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, November 19, 2014

“32 of which years he dressed as a woman”

From the 6 August 1764 Boston Evening-Post:
We hear from the Vineyard, that one Deborah Lewis, of that Place, about 32 Years of Age, who, till within a few Days since, constantly appeared in the Female Dress, and was always supposed to be one of the Sex, suddenly threw off that Garb, and assumed the Habit of a Man; and sufficiently to demonstrate the Reality of this last Appearance, is on the Point of marrying a Widow Woman.
This item was reportedly reprinted in the Pennsylvania Gazette and possibly elsewhere.

From the 22 Jan 1770 Boston Evening-Post, datelined “Hartford” (and therefore probably first printed in that town’s newspaper):
We are credibly informed, that about 23 [sic] years ago a child was born in the South Part of the Massachusetts-Bay, who bearing a similarity of both Sexes, it was disputed what apparel it should be dressed in, but ’twas at last agreed to dress it in Women’s, and it was baptised by the name of Deborah; this person grew up, and till lately passed for a woman; but having for some time past lodged with one of that Sex, the latter found herself to be with child, and has swore the former to be the Father of it.—The consequence has been that they are married together, and the Father instead of his former name, was married by that of Deborah Francis Lewis.
That article was reprinted in several American newspapers, including the Pennsylvania Gazette, New-York Journal, Newport Mercury, and New-Hampshire Gazette.

From the 22 Jan 1823 Boston Daily Advertiser:
In Tisbury, (Martha’s Vineyard,) Mr. Francis Lewis, ag. 93—32 of which years he dressed as a woman, and was supposed to be such.
That item was also published in several papers and magazines. The 12 Feb 1823 Geneva (New York) Gazette reportedly continued the line: “After that, he took his proper apparel as a man, and passed the remainder of his life in the marriage state, and has left numerous descendants. The family has always deserved and received the respect of those who knew it.” That might have appeared earlier in the 5 Feb 1823 Providence Gazette.

The story of Deborah/Francis Lewis isn’t totally unknown. Alfred Young came across the Pennsylvania Gazette references and a Martha’s Vineyard genealogy in his research on Deborah Sampson and shared them with Thomas A. Foster, who noted Lewis in Long Before Stonewall. Marya C. Myers quoted the Newport news item in a 2006 issue of American Genealogist. So I’m just adding some references from Massachusetts newspapers to the pile.

Back in 1911 the Martha’s Vineyard genealogist Charles Edward Banks identified Francis Lewis’s parents as John and Thankful (Crowell) Lewis of Yarmouth. Banks said Lewis was born as Deborah on 19 Feb 1730 (two years off the age stated in the first article above), and came to Tisbury, Martha’s Vineyard, as a child.

According to Banks, ten days after the first article above, Francis Lewis married Anne Luce, who was just about to turn twenty-four; she does not appear to have been a widow. They had five children together between November 1765 and August 1782. Banks noted no child as arriving within nine months of their marriage. But of the whole family, only the eldest daughter’s marriage appears in the published Tisbury vital records.

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