The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘He paid a dear price for it’: The 19th-century ordeal of one of America’s first transgender men

(Courtesy of Bambi Lobdell)
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On Oct. 7, 1879, the New York Times reported the death of one Lucy Ann Lobdell Slater under the headline, the “Death of a Modern Diana,” a reference to the Roman goddess of the hunt.

While known for her prowess as a “female hunter,” the Times reported, her “strange life history” was most notable for the fact that she “assumed the name of Joseph Lobdell,” “put on male attire” and “went about the country making a living as a music teacher.”

It was “a pursuit,” the obit added, which came to an abrupt end when her sex was “accidentally discovered, and she was forced to fly from the place in the night to escape being tarred and feathered.”

There was a modicum of truth in the obituary.

Lucy Ann was a skilled hunter but the name had not been Lucy Ann for years. He had long ago assumed the name Joseph Lobdell. And he did wear men’s clothing. He and his wife were constantly on the run, hounded from town to town in upstate New York and beyond, and threatened with being tarred and feathered.

But there was one giant untruth: Joseph Lobdell, or as the Times called him, Lucy Ann, was not dead.

The error was perhaps understandable. His family, after all, had told everyone he was indeed dead. When his wife came looking for him, they told her as well.

Why the lie?

That was just one of the questions Joseph’s descendant, specifically his second cousin three times removed, Bambi Lobdell set out to answer some 130 years later, nearly a century after Joseph’s actual death in 1912 at roughly the age of 83.

“He was literally erased, literally, textually killed, 30 years before he died,” said Lobdell, who teaches in the women and gender studies department at SUNY Oneonta, not far from the region of New York where Lobdell lived his early life, then sparsely populated, dotted with farms and forests.

What she found was the story of a pioneering American transgender man, described in her 2012 book, “A Strange Sort of Being”: The Transgender Life of Lucy Ann /Joseph Israel Lobdell,” and on a website she set up “,” from which most of this story, highly condensed, is drawn.

She’s confident that he wasn’t the first transgender man or woman in America, but rather the first to attract public notice, though the newspapers of the day didn’t call him “transgender,” a word unimaginable then. They called him “strange” and a “freak.”

A doctor at the Willard Hospital for the Insane, where Lobdell was involuntarily committed in 1880, would write in a medical journal in 1883 that he was insane, a case of “sexual perversion,” a “rare form of mental disease.” And then he dismissed him as “a clinical curiosity in psychiatric medicine.” His report, benighted as it was, is cited as one of the first medical journals to use the term “lesbian love,” though that’s not what Bambi Lobdell says it was.

Joseph didn’t just “put on male attire.” Born with a woman’s anatomy in upstate New York, he dispensed with the accoutrements of womanhood and with the appointed and approved role women played in the era. He lived the life of a man and believed himself to be one. And he married a woman.

The story, said Bambi Lobdell, remains deeply relevant today, amid controversies over gender, gender identity, bathrooms, locker rooms and discrimination.

It’s about “who gets to define identity,” she said.

“I really hope that Joe can help establish a legitimate transgender history. A lot of people think it’s a new fad, dreamed up by feminists who want to destroy our social fabric. One thing I think Joe can help people understand is that transgender has been around.”

Bambi Lobdell discovered Joseph Lobdell only about 14 years ago. She was looking for a dissertation topic when her aunt Edith “gave me this book,” an extraordinary memoir called: “Narrative of Lucy Ann Lobdell, the Female Hunter of Delaware and Sullivan Counties, N.Y.,” written by Lucy Ann at about the age of 26. It showed her to be uncommonly literate and intelligent, and exceedingly rebellious.

In it, Lucy Ann explained that at the time she was dressing as a man to earn a living.

“I had several reasons,” she wrote. Perhaps foremost among them, “my father was lame, and in consequence, I had worked in-doors and out; and as hard times were crowding upon us, I made up my mind to dress in men’s attire to seek labor …”

As a woman, she went on, she could do house work and get maybe a dollar per week.

But “I was capable of doing men’s work, and getting men’s wages, I resolved to try …”

Lucy Ann was indeed a hunter. She learned to shoot as a child of 10 or 12, she wrote in her memoir. She needed money to pay for her schooling — itself an unusual ambition for a girl of her era — and raised it by tending to farm animals that she then sold.

It was necessary in that line of work to fend off predators. “I learned to shoot the hawk, the weasel, the mink, and even down to the rat,” she wrote.

She was forced by her family, Bambi Lobdell says, to marry a man named George Slater, who would die in the Civil War.

“The marriage is a rocky one,” Bambi Lobdell writes in her chronology of Joseph Lobdell’s life. “Lucy is educated and passionate about theological discussions. George is illiterate and not very religious. But the biggest issue is that Lucy refuses to be a passive, obedient wife. … She openly disobeys her husband and frequently argues with him.”

She bore George Slater’s daughter, Helen, but by the time she was born, “George has left and Lucy has returned to her parent’s house.”

In 1854, having already assumed the name Joseph, he moved to Bethany, Pa., and started a singing school, with many of his students being “young ladies of the best families of the village,” as Bambi Lobdell writes. One of those students fell in love with Joseph and the two decided to wed.

What happened next was described in the Port Jervis Evening Gazette, dated August 10, 1876, in an article that described Joseph as a “freak.”

The bride-to-be “had all her wedding clothes made, when, just before the day set for the wedding, the discovery was made in some way that the music teacher was not a man but a woman. … Popular indignation ran high, and a party of young men determined to tar and feather the teacher and ride her out on a rail out of the place.”

Warned by someone who feared for Joseph’s life, he fled.

The pattern would repeat itself. He fled from town to town, with destinations as far away as Minnesota, Bambi Lobdell reported, where he assumed the name La Roi Lobdell and became a “hired gun and jack-of-all trades,” respected as a “phenomenal hunter.”

But in 1858, he was arrested for falsely impersonating a man and taken back to upstate New York, where he wound up in the county poor house.

That’s where Marie Louise Perry also found herself after running away from her wealthy family. She helped Joseph escape, and they were married by a justice of the peace in Wayne County, Pa.

The pattern of flight, discovery, arrest and expulsion continued as the couple moved from town to town, leaving them only one real refuge, the woods and the wilderness.

An 1877 New York Times article described it as a “mountain romance,” a “strange love of two women,” and called Joseph a “voluntary outcast.”

But there was nothing voluntary about it.

By the time of the 1879 New York Times obituary, the family had declared him dead.

But, according to Bambi Lobdell, census records show that Joseph was then living with his brother John, who probably kept him out of sight.

In 1880, John took legal action in Delaware County, N.Y., to have Joseph declared insane and committed to an asylum.

“She has a habit of dressing in men’s clothes,” he declared to the court before a hearing convened in his own home. ” She has a woman who she sometimes claims is her wife. … From what I see and know of her she is of unsound mind at all times.”

A doctor who never examined Joseph and admitted that he was “never acquainted with her before” signed the paperwork to move the commitment forward. “I have frequently heard of her as a crazy female hunter,” he attested.

In October of that year, Joseph Lobdell was transported to the Willard Asylum for the Insane in Ovid, N.Y., where, Bambi Lobdell learned, he continued to wear men’s clothes and insist he was a man.

In January, 1883, the doctor at the Willard asylum published a “scientific” paper, entitled “A Case of Sexual Perversion,” based on his observation and conversations with Joseph Lobdell.

It reflected the ignorance, attitudes and customs of the era.

But it provided the last glimpse, albeit through a cloudy lens, at how Joseph might have regarded himself.

“She believed herself to possess virility and the coaptation of a male,” the doctor wrote, “that she had not experienced connubial contact with her husband, but with her late companion nuptial satisfaction was complete. In nearly her own words ‘I may be a woman in one sense, but I have peculiar organs that make me more a man than a woman.’ ”

The physician, puzzled and disbelieving, noted that he had been “unable to discover any abnormality of the genitals.”

But as to her mind, he reported, “She is fast losing her memory and capacity for coherent discourse.”

In 1890, Joseph Lobdell was moved to an asylum in Binghamton, N.Y. where in 1912 he died.

In contemporary times, Lobdell has been resurrected in the name of many causes: as an early feminist for Lucy Ann’s memoir about equal pay and the role of women; and as an early lesbian heroine, on the basis of his relationship with his wife.

In 2013, William Klaber, author of a novel about her called “The Rebellion of Miss Lucy Ann Lobdell,” acknowledges that Joseph made “gender history at every turn,” but questioned Lobdell’s conclusion that he was a transgender man.

“To apply modern gender labels to historical characters is to invite error,” he wrote, “but it seems clear to me that Lucy Lobdell by way of her writing was an early feminist. She was also, by her own words, an opportunity transvestite. She may have been, for a time bisexual.”

Bambi Lobdell is convinced otherwise.

Had he been merely opportunistic, dressing as a man to earn a living or “passing … he could have gotten out of it” when the ruse failed to achieve his ends.

He could have said, “That’s right. I’m a woman. Let me go.” But he didn’t, she said. He endured.

“He suffered extreme persecution, despite the many times he proved he was productive and never caused any harm,” she said.

But, said Bambi Lobdell, he lived a life true to himself. And “he paid a dear price for it.”