Husband-Wives and the Gay Life in Georgian England

Husband-wives

James Allen, Public Domain

The word lesbian or female homosexual was not in use in the Georgian Era. The idea of lesbians (a word that first appeared in the 20th century) or female homosexuals (a word that was first printed in 1869) was something consider unnatural and strange. To describe “two women who lived together by mutual consent as man and wife” or when talking of bridegrooms that were the same sex as the brides, the women were referred to as husband-wives or female husbands.

Despite the negativity associated with such relationship, there were several such same-sex marriages performed in Georgian England. Often times the wives reported they had no idea their husband was female and claimed to be as surprised as everyone else when the husband’s true sexual identity was uncovered. Why the husband-wives underwent the deception is not always clear. One nineteenth century writer noted that the main reasons for a woman concealing her true sexual identity was done for one of three reasons: criminal reasons, for caprice, or “as a screen to shield them from vile and execrable actions.”

The Newgate Calendar noted:

“Polygamy, or a man marrying two or more wives, and vice versa, a woman marrying two or more husbands, is a crime frequently committed; but a woman … marrying a woman is something strange and unnatural.”

However unnatural it may have been for two women to marry, it did not stop Mary Hamilton, alias Charles Hamilton, alias George Hamilton, alias William Hamilton, from marrying 14 women. At the quarter-session at Taunton in Somersetshire, Hamilton faced an indictment that was “never contemplated.” To substantiate the claim, Hamilton’s fourteenth wife, named Mary Price, testified “that they bedded, and lived together as man and wife.” Hamilton’s deception was uncovered after Price compared certain circumstances with a neighbor. A quorum of justices listened to the testimony and ruled in 1746

“that the he, she, … is an uncommon notorious cheat; and we, the Court, do sentence her or him … to be imprisoned six months, and … to be whipped … in the towns of Taunton, Glastonbury, Wells, and Shipton-Mallet.”

One extraordinary story about a female husband occurred in January 1829, when James Allen, a 42-year-old man, who was a sawyer, died after being accidentally hit on the head by a piece of timber while at work. At the hospital it was a shocking surprise when Allen’s linen bandages were removed from his chest. It was discovered he was not a man but a “well-formed” female. It was also soon discovered Allen had been married for 21 years to a woman named Abigail Mary Naylor. Mary claimed to be shocked and surprised when she learned Allen was not a man. She also maintained:

“I resided with him as his wife, and … during that period I was entirely ignorant of the fact of the said James Allen being a female, until that circumstance was communicated to me by the woman who undressed the body after death.”

However, Mary also noted “she had her suspicions of his virility.”

Another story of a woman marrying someone of her own sex was reported on 5 July 5 1777. In this case the deceiver’s punishment was much lighter than Hamilton’s as this female received no whipping. The unnamed woman did, however, similar to Hamilton, marry more than one woman. It was reported that she not only dressed as a man but also was “constantly going about captivating her sisters, and marrying them!” After the deceiver’s game was uncovered and she was caught red-handed, it was discovered she had married three different women. For her crime, besides six months in prison, she also suffered the following;

“[T]he fair deceiver was [also] required by the justices to give the daughters of the citizens an opportunity of making themselves acquainted with her features by standing in the pillory at Cheapside.”

Apparently, the justices thought that with her identity revealed it would put an end to her schemes to marry unwary females.

In another case, a man was unsure of the sex of the person he wanted to sue and so he filed a summons that read:

“Elizabeth alias John Haywood. Whatever … the gender, the animal appeared … tolerably handsome, about thirty-two … a firm countenance and manly step, no beard … a voice tending to the masculine, with engaging manners.”

Interest in the case was high, and onlookers gave the defendant the appellation of “Betty John.” Testimony by witnesses claimed John dressed as a male, spent evenings at the public-house with male companions, “& could, like them, swear with a tolerable grace, get drunk, smoke tobacco, make love to the girls, and now and then kick a bully.” It was also reported John courted a woman, married her, and also kept a mistress. However, John swore she was female, bu as she was unable to satisfy the court with her proof, she was imprisoned after she could not pay the money she owed. Then two days later, her husband from Shropshire appeared with incontestable proof of her femaleness.

One same-sex marriage had a different ending. In this case both women were cognizant of the sex of the other. This case is also somewhat miraculously in that the conclusion was settled in favor of the women. The two women “lived together by mutual consent as man and wife for six-and-thirty years.” They owned a public-house and when the “wife” got sick, on her death-bed she told her relatives about her female husband. She asserted the two had “been crossed in love when young, and had chosen this method to avoid further importunities [sic].” However, more interesting than their admission of love is the fact that years earlier after the women’s secret was uncovered. Apparently, a gentlemen then attempted to extort money from them in order not to disclose their relationship. But instead of receiving money for blackmail, he was punished by the courts as “he was sentenced to stand three times in the pillory, and to undergo four years’ imprisonment.”

Another female husband was Eliza Wright, known more familiarly as Captain Wright. Wright, was known among neighbors and

“[She had] been in the habit, for the last two or three years of resorting to various houses of public entertainment, for the sake of smoking his pipe and taking his glass of grog.”

The habit became so pleasurable, sometimes Wright could barely manage to get home without assistance. Wright was also well known to court “pretty girls” by the dozens, and everyone thought Wright was a man, including his wife. So, it came as a shock when the bearded Wright died in 1834 and it was learned he was female. The news encouraged people to speak out and they reported Wright’s voice as resembling a boy who had not attained manhood and that when he walked he affected “something between a swagger and a waddle.” Such reports also enticed numerous curiosity seekers to view the body described by one newspaper as

“four feet five inches, extremely fat, and very corpulent. It wore a gold chain … Its garments were worn loose, with a view to conceal its shape, … particularly the upper part of the trowsers [sic].”

Hannah Snell, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Hannah Snell, Courtesy of Wikipedia

As surprising as it may be, there are many other stories about husband-wives and lesbians. Women attracted to other women did not always marry and an interestingly large number of women who pretended to be men took to the high seas or became soldiers apparently to live an adventuress life. One famous woman soldier, who disguised herself as a man, was Hannah Snell. She was unlike the woman above because she married a man and had a daughter. However, when her husband deserted her and her daughter died, she disguised herself and became a soldier and then later a marine, being wounded numerous times in the course of her service. In 1750, she decided to give up her manly disguise, revealed herself to her shipmates, and sold her story, The Female Soldier, to a London publisher. She also petitioned the Duke of Cumberland for her pension. After she received it, she married two more times, had two more children, and eventually died on 8 February 1792, being thereafter remembered as not only a female soldier but also “an adventurer.”

References:

  • “Another Female Husband,” in Morning Chronicle, 30 January 1829
  • Dowie, Ménie Muriel, Women Adventurers, 1893
  • “Extraordinary Discovery—A Female Husband,” in Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 20 December 1834
  • “Female Husband,” in Leicester Journal, 30 January 1829
  • London Medical Gazette, Vol. 19, 1837
  • New York Medical Eclectic, Vol. 6, 1879
  • The Book of Days, Vol. 1, 1887
  • “The Female Husband,” in Morning Post, 23 January 1829
  • “The Late Female Husband at Kennington,” in Bristol Mercury, 27 December 1834
  • The Newgate Calendar, Vol. 2, 1825
  • Timbs, John, English Eccentrics and Eccentricities, 1875

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