboring for her maintenance to rioting on the wages of iniquity. She worked in a canal boat as a bowman, for three months—the privations and hardships to be endured in such a capacity, would quickly, we imagine, disgust any one whose virtuous determination was less firm than that of this most unfortunate girl. She was afterwards employed as a waiter at the Castle Garden for a month, and in the same situation on board the steamboat North America; in both which places her sex was undiscovered, and her conduct such as to gain her the good will of all who knew her. The exposure of these facts seemed to affect her considerably, and we are willing to believe that her tears were prompted by the compunctious visitings of remorse, and that the source of the better feelings of our nature, still runs clear and unchoaked [sic] in her. There is no charge against her excepting the appearance in male attire, and the magistrates, we believe, intend to place her under the care of the guardians of the House of Refuge, in order that some measures may be concerted to rescue her f[r]om her existing situation, and prevent the imposition which, in her present appearance, she must unavoidably practise upon society.

Tears! Remorse! Disgust at working as a bowman! The Gazette’s version of James is much more fluttery than the James in the Philadelphia Chronicle, who complains about having to wear women’s clothing. The Gazette seems terribly outraged that someone physically female has attempted to “practise upon society” an “imposition” by living as a male, and every cliche is trotted out.

What became of James? We’ll never know, but I hope the future was all he could wish for.

The unfortunate thing about newspaper articles is that interesting people often appear in a report of police activities … and then vanish. Was bird-cage manufacturing so lucrative that one would normally hire two apprentices? What kind of abuse did the boys suffer? Were both masters charged equally? Alas! I’ve been unable to find out.

“Police Office” (from American [New York, New York] 2 June 1826; p. 2)

Two apprentices came before the magistracy to complain of ill-treatment from their *masters@, bird-cage makers. In the testimony of one of the boys, he stated his belief that one of the persons to whom they were indented, was, although wearing male attire, and passing for a man—a female. The complaint of ill-treatment was sufficient to cause a warrant to issue, and the observations of the officers so far corroborated the statement of the boy, that the disguised woman was lodged in the female department of Bridewell, and her partner in that of the other sex.

A driver from Vermont, 1817

December 23, 2022

Gender has complexities beyond the physical definition. This was as true in early 19th-century America as it is now. As, for example, in the case of Eliza Bennet.

Bennet was a driver in 1817 New York, plying a trade between Lansingburgh (now a part of Troy), New York, and Albany. Arrested for stealing from another driver, Bennet was found by the court to be a woman living as a man.

It is, of course, impossible from a paragraph to know if Bennet identified as female or male. The letter to Bennet’s mother appears to have been read as informing the mother that Bennet is wearing male clothing, but it could simply have been introduced because the Vermont address shows how far from home the prisoner has traveled and that Bennet has no plans to stay in New York.

A number of women living as men in early 19th-century America did so because economic opportunities for men were better than those for women. The letter implies that this may have been Bennet’s reason. Other women found it was a safer way to travel; Bennet may have found it so.

I haven’t been able to find more information about Eliza Bennet. I hope things went well, even after a trial for larceny.

“A Fair Thief” (from The Albany Argus [Albany, New York] 22 August 1817; p. 3)

A person was brought before the police yesterday, on a charge of larceny, whose case has excited considerable interest. The prisoner has been for some time a hack driver between this city and Lansingburgh. A brother hack man, lodging in the room with the prisoner, missed a small sum of money, and, as no one else slept in the room, he charged the theft upon his room mate, and arraigned the supposed culprit before the police. On examining the prisoner for the stolen money, the reader may conceive the astonishment of the court, when they discovered the prisoner to be a female in the habilaments of a man! From a letter found upon her, addressed to her mother in Vermont, it appears that she has travelled 1200 miles in this disguise, and proposed soon to return to the paternal roof with the fruits of her industry. Her name is Eliza Bennet; and, we lament to add, that the proofs were so strong against her as to justify her commitment for trial.

I have the pleasure to inform you, that we captured, after a chase from five P. M. to half past to A. M. this morning, the Revenge American letter of marque schooner, thirty-seven days from Charleston to Bourdeaux; she is a new vessel, copper-bottomed and fastened, pierced for sixteen guns, having on board four long nine-pounders and thirty-two men. [“Extract of a Letter from Captain Harris, of his Majesty’s Ship Belle Poule.” The London Gazette [London, England] issue #16729 (15 May 1813); p. 944]

When the Revenge was captured, its crew was sent to Mill Prison. Here it was learned that one of the sailors was female. The unnamed individual was one of a number of women living as male while working on 19th-century ships. This person, however, was on an American ship captured by a British frigate during the War of 1812.

The person’s story is … intriguing verging on romantic—and possibly fictional. Apparently a servant traveling with employers, the individual was the sole survivor of shipwreck and donned a sailor’s clothing out of desperation. Three years later, as part of the captured crew, this sailor reassumed female identity.

(The description of the sailor is a standard trope in these news stories. What’s missing here is assurance to the reader that no sexual activity was involved. That information is standard in pieces in American newspapers later in the century.)

Did the individual generally identify as male or female? Living for three years as a male would hint at “male.” But there was a practical side to life as a male sailor: distressed seamen received aid; seamen could find a job. (“Landsman” was a naval term for a sailor with little experience on a ship.) Life as a female servant was perhaps more difficult, as the unnamed prisoner would have known from experience. Certainly the landsman succeeded in learning enough to serve as a sailor among thirty others.

Who was the sailor? I haven’t been able to discover this. It is to be hoped, however, that he or she received the $200 (about $2900 in 2021) in wages and prize money, which was clearly earned.

“A Female Sailor” (from a paper in Plymouth, England, 20 May 1813; reprinted in the Chronicle, or Harrisburg Visitor [Harrisburg, Pennsylvania] 26 July 1813; p. 2)

The Revenge, American schooner of about 250 tons, with a cargo of cotton arrived here a few days since, having been captured off Cape Ortugal, on her voyage to France, by his majesty’s ship Belle Poule. An American seaman taken in the above schooner, on finding he was going to Mill Prison, discovered himself to be a woman, and that she had worn men’s clothes these three years. She was examined and sent to the Hospital to be clothed. The account she gives of herself is as follows: going coastwise with her master, mistress and family, about three years since, the vessel was wrecked, and all on board perished except herself. She was naked, and finding the dead body of a seaman lying on the land, she conceived the idea of dressing herself in mens [sic] apparel, and then begged her way as a shipwrecked seaman to the nearest seaport. She got relief and also got employment as a landsman on board a vessel, and from thence into the Revenge schooner at the breaking out of the war. She says her share of prize money and wages is about 200 dollars. She wishes to be sent home to her native country, which, it is hoped, will be granted her. She has a comely face, sun burnt as well as her hands; and appeared, when in men’s clothes, a decent, well-looking young man.

Lectures were to the 19th century what television shows were to the late 20th century and what streaming shows are at this end of the 21st. Lecturers traveled the U.S., enlightening audiences on subjects practical and esoteric and providing listeners with an entertaining evening out for 25 cents.

Well, usually.

The critic for the Daily Free Democrat [Madison, Wisconsin] had some … definite opinions about what did and didn’t make for a good lecturer, and was something less than impressed with several who came to the growing little city to edify and inspire in 1855. “With regard to these lectures,” the Democrat stated in a piece announcing who would lecture that winter at the Young Men’s Association, “we have only to say that some of them will meet public expectations, and others, we fear, will sadly disappoint them. It is not enough that a man be learned in the classics and versed in the history of the dead. He must have such a sympathy with the living humanity of the present day, that he can comprehend its wants, and minister to its necessities. There are some lecturers on this list, whom we should have been glad to have seen omitted and their places supplied by others, and we imagine that by the time the course is finished, a great many people will be of the same opinion. The Association is now a close corporation, and takes advice only from a particular class.” [“Lectures Before the Young Men’s Association.” 26 October 1855; p. 2]

Ouch. Some local politics may lie behind the Democrat’s caustic remarks, which may have spread to the write-ups of several of the lectures themselves; it’s difficult to know for sure. The critic did enjoy the first lecture of the season, by well-known abolitionist Wendell Phillips, who lectured on 23 November on “The Duty of Thoughtful Men in a Republic”—though the enjoyment seems to have had an element of celebrity-worship. “It was an able and beautiful production,” the critic stated, “and exhibited Mr. Phillip’s eloquence in a gratifying light. It is next to impossible to convey, by a report, a correct impression of a lecture where so much interest is wrapped in the lecturer, as in the case of Mr. Phillips.” [“The Duty of Thoughtful Men in a Republic.” 24 November 1855; p. 2]

The next three lectures were less enthralling. Abolitionist David Paul Brown was tedious. Unitarian minister Thomas Starr King was incomprehensible. And law professor Theodore William Dwight was— Oh, that one brought out the critic’s complete range of sarcastic ammunition. (I confess, I haven’t the heart to see the write-ups on later lectures.) The critic justified himself after Brown’s lecture in “Criticism and Lectures,” in which a friend “whose good opinion we value” praises the writer for having “the independence to come out boldly and give David Paul Brown’s lecture the criticism it deserved,” such criticism having been shared by the Chicago Tribune, who called Brown’s lecture in Chicago “a pretty pictorial display, without breadth or depth, and characterless.” The independence, the writer assures us, came natural to the Democrat, which intended to “perform our duty … by speaking the truth at all times, of all creeds and all things. … Nor shall a name, or even a reputation, well-earned though it be, blind us to faults that exist.” (This meant including on the same page a critique of the sermon of a local minister on the subject of capital punishment: “There was nothing original in what the speaker produced, nor any argument that has not been advanced and answered repeatedly. … And we would merely add that the doctrines which Mr. Miter advocates, though they may be honestly entertained, come with poor grace, from one professing to be a follower of Him who taught forgiveness and not revenge … ”) [10 December 1855; p. 2]

“Lecture by David Paul Brown: ‘The Passions’ ” (from the Daily Free Democrat [Milwaukee, Wisconsin] 8 December 1855; p. 2)

We were among the many hundreds, who, last evening, despite of mud and rain, wended our way to Young’s Hall, for the purpose of hearing David Paul Brown deliver a lecture upon “The Passions.” Mr. Brown has a wide-spread reputation in his profession, and is a man of legal attainments of no mean order. But we are to speak of him now as a lecturer, and not as a lawyer, and we must confess being sadly disappointed in this respect. He came to us heralded as a brilliant orator, a graceful, humorous and pleasing speaker. He is neither one nor the other. His address is anything but refined, his jokes anything but new, his illustrations anything but applicable, and his lectures (if we take “The Passions” as a sample) anything but instructive or gratifying. He has a certain drollity in his manner—and an equally droll physiognomy—which creates a sort of good humor in an audience, but this is almost his only redeeming quality, and was all, last night, that made his lecture bearable, or raised it above mediocrity. It is the first time we have had the pleasure of hearing Mr. Brown, and we are not at all particular as to how long an interval may elapse before we hear him again.

The next lecture of the course will be delivered by Rev. T. Starr King, of Boston, next Friday evening. Subject—“Sight and Insight.” We anticipate a delightful literary treat.

The literary treat didn’t happen. The write-up is entertainingly vague, and the critic lost track of just what was being said (a familiar sensation, given some conference papers I’ve been obligated to sit through … ). Phrases like “intelligent audience” become a critique of the lecturer when audience members ask a friend what the fellow is driving at; and “we feel that it would be impossible to convey, by such a meagre report as we should be obliged to give, any definite idea of its real character” is a polite way of answering, “I have no idea.” Instead, King is described, and phrenology comes into the picture, and—yes—it’s unclear just what King actually talked about.

“The Lecture of Mr. King” (from the Daily Free Democrat [Milwaukee, Wisconsin] 15 December 1855; p. 2)

Rev. T. Starr King delivered his lecture upon “Sight and Insight,” last evening, before a large and intelligent audience. We have omitted our usual sketch, simply because we feel it would be impossible to convey, by such a meagre report as we should be obliged to give, any definite idea of its real character, and we shall therefore confine ourselves to a few general remarks upon the lecture, as a whole.

Mr. King is a man of medium height, sparely built, with a pleasant and youthful expression, (his real age varying but little from 30).—His head, phrenologically, and not “generally” (as a Yankee would probably suggest), speaking, indicates a well-balanced mind, and a decided preponderance of the mental faculties.—He is evidently a student, a strong and original thinker, and a careful investigator. His mind is of that class which seeks to ascertain the true origin of things, and endeavors to reach the root from which theories spring, and by penetrating through the superficial deposites, and analyzing artificial coverings, arrive at the real foundation on which the structures of thought are based. He has a keen appreciation of the beautiful, and with the pencil of language paints the most exquisite pictures on which the “mind’s eye” would fain love to gaze and dwell. Yet herein lies one of his greatest faults. He deals too much in theory, and in his love of the ideal forgets the real and the useful. He revels in space, floats in the milky-way, rides upon radiant clouds, and seems perfectly at home among the asteroids. He lassoes worlds with impunity, and vividly portrays the wonders and the glories of the starry system, till the mind becomes wearied following him in his “divine flights” and longs to return to earth, and common mortality.

Especially was this the case with Mr. King, in his lecture last evening. We followed him in his heavenly surveys as far as our limited astronomical knowledge would permit, but soon found that the attempt to “keep up” was a vain one, and as preposterous as vain; and we entirely lost sight of him when he got above the fixed stars, though he still continued ascending. Now, although this was beautiful in the extreme, and though the imagery denoted a master skill, its effect was not to benefit, but please,—not to instruct, but gratify. It lacked practicability, and cannot, perhaps, be better described, than by a remark which we overheard an honest countryman make, who anxiously inquired of his neighboring friend,—“What the dickens is the fellow driving at?”

We have the same fault to find with Mr. King’s numerous and oft-repeated classical allusions, and could not but wonder what would have happened, had not the wondrous mythology of the Ancients been transmuted to admiring posterity. It is all well enough, and it certainly is agreeable, to listen to well-drawn portraits of the Greek and Roman mythological divinities, but even Venus loses her beauty, Aurora’s blush its fascination, Appollo [sic] his grace, and Hercules his power, if their respective beauties are so much dwelt upon that the mind becomes satiated. The object of illustration should be to enforce, as well as beautify, an idea, but it fails in this when expatiated on at too great a length, and we forget the idea in the illustration.

On the whole we were disappointed in Mr. King’s lecture, and think it hardly did justice to himself. We went away without having any new or striking thought impressed upon our mind, or any seeds implanted which would incite study and research.

In pointing out what appeared to us defective, we do not wish to be understood as thinking the lecture devoid of merit. By no means. There were many links in the chain Mr. King presented to our view, of exceeding beauty and force, and the lecture abounded in fine sentiments, graceful allusions, and exquisite illustrations and imagery. It bore, too, the evidence of careful preparation, and a refined education, and was pervaded throughout by a liberal christian spirit, and a large humanity.

Incomprehensible as King’s lecture was, famed law professor Theodore Dwight fared no better when he gave what appears to have been an all-too-comprehensible lecture on “The Man of Books and the Man of the World.” Having taught the classics at Utica Academy in New York, in 1855 he was professor of law, history, civil polity, and political economy at Hamilton College, in Clinton, New York, and becoming influential as a scholar; by 1860 he was law professor at Columbia University, shaping its law program.

Given write-ups of the two preceding lectures, it’s tempting to see the Democrat’s critic finally hitting his limit with the lecturers. Here we get an exhaustive description of Dwight’s lecture and some sharply pointed criticism. (That Dwight “had read Peter Parley” had to sting; Parley was the character created by Samuel Griswold Goodrich to be the purported author of his extremely popular books for children.) That the writer is able to give such an exhaustive description may have been because this is the lecture he could actually follow.

“Lecture of Professor Dwight” (from the Daily Free Democrat [Milwaukee, Wisconsin] 24 December 1855; p. 20

Prof. T. W. Dwight of Hamilton College, New York, delivered a lecture on Saturday evening last, at Young’s hall, before the Young Men’s Association, on “the man of books, and the man of the world.” The lecture was chiefly remarkable for nothing. It was nothing more nor less than a decided bore. It lacked point, originality, force, thought, and everything a lecturer is expected to possess, and overflowed with a literary rubbish, which the professor had garnered from every conceivable quarter, without any regard to its applicability, beauty or interest. It was a sophmorical [sic] production—a sort of a lecture we should expect to hear delivered by an egotistical, self-satisfied collegiate, who imagined that because he had read Peter Parley, perused Livy and Horace, studied Homer, and solved some of the problems of Euclid, therefore and consequently, he knew everything, whereas his real ignorance was only surpassed by his stupidity in failing to realize what an ignoramus he was. And one remark of Prof. Dwight, that “now-a-days, a lecturer could lecture upon strength, without even possessing a single strong thought,” was a mirror in which the Prof. could see himself and his production, without the aid of more than ordinary optics. We never remember having listened to a lecture (and we have heard many poor ones) more entirely devoid of merit, or possessing such slight claims upon the attention and regard of an audience.

In commencing, Prof. Dwight drew a portrait of the man of books—spoke of the advantages and disadvantages of a scholar’s life—divided students in two classes—the solitary and social—the former delighting in anything beautiful or interesting, on account of the gratification it conveyed to himself, whilst the latter was only pleased when the enjoyment in which he participated was shared by others—We can accomplish but little, said the Professor, by knowledge—by an acquaintance with literature, unless we can put that knowledge to some practical use. A man on the top of a high mountain may rejoice at the elevated position he has attained, but how much better would it be, and how much more good could he accomplish, were he to descend and mingle with mankind below. This idea is well illustrated by the old Grecian fable, that represents a giant who was all-powerful as long as his feet rested upon the Earth, and the only way in which he could be destroyed, was by lifting him bodily from the ground. Books are chiefly valuable, said the lecturer, by enabling us to accomplish, in a brief space of time, what it takes ages to experience. Thus in a few hours, with Bruce, we penetrate the depths of Abyssinia, coast along the Nile with Howadji, revel amongst the wonders and ruins of Thebes and Nineveh with Layard, or make the circuit of the Globe with Taylor. From Books we learn what our limited experience in the world fails to teach. They make our present life universal, and we see in them both the cause and effect, and can trace results to their origin. We learn the personal experience of thousands, of many centuries, in a few years; and wherever we go with books, there is the centre [sic] of the universe.

The “man of the world,” was the theme on which the lecturer next enlarged. He who confines himself entirely to business, foregoes the pleasure and cultivation of knowledge, with whom the latest book is the best, who satisfies himself by a passing acquaintance, and a hasty glance at the treasures of literature, nor seeks to penetrate below the surface, or beneath the superficial deposites, where the real wealth lies hidden. [Transcriber’s note: Yes, this sentence appears here as originally printed.] This class is represented by the man who accumulated a large and valuable library, but whose love of reading decreased as his books a[ug]mented, until, at last, the only “work” he read, with any degree of satisfaction, was his catalogue.

With all his genius the sculptor, fails to make his marble productions speak, or move, or breathe. The Venus de Medicis, and the Greek Slave—beautiful and exquisite though they be—are naught else than cold, inorganic stone. And in the ancient days of Greece, when art reigned in all the glory of its zenith, the old masters saw the deficiency and represent an artist endeavoring to draw power from the gods, through which he could infuse life into his productions. But the effort was futile. The cold, blank, marble eyes remained, and no warm heart bubbled up to the fixed and motionless lips.

Thus is it with books. No matter how or by whom they are written, they fail to stir the subtler instincts of our nature, to awaken the deepest emotions. We may admire the beauty of a tale, the genius displayed by an author, and yet for the touch of one warm, soft hand, we would burn an Alexandrian library. We must not only see and read, but feel and experience, and the true plan should be, said the lecturer, in closing, to interweave a knowledge of books with a knowledge of the world, learning lessons from both, and framing our course from whatever we can find that is truthful and beautiful in each.

Prof. Dwight is a large man—physically—but quite small (we should think[)] mentally,—and whatever may be his ability or reputation as a college professor, he certainly is not an agreeable, entertaining, or instructive speaker, nor has he any right to come before an intelligent audience with such a lecture as he delivered on Saturday night last.

The noise occasioned at the close of the lecture, by the greater part of the audience, in their nervous endeavors to reach the door, and to escape the scene of their affliction, as soon as possible, awoke those (and they were not a few) whose patience had become entirely exhausted by the prosaic and stupid lecture which they had been forced to endure, and all seemed to experience a deep sense of relief when they found themselves beyond the reach of the Professor[’]s meaningless words, which for an hour and a half had been incessantly showered forth without any regard to the feelings of the audience. We believe this is the first time Prof. Dwight has lectured in our city, and we sincerely hope it may be the last.

In closing, we offer as a toast to our readers:

David Paul Brown, and Prof. T. W. Dwight, lecturers of such depth, that there is no bottom to their lectures.

Just be glad if no one ever says any of that about you.

Life by sevens, 1851

August 12, 2022

This little poem was reprinted in various places between 1848 and 1898. The earliest copy I’ve found is in The Christian’s Penny Magazine, a British periodical; it appeared there in 1848. The 1898 version is a little filler in Our Horticultural Visitor (December 1898). In between, it appeared in Frank Leslie’s Pleasant Hours (1867), Godey’s Magazine (1866), Werner’s Readings and Recitations (1891), and Yankee Humour, and Uncle Sam’s Fun (a British publication; 1853).

As published in 1848, it’s titled “Life of a Sinner,” and is introduced as lines that “well deserve the meditation of worldly men.” It didn’t stay that serious for long; “Dow, Jr.” uses it as the text for one of his “Short Patent Sermons” published in the New York Mercury before appearing in Yankee Humour in 1853 and in Dow’s Patent Sermons in 1857. Dow’s “sermons” are tiny speeches on the vagaries of life that begin with “My Hearers” and often close with “So mote it be!” (A phrase that may sound very familiar to adherents of a certain non-Christian religion.) This “sermon” reminisces about the stages of life (the years spent “in childhood’s sport and play” are the longest, which—yeah—is accurate) as it goes through the poem line by line. Godey’s addresses mothers, pointing out that their influence over their child in the first seven years should “lead him in the right way; and make him, in the last seven years, turn to your teaching as the best wisdom of his life.”

The original author meant the poem to be a serious commentary on a path to doom. But readers make of things what we will, and this tidy little rhyme was too engaging to leave in the hands of sermonizers.

(from the Daily Free Democrat [Milwaukee, Wisconsin] 15 March 1851; p. 2)

Seven years in childhood’s sport and play,
Seven years in school from day to day,
Seven years at a trade or a college life,
Seven years to find a place and a wife,
Seven years to pleasure’s follies given,
Seven years by business badly driven,
Seven years for fame a wild goose chase,
Seven years for wealth a bootless race,
Seven years for hoarding for your heir,
Seven years in weakness spent in care,
Then die and go—you know not where!