The transgender rights movement has achieved widespread visibility and recognition in the past decade. For some people, this issue seems very new and modern – a 21st-century development. They reminisce of earlier times, perhaps their own childhoods, when most people accepted the distinct expectations and opportunities outlined for boys and girls. In hindsight, the movements for women’s rights or gay and lesbian equality seem modest in their critique of gender: none demanded the eradication of the distinction between men and women in public spaces, an ability to change one’s sex legally or medically, or a shift away from gendered language towards gender-neutral terms such as ‘they’.
From this perspective, the demands of the transgender rights movement seem novel, as if the emergence of the community itself was triggered by the dawn of a new century and little else. But exploring the history of ‘transing’ gender shows us that nothing could be further from the truth. While the transgender community in recent years has somewhat coalesced around a certain set of experiences, concerns and language, an exploration of historical instances of transing reveals that people took a wide range of paths in challenging gender.
One particular branch that caught my eye as I began researching this topic many years ago was a group of people called ‘female husbands’. This term was used to describe someone who was assigned female at birth, transed genders, lived as a man and married a woman. The phrase was used first in the UK in 1746, circulating throughout the UK and the US during the 19th century, then fading from prominent usage in the early years of the 20th century. The turn of the 21st century has been designated the ‘transgender tipping point’, in part due to highly visible trans women celebrities such as Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner. Turn back the clock to the 18th and 19th centuries, though, and we find an era that belonged to female husbands such as Charles Hamilton, James Howe, James Allen and Joseph Lobdell. But who were they – and why should we care?
Hamilton, Howe, Allen and Lobdell each grew up poor and learned to scrape together a living to support themself, even in their youth. Each found love at least once in their life. For some, it was fleeting, as unsuspecting lovers rejected them for their difference. For others, the spark of love led to marriages lasting 20 years or more. Most of them were known only as men, the origins of their assigned sex undetected by neighbours and co-workers for decades. Some embraced nonbinary genders, moving between expressions of manhood and womanhood as required by desire or circumstance. All were described as ‘female husbands’ by reporters and publishers seeking to attract readers with enticing and original stories.
In the writing of their lives, I decided to embrace the newly popular and increasingly accepted pronoun singular ‘they’ when referring to husbands in the third person. This was a difficult decision, inspired by dozens of conversations with students and colleagues about the merits and pitfalls. ‘They’ seemed the perfect way to honour these extraordinary lives that never fit neatly into the box of ‘man’ or ‘woman’, and will make the past legible and relatable to contemporary transgender and nonbinary readers – a group that has long been denied a history of their own.
English playwright and novelist Henry Fielding first popularised the phrase ‘female husband’ in reference to someone assigned female who lived as a man and married a woman. His fictionalised essay ‘The Female Husband’ (1746) was based on the real case of the charismatic mountebank Charles Hamilton and their bride, Mary Price.
We can only speculate as to what drew the pair together in the first place. Charles was affable, charming and outgoing, living a life mostly on the road. Mary proved herself to be confident, strong and assertive. She was probably bored living with her aunt, who rented rooms for extra income – which is how the travelling quack doctor came into her life in the first place.
But the excitement and anticipation of young love was short-lived. After about two months of marriage in 1746, Mary decided that she did not want to be with Charles. It may have been that she realised for the first time that her husband was no ordinary man; at least, that is what she told authorities.
We know this from records drawn up in Glastonbury, about six miles from Mary’s home in Wells. The court there charged Charles with vagrancy, a category of crime that was vague and flexible, and often used in cases in which the transgression was highly subjective, concerning morals and norms. The judge found Charles guilty of fraud and declared them “an uncommon, notorious cheat”. They were sentenced to six months of hard labour in prison and public whipping in the four different towns in which Charles was known to have lived: Taunton, Glastonbury, Wells and Shepton Mallet. The punishment was quite severe, especially because the court struggled to even determine which law Charles had actually violated. But the ruling sent a strong message: transing gender and marrying a woman would be met with swift and severe punishment.
News of such punishments, however, did not deter others from transing gender. James Howe ran the White Horse Tavern in the Poplar district of London’s East End with their wife, Mary, for more than 20 years from around 1740. Both James and Mary had grown up poor, and were put out to work by their families as teenagers. They worked on their feet at physically demanding labour every day at the bar – and, probably, most days of their lives. Only by grit, sacrifice, collaboration, consistency and some luck did they manage to build a successful business. They worked, paid taxes, went to church, donated to the needy, and saved some money for the unpredictable future. Life was good – far better than either expected, given the hardship and turmoil that marked their early years. James and Mary found love, companionship and security in each other, working side by side for their more than 30 years of marriage.
Mary had known James as a child, when the latter had lived in society as a girl. Together, in 1732 they decided that James would trans gender and live as a man so that they could marry and live together as a married couple. Mary knew exactly what she was getting into. Who knows – maybe it was even her idea? So much is said about those who visibly reject gender norms and live as men; so little is said and known about the women who love them, live with them, and in many ways enable their gender to be socially legible.
Mary’s name is not mentioned in the popular magazine and newspaper articles that circulated about the couple for more than a century, from 1766 into the 1880s. While the female husbands were deemed so remarkable as to merit a new category to describe them, their wives were offered no such importance. Rather, they were often viewed as ‘normal’ or ‘straight’ women who were victims of circumstance or got swept away and deceived by one particular man. But there is no denying their queerness – especially for someone like Mary who chose to marry a female husband.
And yet sometimes circumstances required female wives to do just that: deny their difference and claim that they didn’t even know that their husbands weren’t male. In 1829, James Allen lay dead on a table at St Thomas Hospital, as the senior medical student, John Martin, undertook an autopsy. Martin declared Allen dead upon arrival, and determined the cause of death as blunt trauma to the head, reporting, “the whole of the bones of the skull were fractured”. Unexpectedly for all involved, Martin had more to report, declaring: “the dead is a woman”.
Though Martin reported his news rather matter-of-factly, the room was filled with those who knew James Allen to be a man: co-workers, boss, neighbours. Even the coroner, Thomas Shelton, had to reckon with the conflict: the marriage certificate declared James a legally married man, whereas Martin had created a medical document that designated them a woman.
Shelton was a lawyer, not a medical man. His work as coroner was about making sure that cause of death was properly designated, and holding appropriate parties accountable in the event of murder, negligence or other wrongful death. In this case, Shelton believed that a marriage certificate carried more weight than a medical report. He declared: “I considered it impossible for him to be a woman, as he had a wife.” While others were flabbergasted at the development, and reporters began using feminine pronouns in reference to Allen, Shelton stood fast in his view of Allen’s manhood.
Gender and danger
For those assigned female at birth, living as a man was never without risk; for some, it was filled with hardship and danger. Such was the case for Joseph Lobdell, a hardworking and resourceful person who grew up in Westerlo, New York state, outside Albany. Lobdell had considerable responsibility in their family from a young age, working on the farm, tending the animals and hunting game in the surrounding woods.
As someone who was perceived as a young woman, Lobdell was celebrated for their devotion and many talents, including a knack for hunting, farming, reading, writing and teaching. In Lobdell’s 1855 memoir of these early years, The Female Hunter of Delaware and Sullivan Counties, NY, they complain of the hardship of supporting a family on the wages available to women. They were confident that they could do any work that a man did, and set off to do so – now presenting fully as male.
This decision marked a new course in their life – one that was filled with many new experiences, feelings of visibility and recognition in their manhood, and many feelings of erasure and hurt in the face of hostility. Indeed, across the course of decades, Lobdell would have their gender challenged repeatedly in the court of law, the court of public opinion and, finally, at the behest of their birth family, who had them declared insane and institutionalised on account of their gender in 1879. Their wife of nearly 20 years, Marie Louise Perry, was even misled into believing that Joseph had died; Joseph’s brother, James, circulated a false newspaper obituary, and it took Marie nearly a year to discover the truth. Such was the cruelty with which family members and mental-health officials often treated those who transed gender in the late-19th-century United States.
We know about female husbands and their wives only because newspapers in both the UK and the US took great interest in printing stories about them. Female husbands usually became known to local media in times of crisis or duress, often arrest or death. The stories focus on tragedy and hardship. Some of them, especially the accounts about Lobdell, are heartbreaking.
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Charles Hamilton, James Howe, James Allen and Joseph Lobdell are just four people who earned the label ‘female husband’ in the press in the 18th and 19th centuries. Assigned female at birth, they transed gender to live as men and marry women, long before the term ‘transgender’ was coined or the development of treatments and surgeries that enabled people to physically change their sex.
Their partners – long overlooked by writers, readers, and historians alike – were crucial to their happiness and social respectability. In countless ways, these legal marriages to queer wives affirmed and stabilised the gender of female husbands. Together, these couples carved out lives for themselves that were never easy, filled with uncertainty and risk – but, for most of the pairs, they couldn’t imagine an alternative.
Jen Manion is associate professor of history at Amherst College, Massachusetts. Their new book is Female Husbands: A Trans History (Cambridge University Press, March 2020)
This article was taken from issue 21 of BBC World Histories magazine