Gender, 1845

June 28, 2019

One frustration of working with early periodicals is seeing an article in an old newspaper and knowing that you’re glimpsing just a bit of a larger story that you’ll never know the whole of. In 1845 a newspaper piece originating in the Clarksville Chronicle (Clarksville, Tennessee) spread through several periodicals under titles containing variations of the word “strange.” In brief, the story involves a young person from a family near Nashville, Tennessee, moving to Clarksville as a young man named Aaron Brown and then being identified as female before being taken away by a family member. (Pronouns are difficult here, as it’s impossible to know whether the young person identified as male or female.)

The story wasn’t, the original editors assure readers, published “to gratify any inordinate thirst for the novel and exciting, but rather to vindicate the name and protect the feelings of a respectable family”—and probably a prominent one, given that the father is recognized by someone in Clarksville. “Reports,” the editors contend, “alike prejudicial and unfounded, have probably gone out, which may be best contradicted by an authentic statement of facts as they transpired.” Of course! Because printing a story sure to be reprinted by other newspapers won’t call attention to an incident that may have gotten no press at all. And pointing out that a “respectable” family near Nashville is involved doesn’t at all call public attention to every apparently respectable family near Nashville.

As you might expect, the article as reprinted (I’ve been unable to find a copy of the Chronicle, so have worked only with the reprints) has a rather … jocular tone that implies that, oh, these women, they’re so silly and incompetent, amirite?

At least at the beginning of the piece. Pronouns are emphasized and used in apparently humorous ways, and Aaron is described using words and phrases usually used to refer to young women. Aaron’s attempts to make a living as a tailor are mocked, as are comments made concerning Aaron’s name. (And the fact that townspeople identified Aaron as female hints that the attempt to appear male was less than competent.)

Then Aaron’s father comes to town (he’s described as the stereotypical elderly father) and attempts to get Aaron to come with him … and the mockery ends. A Clarksville citizen who’s heard Aaron’s story hides Aaron. And when the young person is found, Aaron refuses to go home. By now, the tone of the story has become serious. The father declares that Aaron will be taken somewhere else (presumably, the article says, the lunatic asylum); women’s clothes are found for Aaron to wear; and the two leave town and drop out of history.

Leaving, of course, a thousand questions. Was Aaron a transgender man attempting to shape a new life? a young woman traveling as a man for safety? What was happening in that home, that not only did the young person feel the need to leave and not return, but the father understood that the only way to get Aaron to come with him was to promise that the two wouldn’t be going home? It’s frustrating not to know the answers to these questions.

There’s a more basic question, too: Did this incident really happen? Perhaps: women have lived as men in every society, because they found it more freeing; because they found it safer; because they knew that they were structurally women, but actually men. That the piece appeared in a newspaper doesn’t imply that the write-up was truthful. Today, newspapers are expected to print news: truth as it’s currently understood. In antebellum America, not so much. (There’s a newspaper story that’s standard in those entertaining television programs about Bigfoot that’s obviously a tall tale.) Newspapers before the Civil War tended to be weekly collections of advertisements (pages 1, 3, and 4), poems, political news, and interesting pieces reprinted from other newspapers. The reprint below is from the front page of the Schenectady Reflector, which also features a column of real estate ads, two pieces on the death of Andrew Jackson, a poem, an essay on the importance of frugality among wives, an anti-war editorial by John C. Abbott (with a disturbingly detailed description of the explosion of a bomb-shell in New York City weeks earlier), and the transcription of a formal letter from the Emperor of China to the President of the United States. The editor of the Reflector knew a good story when he saw it and reprinted it—and probably didn’t care whether it happened or not.

Whether or not the incident happened, it provided editors with an opportunity to lay into a subject that was often lain into: the dangers of reading novels. It’s one of my favorite topics in literary history: that reading novels turns a young person’s brain. And Aaron, apparently, left home as a result of too much novel reading.

Only in 19th-century America.

Below is a transcription of the story as it was written up in the Schenectady Reflector, with a sentence in square brackets that appeared in the version reprinted in the Cincinnati Herald. (If only I could find a copy of the Clarksville paper … )

“Truth Stranger Than Fiction” (from the Clarksville Chronicle [Clarksville, Tennessee]; reprinted in Schenectady Reflector [Schenectady, New York] 4 July 1845; p. 1.

We take the following strange and romantic story from the Clarksville Chronicle of Tuesday last:

The following article is published, not to gratify any inordinate thirst for the novel and exciting, but rather to vindicate the name and protect the feelings of a respectable family. Reports, alike prejudicial and unfounded, have probably gone out, which may be best contradicted by an authentic statement of facts as they transpired.—Eds. C. C.

A STRANGE ADVENTURE.

The human mind, in some of its [w]ilder moods exhibits at times mysteries more curious than all the phenomena [sic] of the physical world. Strange adventures, wild and fantastic fancies, plans and purposes mysterious, and motives only known to the heart that conceives them. Wo unto those who without the helm of reason are drifted upon the surges of human action, as prey for romance, speculation, and novelty.

On Thursday, 20th ult., a mild and interesting personage, in the garb of a man, alighted from the stage in this place, and in ten minutes was seeking employment among the tailors. The feminine appearance, soft, sweet voice, and extremely delicate features of this individual led every one to suppose that it was a female. A tidy frock coat, always buttoned, a chapeau gracefully worn, and tidy boots and trowsers [sic] adorned the person of this mysterious visitor. Dark flowing locks, lustrous and languid black eyes, and sunny smiles dimpling upon the cheek, marked this personage as a very handsome and interesting young gentleman, and the knowing ones said she was a GIRL, as in fact she was. She reported herself as having come from Norfolk[,] Virginia. When conversed with by those familiar with Virginia she evinced a perfect familiarity with the geography and scenes of that State.—Every village, every hamlet, everything remarkable in the different roads from Norfolk she remembered and detailed.

Her name was Aaron Brown. ‘That,’ said her landlord to her, ‘is the name of our candidate for Governor.’ ‘Well,’ she replied, ‘I don’t know but I may be a candidate, too, some day.’ She claimed to be a tailor, and on Saturday Mr. L— gave her employment in his shop. She would not pull off her coat, as she was subject to rheumatism—she would not sit upon the tailor’s bench, it was so uncomfortable; she could not sew on tailor’s work at all, well, but when something thin and light was given her she proved herself at home; she could make shirts very well, and made the one she wore. Her mother had taught it to him. She was discovered to blush at every uncouth expression uttered in her presence, and shrunk from each familiar approach. Curiosity was on the alert, gossip was on tiptoe; and HE or SHE, as this interesting visitor was promiscuously styled, became quite a hero or heroine.

On Saturday morning an old gentleman with sad and care-worn features, alighted at the Native American Hotel. He was her father, and happened, as guided by some invisible friend, to put up where his daughter was staying. [They met, but he did not recognize his daughter.] She paused at a gentleman’s gate, stepped in, and politely asked for the kind favor of a pen and ink, to write a note. In a few moments her distressed old father received the following brief billet:

“I am in this place; I have seen you, but despair of finding ME! I will elude you.

“Farewell forever. YOUR DAUGHTER.”

Her father was recognized to be a highly respectable old gentleman residing near Nashville. Every one was touched with sympathy at his apparent suffering and distress, and all were anxious to assist him in reclaiming his wayward daughter.

After a various and unsuccessful search on Sunday evening, it was at length ascertained where she was concealed, and a few gentlemen repaired to the house, but the person who was concealing the object of their search, resisted their en[tr]ance and refused to give her up. They returned, and having obtained a process of law, repaired again to the house. It seems that this new friend and his wife had heard her story, and become interested in behalf of the poor unfortunate wanderer thus pursued. A short struggle ensued, which fortunately resulted in injury to no one, and she was taken captive, but not until she had attempted to draw a bowie knife with which she had been provided for her defence. In a moment she was in her father’s arms and fell upon his neck weeping bitterly, but declared that she would not go home. He then promised her that he would not go home, but would carry her to a place he had selected, (we suppose it to be the Lunatic Asylum,) and she consented to go with him. It only remained to provide a more suitable dress, and those unhappy visitors who had excited such an interest, departed on their journey at the dead hour of night.

The father of this unf[or]tunate female evinced for her the deepest and most tender feeling—why should he not? She was, and ever had been a darling child. He could not, he said, believe her conduct criminal, nor did any one else. She had been from childhood, affectionate and dutiful, and exemplary in conduct. He had discovered for many days before she left home, a certain degree of melancholy upon her. She had long been passionately fond of reading novels, and the passion had grown upon her until she deserted every other employment. Some vision of romance had flitted before the eyes of this unhappy girl, and alas! she pursued it until she had nearly ruined herself, and broken the hearts of a doting family.

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Ah, The Fashionable Letter-Writer. So many tiny melodramas. This one involves a couple who probably shouldn’t get married: she’s too quick to suspect; he’s … Well, would you trust a man who blames “prejudice itself imposed on by some designing person, who had private views, and private ends to answer by such baseness” and who sends little bribes parcels as “convincing proof of [his] integrity”? (“Convincing proof”? What do you send as “convincing proof”?)

From a young Lady to a Gentleman, complaining of Indifference.

Sir,

However light you may make of promises, yet I am foolish enough to consider them as something more than trifles; and am likewise induced to believe that the man who voluntarily breaks a promise, will not pay much regard to an oath; and if so, in what light must I consider your conduct? did I not give you my promise to be yours, and had you no other cause for soliciting it than merely to gratify your vanity? a brutal gratification, indeed, to triumph over the weakness of a woman, whose greatest fault was, that she loved you. I say loved you; for it was in consequence of that passion, I first consented to become yours. Has your conduct, sir, been consistent with my submission, or with your own solemn professions? is it consistent with the character of a gentleman first to obtain a woman’s consent, and afterwards brag that he had discarded her and found one more agreeable to his wishes? do not equivocate, I have too convincing proofs of your insincerity; I saw you yesterday walking with Miss Benton, and am informed that you have promised marriage to her. Whatever you may think, sir, I have a spirit of disdain, and even resentment, equal to your ingratitude, and can treat the wretch with a proper indifference, who can make so slight a matter of the most solemn promises. Miss Benton may be your wife, but she will receive into her arms a perjured husband; nor can ever the superstructure be lasting, which is built on such a foundation. I leave you to the stings of your own conscience.

I am, the injured.

The Gentleman’s Answer.

My Dear Angel,

For by that name I must still call you; has cruelty entered into your tender nature, or has some designing wretch imposed on your credulity? my dear, I am not what you have represented. I am neither false nor perjured; I never proposed marriage to Miss Benton, I never designed it: and my sole reason for walking with her was, that I had been on a visit to her brother, whom you know is my attorney. And was it any fault in me to take a walk into the fields with him and his sister? surely prejudice itself imposed on by some designing person, who had private views, and private ends to answer by such baseness. But whatever may have been the cause, I am entirely innocent; and to convince you of my sincerity, beg that the day of marriage be next week. My affections never so much as wander from the dear object of my love; in you are centered all my hopes of felicity; with you only can I be happy. Keep me not in misery one moment longer, by entertaining groundless jealousies against one who loves you in a manner superior to the whole of your sex; and I can set at defiance even malice itself. Let me beg your answer by my servant, which will either make me happy or miserable. I have sent a small parcel by the bearer, which I hope you will accept as a convincing proof of my integrity; and am,

Yours for ever.

Susanna Newbould (1821-1882) was “Aunt Sue,” the popular editor of the popular puzzle column in Robert Merry’s Museum and contributor to various periodicals for children and for adults. While known for her puzzles (she also edited the puzzle column in Woodworth’s Youth’s Cabinet and her collections of puzzles for children were reprinted into the 1880s), Newbould also wrote lively letters published in various American periodicals.

So lively, in fact, that when the author of Haney’s Guide to Authorship wanted to include an example of the “off-hand, dashing style” often adopted by female writers, Newbould’s was one chosen; she was at the time contributing to Haney’s Journal.

It’s vintage Aunt Sue: casual, intimate. Newbould was married to a prosperous Brooklyn merchant and in the summer often spent weeks in the relative coolness of a house at the beach. The letter begins with a description of a children’s game—and of a young child’s amusing version of it. It ends with a vivid description of leisure moments at a beach resort. (Relaxed as they were, however, there’s still an attempt to ensure that nobody’s dancing on the Sabbath.)

I haven’t yet discovered when the letter was written. It doesn’t appear to have been published in Haney’s Journal. But it’s a look at what middle-class New Yorkers did on their summer vacations in the 1860s.


You want to know what I’ve been doing. Well, I’ve been to Long Branch; that is n’t much to tell of, but being there I went to a Clam-bake; that was splendid!

All day Friday the boys were building upon the beach a pyramid of dead trees, chips, brush, etc., until its altitude was imposing. Saturday, P. M., some of us buried beds of clams in the sand and piled brush and chips over them—about 9 P. M., we mustered our household, and walked or rode to the beach; the clam-fires were started—the moon shone—the waves washed merrily up beside us—the neighbors from far and near gathered on the bluff above us, and looked like a human fence against the moonlit sky. The kettle of coffee (milked and sweetened) was set upon the fire—the table (brought down by some of the men) spread with cups, etc.—But you need n’t think we sat round about it! no, indeed! We spread our shawls, cloaks, etc., on the sand, and made that our divan. When the clams were roasted, and the fires consequently pretty well burnt out, we started the bonfire, which lasted while we ate our supper. Did n’t it taste nice—not the bonfire, but the supper—a pailful of home-made bread and butter, delicious hot coffee, and the finest of roast clams. Afterwards, the men (farm hands) gathered up the debris, and we sang glees, choruses, etc., etc., till our beautiful bonfire was burnt out; then we went home and finished with a grand dance at the house. We had to hurry up “the Lancers,” so as not to trench upon Sunday morning.

At a quarter to twelve we all scattered like several Cinderellas; I didn’t see any glass slippers about next morning, so presume there was “nobody hurt.”

Then the sailing parties—the pic-nics—the cold chicken, and apple and blackberry pies under the spreading trees on the banks of “Pleasure Bay”—the crabbing parties—the riding to the crabbing-pond in the farm wagon, cushioned with straw; crinoline interdicted—the jolts, the small shrieks, “whose feet are these?”—the mud. “Get-t-ape”—“crack”—and down the little hill we go, over the rattlety-bang bridge—chunk-chunk-rattle-bangeety-bang—“ow—w—ch!” [“]Glorry-y-gl-orr-y-hal-ly-loo-woo-woo-woo-oo-oo-yah!” Oh! Oh! was n’t it fun? do n’t you wish you’d been there? Likewise, at the crab supper afterwards. I was.

Aunt Sue.

Haney’s Guide to Authorship calls this description of a despised husband “rather … overloaded with epithet.” It is, however, (alphabetically) entertaining. It’s from Mrs. Partington’s Carpet-bag of Fun (1854; available at google books), which book certainly points up that humor doesn’t always outlive its generation:

“He is an abhorred, barbarous, capricious, detestable, envious, fastidious, hard-hearted, illiberal, ill-natured, jealous, keen, loathesome, malevolent, nauseous, obstinate, passionate, quarrelsome, raging, saucy, tantalizing, uncomfortable, vexatious, abominable, bitter, captious, disagreeable, execrable, fierce, grating, gross, hasty, malicious, nefarious, obstreperous, peevish, restless, savage, tart, unpleasant, violent, waspish, worrying, acrimonious, blustering, careless, discontented, fretful, growling, hateful, inattentive, malignant, noisy, odious, perverse, rigid, severe, teasing, unsuitable, angry, boisterous, choleric, disgusting, gruff, hectoring, incorrigible, mischievous, negligent, offensive, pettish, roaring, sharp, sluggish, snapping, snarling, sneaking, sour, testy, tiresome, tormenting, touchy, arrogant, austere, awkward, boorish, brawling, brutal, bullying, churlish, clamorous, crabbed, cross, currish, dismal, dull, dry, drowsy, grumbling, horrid, huffish, insolent, intractable, irascible, ireful, morose, murmuring, opinionated, oppressive, outrageous, overbearing, petulant, plaguy, rough, rude, rugged, spiteful, splenetic, stern, stubborn, stupid, sulky, sullen, surly, suspicious, treacherous, troublesome, turbulent, tyrannical, virulent, wrangling, yelping dog in a manger.”

Haney’s Guide is being entertaining, too, though tough on female writers. (“Their reading is generally less various, and their apprenticeship to letters less vigorous” than men’s, so they quickly become one-trick ponies. One-trick ponies that make money for publishers like Haney & Co., but let’s not mention that.)

Okay; I’m getting far too obsessed with “letter writers”—books of letters which are supposed to act as models (?!) for readers. Interestingly—and unsurprisingly—some letters show up again and again and again, eternally, without end. Most are so specific that they’re probably meant for entertainment purposes, rather than as examples; and some are dandy little melodramas. An example is below, which appears in The Fashionable Letter Writer (published in 1819), The Letter Writer (1840), and The American Letter Writer (1862).

Alas! we don’t have the young gentleman’s letter, which I’d just love to see. Instead, we have to fill in the blanks ourselves. They’re … pretty obvious. (The little melodrama, though, would make a good exchange for an historical murder mystery of the type I’m unable to plot.)

From a Widow to a young Gentleman, rejecting his suit.

Sir,

The objections I have to make to the proposal contained in your letter are but few, but they demand some attention, and will, I believe, be rather difficult to obviate.

You are, by your account, two-and-twenty. I am, by mine, six and forty; you are too young to know the duties of a father: I have a son, who is seventeen, and consequently too old to learn the duties of a son from one so little senior to himself. Thus much with respect to age. As to the little fortune I possess, I consider myself merely trustee for my children, and will not, therefore, impose on you, by acceding to the common report, that I am rich. However, as you have borne a lieutenant’s commission these three years, as you tell me, you may, perhaps, have reserved out of the profits of that, a sufficient sum to obviate every difficulty on that head.

I will press these objects no farther; when you can convince me that in point of age, fortune, and morals, you are such a person as I can, without reproach, take for a husband, and admit as a guardian to my children, I shall cease to think, as I now candidly confess I do, that motives far from honourable, or disinterested love, have influenced your application; till that happens, I must regret that an ill-timed effort of gallantry, on your part, deprives me of the pleasure of subscribing myself

Your sincere friend, and humble servant.

A friend of the family gives some tactful advice on what kind of career a young man of “no soaring genius” should pursue. That lawyers should have “a sprightly impudence” is rather delightful.

To a Father, concerning the Choice of a proper Profession for his son.

Dear Sir,

You very well know that I have a good opinion of your son, and think him a modest, grave, and sober youth. For this reason I hardly think him qualified for the profession you seem inclinable to choose for him; for I much doubt whether he has talents for the law, or ever will have that presence of mind which is indispensably necessary, in order to make a figure at the bar. In any smooth and easy business he will probably succeed, and be an useful member of the community. I must confess to you, and I hope you will excuse the freedom, that I have some doubts wether your son’s genius may be equal to that of an universal merchant. This opinion, which I have entertained of your son, should you think it just, will be no obstacle to his succeeding in the world, in some creditable and easy business. Though I think him unequal to the profession you seem inclinable to allot him, yet I by no means think him destitute of common sense, and experience teaches us, that in some sorts of business, ample advantages may be made by very moderate talents, with much reputation. These are principally such employments as merely consist in buying with prudence, and in selling them at a profit. Hence we see several wholesale dealers gain large fortunes with ease and credit, and without any other secret, than the plain practice of buying at the best hand, paying for their goods punctually, and vending them always for what they really are. As to what you hint of placing him in the physical tribe, I like that no better than the other. Consider only this one thing, how long it will be before he will be capable of entering into business, or acquiring reputation as a physician, if he ever does it at all; for who chooses to trust his health to an inexperienced young man? The law requires a sprightly impudence, if I may so say, and the physician a solemn one. It is from hence easy to foresee that he may, in the profession of either physic or law, live over all his days, and remain at last quite unknown; for as practice in both faculties is the best teacher, and theory a most uncertain guide, he may live to forty or fifty years of age, and not come into any business that shall improve himself, or benefit his consulters. Whereas in the way I propose, no sooner shall he become of age, and fit to be trusted with the management of any affairs at all, but his seven years will be expired; and if he has not been inattentive to his business, he will be enabled, with the fortune you can bestow upon him, to enter upon the stage of the world with great advantage, and become directly a necessary and useful member of the community. My good friend, when you and I recollect that most of the best families in this country as well as the genteel ones, had the foundation of their grandeur laid in trade, I expect not in such a country as ours especially, that any objection to my advice will be formed, either by you or your lady, on this score, if you have not more significant reasons proceeding from the youth’s turn of mind and inclination, which I think, should always be consulted on these occasions. By thus viewing your son in the same light I do, that of a well inclined lad, of moderate passions, great natural modesty, and no soaring genius, I believe you will think it best to dispose of him in such a manner as may require no greater talents than he is possessed of, and may in due time, make him appear in the face of the world, fully qualified for what he undertakes.

I am, sir, &c.

Another in the tiny melodramas in The Fashionable Letter Writer: a young man sees the girl of his dreams and writes to her mother about courtship. Her mother is unimpressed.

From a Gentleman of some fortune, who had seen a Lady in public, to her Mother.

Madam,

I shall be very happy if you are not altogether unacquainted with the name which is at the bottom of this letter, since that will prevent me the necessity of saying some things concerning myself, which had better be heard from others. Hoping that it may be so, I shall not trouble you on that head; but only say, that I have the honour to be of a family not mean, and not wholly without a fortune.

I was yesterday, madam, at the rehearsal at St. Paul’s, and have been informed, that a lady who commanded my attention there, has the happiness to be your daughter. It is on account of that lady that I now write to you; but I am aware you will say this is a rash and an idle manner of attempting an acquaintance. I have always been of opinion, that nothing deserves censure which is truly honourable and undisguised. I take the freedom to tell you, madam, that I believe your daughter worthy of a much better offer; but I am assured my happiness will depend upon her accepting or refusing this. In the first place, I request to know whether the lady be engaged, for I am an entire stranger; and, if she be not, I beg, that after you have informed yourself who it is that requests the honour of being introduced to her, you will do me the singular favour of letting me be answered. I am very much an enemy, madam, to the usual nonsense upon these occasions; but it would be injustice to myself to conclude without saying, that my mind will be very little at ease until I know how this address is received. I have the honour to be, with the greatest respect, madam,

Your very obedient humble servant.

From a Mother to a Gentleman, who had asked permission to address her Daughter. In answer.

Sir,

The letter which you have done me the honour to write to me, speaks you to be a gentleman and a man of sense. I am sorry to acquaint you, that after such a prepossession in your favour, I am for more than one reason desirous to decline the offer you are pleased to make toward an alliance in my family. My daughter is very dear to me; and I think she has cast an eye elsewhere: I think there is something indelicate and improper in this wild manner of engaging in an attachment, and in pleading in favour of it. I wish you had known my daughter more before you spoke so much, and had met with me among our acquaintance to have mentioned it. I am convinced, sir, that I do not think more of you than I may with justice, when I confess to you that I believe you would be more than an equal match for my daughter; for though she has (and suffer me, sir, although I am her mother, to say it) great merit, her fortune, although not quite inconsiderable, is not great. You will see, sir, that I waver in my opinion on this subject; but you must attribute it to the true cause; and believe that every thing which has, be it ever so remote, a tendency to my daughter’s welfare, will make me very cautious of determining. To give you my final sense, (at least what is final to me at present) I have not a thought of asking who it is that has thus favoured us, nor would advise my daughter to remember it. I thank you sir, in her name as well as my own, for the honour you intend us, and am, sir,

Your most obedient servant.