Born in 1829 to a working-class family in upstate New York, Lucy Ann Lobdell quickly gained a reputation as a marksman, earning the nickname “The Female Hunter of Delaware County.” But after leaving home, Lobdell proved something different altogether: a transgender man. Now Lobdell’s distant relative, professor Bambi L. Lobdell, has written a fascinating account of Joseph Lobdell — who she calls Lucy-Joe — and what happened after he moved to the frontier, married a woman, and bucked 19th-century social restrictions and gender expectations. It’s a fascinating story of forced marriage, arrest, and incarceration in an insane asylum. Although 20th-century scholars have labeled Lobdell a lesbian, the author, while incorporating queer theory and Lobdell’s own writings, makes a fascinating argument in A Strange Sort of Being: The Transgender Life of Lucy Ann/Joseph Israel Lobdell, 1829-1912 that there never was a “female hunter” but really a transgender man who would eventually be locked away from society and his beloved for insisting on being a man.
The Advocate: I can't help but notice you share a last name with your subject. What's your relationship?
Bambi L. Lobdell: I am a distant relative — second cousin four times removed.
You write that Joseph Lobdell's descendants sort of downplayed his story, reducing him to the “female hunter” at best, or erasing him altogether. Can you tell me more about that and how you heard his story?
For decades, Lucy-Joe was a skeleton in the Lobdell family closet, a bit of an embarrassment, mostly for the charge of insanity, which carries a heavy social stigma even now. When my family first came across information on Lucy, there wasn’t much to go by. Lucy’s autobiography, The Narrative of the Female Hunter of Delaware and Sullivan County, published in 1855, gives no indication of male identification or desire for women. The autobiography presents an intelligent and strongly worded feminist manifesto for equal pay and opportunities for women and a personal refusal to live an oppressed life in the domestic sphere; she also presents her bold plan to seize freedoms and opportunities that women did not have legal rights to at the time by going out into the world in men’s clothes. The few newspaper articles available were modern retellings of older newspaper articles that often only featured Lucy as a woman who refused to stay in the place society set for her. When this lack of information was combined with a general cissexist ignorance of transgender identity that is still common, the first stories out of my family were not complete.
So how did you come to the story?
I was at a point in my graduate career where I was struggling to find a topic to research for my dissertation when my aunt Eadie placed a photocopy of Lucy’s book in my hands and told me I was going to love this story about a woman ancestor. I set it on my desk and immediately forgot about it because I was caught up in my dissertation crisis, trying to figure out what to do. But my aunt Eadie is not a woman to be put off, and she inquired about my opinion of the story so much that I ended up reading it mostly to shut her up. [Laughs] I got so excited after reading it that I mentioned it to the woman who ran the office at the apartment complex where I lived, Susan Crawson Shields. It turned out she is a distant cousin of mine, and Lucy’s great-great-granddaughter. When she asked me if I wanted to see pictures of Lucy, I realized my dissertation topic had found me! [Laughs] This project was quite intimidating for me because I felt a familial obligation to this person to get his story right, plus I knew nothing about gender or queer studies – didn’t even know they existed. But I found a professor more than willing to work with me on this as a dissertation topic and she steered me toward a reading list. After coming across Dr. Wise’s article, which quoted his patient Lucy three times insisting that he was a “man in all that the name implies,” my dissertation director, Leslie Heywood, introduced me to the concept of transgender and set me on my path of study. As I learned more about transgender [people], I started talking about Joe rather than Lucy and explaining the concept of transgender to my family. I was surprised at the lack of resistance most in my family had to seeing Joe as transgender, and while individual family members are at various levels of understanding, I find they are most comfortable referring to our ancestor as Lucy-Joe, which I think actually highlights the transgender aspect of Joe’s life. When a local reporter recently asked my aunt Eadie what she thought about Lucy, my aunt replied, “She was one tough dude.”
So this is an experience you’ve shared with your family.
This project has been a learning experience for my whole family, and while most of them celebrate the resiliency, determination, strength, and adventurous spirit of our ancestor and want to honor Joe for who he was, there is one conservative family member who is quite uncomfortable with Joe, his transgender nature, and his relationship with Marie. The one who gets forgotten or ignored the most is Marie. Joe is so obviously different, rather charismatic, and the center of the reports and histories of him that Marie tends to fade into the background or is only mentioned as a qualifier for those trying to give Joe the label of lesbian. I am focusing research time now on Marie in hopes of addressing this issue.
This isn’t the first reinterpretation of Lobdell’s life. But you’re the first to really treat Lobdell as a transgender man instead of a lesbian or an insane wild woman. Tell me more about coming to that decision.
Except for Lucy’s autobiography, all the primary source materials I found are written by someone other than Lobdell, and they are influenced by a dominant, cissexual perspective of people. Even so, they just did not sound like the story of someone trying to disguise themselves to gain anything, so something always felt not quite right to me when people talked about Lucy as a woman. Writers in the 19th century write about Lobdell as an “unsexed woman,” but not a lesbian. Common thought in that century believed that women had no sexual desire; they saw desire as an active, masculine thing belonging to men only. So it never occurred to them that women might desire each other. Most 19th-century people think Joe is perverted or insane, a corrupting influence on Marie, whom they see as sweet, but confused. Many newspaper and history writers focus on Lobdell’s obvious resistance to dominant gender roles and expressions, and mention repeatedly that Lobdell insisted on wearing men’s clothes and being called Joe, even when it brought him trouble. After leaving the family home, three times Joe was outed in communities where he had established himself as a respectable man, once chased out of town by a tar-and-feather crew, and twice jailed and tried for the crime of impersonating a man, and he still continued to live as a man, well knowing what the risks could be for doing so. Once he moved back close to the family home, because of his fame as the Female Hunter, his identity was not kept secret for long. Even when the general public discovered this person was Lucy Ann Lobdell, Joe continued to wear men’s clothes, do work that is traditionally reserved for men, go by the name of Joe, and refer to he and Marie as husband and wife, even though doing so brought a great deal of ridicule, legal harassment and arrest, and social abuse.
He seemed unable to tolerate being identified as a woman.
Despite Joe’s peerless abilities with guns, the only time Joe ever acted violently was when law officials forced him into women’s clothes. On one particular occasion when this happened, he ripped up those clothes and screamed until the sheriff brought him men’s clothes, at which point he became very calm and cooperative. Even after being incarcerated in Willard Insane Asylum, Lobdell “dressed in male attire throughout and declared herself to be a man, giving her name as Joseph Lobdell, a Methodist minister; said she was married and had a wife living,” according to Dr. Wise. Dr. Wise states that his patient is lucid, clear, coherent, not confused, not erratic, and able to relate vivid recollections of his life. In other words, Joe is not acting deluded or disconnected from reality. And in this frame of mind, Joe tells the doctor, the man who could release him, that he “considered herself a man in all that the name implies.”
Did talk of sex come up?
In discussions about sexual activities, Joe reveals a self-perception that he has a penis, which is not uncommon with transsexual men, and this is a direct quote given by the doctor: “I may be a woman in one sense, but I have peculiar organs that make me more a man that a woman.” [Dr. Wise’s report says] “She says she has the power to erect this organ in the same way a turtle protrudes its head — her own comparison.”
The concept of trans identity is both a modern one, but also one that we didn’t have words for back then in many cultures.
Please note that I am not claiming Joe was transsexual. I do not know what terminology Joe would use today. I only know he used the terms and concepts available to him while he lived, and referred to himself as a man, and did so with clarity and certainty — not confusion. If Lobdell had merely wanted a quiet life with Marie, he could have worn women’s clothes, presented as a woman, and lived with Marie. Because of the basic ignorance of the time, the community around Joe and Marie would not have known their relationship was an intimate one. It just so happens Joe identified as a man, and he and Marie thought they had a perfect right to live as man and wife, and did so stubbornly and openly. Considering the great deal of harassment and incarceration Joe experienced because of his gender presentation, I conclude that his reason for doing so was that he felt he was a man and brave enough to live as one openly.
Dr. P.M. Wise, a sexologist at the Willard Insane Asylum, where Lobdell was sent against his will, declared that Lobdell lived with and loved a woman, identified as a man, and had the mannerisms of a man, but since he had been born with female anatomy, that meant he was a woman with rare form of insanity. How common do you think that story is?
For centuries the church managed these types of personal behaviors. Transgressions of gender or sexual behavior would have been labeled as sins and fallen under the purview of the authorities of the church, who would then dispense harsh punishment meant to reestablish social order, making gender nonconformity very dangerous. Eventually civil law developed around the same heterosexist understandings of “normal” embodiment and also policed gender nonconformity and found ways to arrest gender outlaws. And frequently groups of citizens, often informally labeling gender nonconformity as insanity, took it upon themselves to punish gender outlaws through shunning or more violent methods in an effort to reestablish gendered social order.
Where does sexology come in?
The development of the pseudo-science of sexology in the mid 19th century moved management of nonheterosexist styles of gender, sex, and sexuality from the realms of religion and law to that of science. These doctors — precursors to modern psychiatrists — insisted that people who did not live according to traditional and dominant patterns of gender, sex, and sexuality suffered from congenital mental illnesses that they could not help; therefore they were not sinners or criminals but rather ill individuals who should be accorded compassion rather than punishment as sinners. Declaring themselves the new authorities over such cases, sexologists took over the management of their patients, whom they incarcerated in insane asylums and studied. Because of the common belief that only men experienced sexual desire, their investigations for decades were only of men, many whose difference was more obvious because of nontraditional gender presentations. Sexology started in Europe, and while the doctors there wrote about female same-sex desire, smug American doctors assumed that such behaviors were the result of immoral women and prostitutes, the type of which simply did not exist in America, where the women were believed to be pure and sexless. So imagine their surprise when they met Joe. [Laughs] It was Joe’s gender difference that got him committed, and his frank discussion of sexual desire confuses Dr. Wise, who believes his patient delusional. Joe describes experiencing nuptial satisfaction with Marie, which Dr. Wise dismisses as delusion because at the time, everyone knew sex was not possible without a penis, which Joe did not have. Joe’s words seem to reinforce Dr. Wise’s opinion that his patient is insane, and having never seen a person like Lobdell, he declares this case a rare clinical curiosity, never to be seen again. Dr. Wise’s 1883 article creates an awareness among sexological professionals, who first believe such people to have inverted gender natures and the brains of men, an ironic concept in Joe’s case. So technically, stories of female-bodied persons living as men and being declared insane were not prevalent before the second half of the 19th century.
But cross-dressing wasn’t new at that point.
Female-bodied persons certainly did live in male clothes, doing male activities, and marrying other female-bodied persons. Some made the national newspapers because of some scandal that exposed them, like Frank DuBois, female husband of Gertie Fuller, or, Edwin Nostraud, female husband of Lottie June, or Annie-Charles Hindle. Some newspaper articles present scathing reports of one female-bodied person living as a man and husband to another woman, but often these women leave the area and change their names before any authorities can incarcerate them. Often, the only reason there is any record of gender nonconformity in female-bodied persons is because they were arrested and then exposed, or exposed by some neighbor or family member and then incarcerated, and the reports written about them do not contain the words of the subjects — only those writing the reports. As a result, there are very few records of these people speaking on behalf of themselves, so no way to know just how many identified as men or at least not as women.
Later feminists and queer theorists sort of rediscovered Lobdell and declared him a passing woman, a lesbian who passed for economic reasons. But you don't think that economics really played a pivotal role in Joseph's ID as a man. Why is that?
Lobdell enjoyed only modest economic success as a man, and then that success was very temporary. Once outed as having a female body, he was chased from one community by a tar-and-feather crew, and arrested and tried for impersonating a man in two other communities. Once Joe’s identity as the celebrated Female Hunter of Delaware County is revealed, news spreads quickly, making it dangerous for Joe to enter towns near where he had lived as the Female Hunter. To avoid persecution, Joe and Marie live in the wilderness and enter towns only when necessary. Even then, Joe is frequently arrested on the charge of vagrancy. The fact that the very feminine Marie was not arrested makes it clear that the authorities were persecuting Joe for being a gender outlaw. Marie and Joe lived in caves and huts that Joe built in the woods and wandered over long distances, enjoying enormous freedom from traditional domestic arrangements, but living a tough life of poverty. Joe’s wilderness and hunting skills enabled them to survive, and they did odd jobs wherever they could to earn a bit of money. But life as a man was filled with enormous risks for Joe and subsequent loss for Marie. But both were willing to live in poverty in the wilderness so Joe could be who he was and they could have the marriage they wanted. If Joe had put on women’s clothes and returned to the name Lucy, the pair might have been able to live together quietly, without persecution. As it was, there was no financial reward for Joe to live as a man — only one of personal integrity.