J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Washington “discovered to be of the Female Sex”

On 25 Jan 1783 both the London Daily Advertiser and the Whitehall Evening Post printed an item they said had come from the 11 November Pennsylvania Gazette by way of the Dublin Register. It told readers:
A Discovery has lately been made on this Continent that will astonish the whole World. Our great and excellent General Washington is actually discovered to be of the Female Sex. This important secret was revealed by the Lady who lived with the General as a Wife these 30 years, and died the 6th instant at the General’s seat in Virginia, to the Clergyman who attended her. What is extraordinary, the Lady knew the Circumstance previous to the Ceremony of Marriage, and both agreed to live together from Motives of the most refined Friendship.

Perhaps there are fewer Instances in Female Nature of such rigid Chastity than of manly Fortitude. The famous Hannah Snell served as a private Soldier in the British Army and was present at many Battles and Sieges in the late War. The Chevalier d’Eon was a Captain of Dragoons, Knight of the Royal and Military Order of St. Louis, and Ambassador from tho Most Christian King to his Britannick Majesty, and made herself celebrated by her repeated Challenges to the Compte de Guerchy, her Successor in the Employ. In more antient Times France nearly recovered her Empire from the Hands of the British Regency by the astonishing Bravery of the Maid of Orleans; and now the Rights of America have been asserted and her Independence established through the amazing Fortitude of a Woman. Perhaps it is fortunate that this Circumstance was not known at a more early Period of the Contest.
In fact, there’s no record of an eighteenth-century Irish newspaper called the Dublin Register. The Pennsylvania Gazette didn’t publish on 11 Nov 1782. No article like this has been found in any American newspaper. And of course Martha Washington (shown above) hadn’t died.

The Whitehall Evening Post had probably copied the article from the Daily Advertiser, which may have originated the story or may have been duped. The far less reputable Rambler’s Magazine picked up the tidbit for its March issue, adding the cartoon of “Mrs. General Washington” that I shared here.

After that, the story faded, but the Chevalier d’Eon clipped a copy and kept it in a scrapbook along with other items mentioning him, favorably or unfavorably.

(Thanks to commenter John Johnson for the pointer.)


Seaspray said...

I've always wondered, given his physical traits - narrow shoulders, wide hips - plus the fact that he seems to have been infertile (Martha had children from a previous marriage) whether or not Washington could have had Klinefelter's syndrome. This is a condition of a male having an extra X chromosome. So he would have been XXY instead of XY. Just a theory....

J. L. Bell said...

I’ve read that hypothesis, so there’s someone else thinking the same way. I imagine it could be tested by genetic testing of a surviving hair sample, but I don’t know if any person or institution with one would want to facilitate that test.

Yoni said...

What a remarkable find. It's a nice detail that the article was preserved in d'Eon's personal papers.

The Daily Advertiser's motives here are obscure. But it's worth noting that just a couple items above this report was a leaked account of what would become the Treaty of Paris - a fairly accurate summary of its eventual terms. The timing may have made it more tempting to the culpable editor to fabricate a report of this nature concerning Britain's nemesis.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for providing more context.

The Daily Advertiser’s political stance might be germane. By reporting that Washington was female, it got in a dig at him (her) but might also have cast the government that just lost a war to him (her) in a bad light.