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, April 06, 2016

“Deserved and received the respect”

On 19 Feb 1730, John and Thankful (Crowell) Lewis of Yarmouth (or Cape Cod) had a baby. According to an item in the 22 Jan 1770 Boston Evening-Post:
bearing a similarity of both Sexes, it was disputed what apparel it [the child] should be dressed in, but ’twas at last agreed to dress it in Women’s, and it was baptised by the name of Deborah
Within a few years, the family moved to Tisbury on Martha’s Vineyard.

In the summer of 1764, the Evening-Post reported that Deborah Lewis
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.
On 16 August, Deborah Lewis, now known as Francis Lewis, married Anne Luce.

Luce was just about to turn twenty-four, and I haven’t seen evidence of an earlier marriage on her part. I also see no evidence of the newspaper’s claim that she had lodged with Deborah Lewis and ”found herself to be with child.” The couple’s first documented child was born in November 1765, a year after the marriage, with four more coming by August 1782.

Almost sixty years later, in January 1823, the Providence Gazette reportedly ran this death notice:
In Tisbury, (Martha’s Vineyard,) Mr. Francis Lewis, ag. 93—32 [sic] of which years he dressed as a woman, and was supposed to be such. 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.
Francis Lewis’s life story was obviously unusual, and thus a topic of wide interest. The newspaper items I’ve quoted were reprinted in several other newspapers, including the Pennsylvania Gazette, New-York Journal, Newport Mercury, New-Hampshire Gazette, and Boston Daily Advertiser.

On the other hand, Revolutionary-era Americans could obviously accept that a person first thought to be female, raised as a girl, and living as a woman into young adulthood could actually be a male who “deserved and received the respect” of his neighbors.

The North Carolina’s recent H.B.2 law and similar measures in other states today presume otherwise.


G. Lovely said...

I suspect that a large component of the acceptance found in the 18th century stemmed from the community's widespread belief in the divine, the belief that all were a product of "God's plan". Thus it's all the more disheartening to see laws that are transparently designed to legitimize discrimination using religion for their justification.

Dennis McClellan said...

Thank you for this unique post. It certainly made for interesting reading. I recall, when teaching, this issue popped up well into mid-19th century society, when a few instances of 'acceptance' and 'rejection' were demonstrated during the Civil War (when soldiers were 'outed' and ousted), while some instances of acceptance appeared in communities in various parts of the nation.

Anonymous said...

I think it's important to realize that the 18th-century individual described was not trans-gender, but intersex (or hermaphrodite in the language of the time, and up until fairly recently). Clearly the external genitalia were ambiguous at birth, and the consensus was that the baby was a girl; however, probably when testosterone production ramped up at puberty, additional maleness kicked in. So it was really more of a latent physical maleness becoming more obvious, than phenotype XX individual experiencing the identity of a male.

J. L. Bell said...

Medically that is probably correct. Legally, Deborah Lewis was considered a female. Under some of the recent legislation on bathroom access, Francis Lewis would still be considered female because that was how the authorities had classified him at birth.

We now know that human biology is not simply a matter of visible body parts but also of molecular hormones and more. Francis Lewis had no access to supplemental hormones or advanced surgery as people do today if they face similar situations.

It's notable that Deborah Lewis lived more than a decade as an adult woman before recognizing himself, and being recognized, as Francis. Contrary to the press reports, there seems no evidence that that change was forced by a surprise pregnancy, but it does seem to have been catalyzed by a desire for marriage with Anne Luce.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous, your assumption is most likely exactly right, and was my first thought upon reading this story. But, sadly, modernity will be determined to draw an equivalency - correct or not - in accordance with personal opinion, and in spite of likely reality.

J. L. Bell said...

A person unwilliing to stand behind her views, even at the level of a pseudonym, loses the credibility necessary to cast aspersions on anyone else's "personal opinion." And in fact personal opinions are not involved.

The reality that the anonymous commentators are unwilling to acknowledge is that the recent "bathroom laws" would apply to Francis Lewis regardless of what his medical situation was. For some reason of their own they feel it important to identify him as "intersex" and to make an unstated distinction between people like him and other transgender males. But the laws don't make that distinction, and unless they plan to change the law or stand up for "intersex" individuals these anonymous commenters are simpering about a distinction without a difference.