Husband-Wives and the Gay Life in Georgian England

Husband-wives or females husbands were described as “two women who lived together by mutual consent as man and wife.”[1] Husband-wives also described bridegrooms that were the same sex as the brides. That was because the 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 unusual and improper at the time as noted by the The Newgate Calendar:

“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.”[2]

Sappho with Erinna by Simeon Solomon in 1864. Sappho’s sexuality has long been the subject of debate. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Despite the negativity associated with such relationship, there were several such same-sex marriages performed in Georgian England. Often 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: caprice, criminal reasons, or “as a screen to shield them from vile and execrable actions.”[3]

Although it may have been viewed as unnatural 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.”[4] 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:

“[H]e, 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.”[5]

One extraordinary story about husband-wives 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. She 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.”[6]

However, Mary also noted “she had her suspicions of his virility.”[7]

Husband-wives

James Allen. Public domain.

The same year the French socialite Juliette Récamier was born was also the same year that another story of about husband-wives was reported. In this case a husband-wife married a same sex person on 5 July 1777 and in this case the deceiver’s punishment was much lighter than Hamilton’s as this husband-wife received no whipping. The unnamed husband-wife, similar to Hamilton, married 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!”[8] 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, this husband-wife 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.”[9]

Apparently, the justices thought that with her identity revealed it would put an end to her schemes to marry unwary females and reduce the instances of husband-wives and such cases. If the justices thought so, that wasn’t the case because husband-wives was the subject in another case. This time a man unsure of the sex of the person he wanted to sue 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.”[10]

Interest in the case was high, and onlookers gave the defendant the appellation of “Betty John.” Testimony by witnesses claimed Betty 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.”[11] It was also reported Betty John courted a woman, married her, and also kept a mistress. However, Betty John swore she was female, but as she was unable to satisfy the court with proof, she was imprisoned after being unable to pay the money owed. Then two days later, her husband from Shropshire appeared with incontestable proof of her femaleness.

One same-sex marriage involving husband-wives 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.”[12] They owned a public-house and when the “wife” got sick, on her deathbed 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].”[13] However, more interesting than their admission of love is the fact that years earlier after the women’s secret was uncovered. Apparently, a gentleman 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.”[14]

Another story related to husband-wives involved Eliza Wright, known more familiarly as Captain Wright. This husband-wife was known among neighbors and declared to have “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.”[15] The habit became so pleasurable, sometimes Wright could barely manage to get home without assistance. It was also reported that Wright was also well known to court “pretty girls” by the dozens and that once when he and “his lady” were invited to a party he did just that:

“After tea, dancing was introduced, and among the most ardent swains present, was our friend the gallant captain, who, notwithstanding, his enormous size and inelegant tournoure, ogled each fair face with the devotion of an Adonis, scarcely knowing how to choose from so large and captivating a circle of the graces. At last his election was made, and all parties pried off, the musicians struck up. Those who saw the captain on this occasion, will certainly never forget his grotesque and unique appearance, as he waddled and sometimes strode along the room. His partner’s activity was, however, more than match for his ardour, and after puffing and blowing till the perspiration literally poured from his forehead, he was constrained to give in, and hand his fair partner to a seat. Having partially recovered from his fatigue, he returned to a full sense of the importance of his fair charge, whom he abundantly supplied with refreshments, lemonade, &c. During the remainder of the evening he was observed to be whispering to his inamorata, words, of soft and tender import, as might be readily perceived from the blushing countenance of the lady. It was a subject of general surprise among the visitors that his wife, who was present, scarcely noticed the apparently infidelity of her spouse; at all events, she was very far from being annoyed at it. Rumour … is that the captain assumed his disguise for a double purpose, viz. that of recovering his deceased brother’s property as a man, and his own private property as a woman, for while alternated metamorphoses, due preparations had been made for the last six or seven years. He moreover received, it is said, a considerable annual sum, from interested parties, to preserve his singular incognito, which considering his habits of nightly intoxication, was sustained with extraordinary success.”[17]

Captain Wright. Courtesy of Davis Museum at Wellesley College.

If property was the real reason for Wright to don men’s clothes, it supposedly came as a shocking surprise to his 28-year-old wife when he died in 1834. She claimed to have thought the bearded Wright was a man. Newspapers encouraged people to speak out and soon reports came that Wright’s voice resembled a boy who had not attained manhood and that when he walked he affected “something between a swagger and a waddle.”[16] Such reports also enticed numerous curiosity seekers to view the body, which was described by the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette in the following manner:

“The creature was in stature 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.”[18]

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.”

Hannah Snell, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Hannah Snell. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Two women – Charlotte Butler and Sarah Ponsonby – who also generated talk about whether they were lesbians or husband-wives began after the two women met for the first time in 1768 and quickly developed a close friendship. They eventually absconded from their families and settled together in a rented house in North Wales in Llangollen. There local gossip resulted in them being referred to them as “The Ladies” or the “Ladies of Llangollen.” The women then devised a plan of establishing a retreat and moved from their rented house into what they named Plas Newydd (new hall), a five-roomed stone cottage that included a modest 13 acres, 4 for themselves and 9 for their tenants. There they entertained and hosted a wide variety of friends, which resulted in curious visitors wanting to meet the women and thus their home became a haven to tourists traveling between Dublin and London. It also resulted in the Ladies of Llongellen meeting the diarist and lesbian Anne Lister , as well as the nemesis of the Princesse de Lamballe, Madame de Genlis. 

The Ladies of Llangollen. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

References:

  • [1] The Book of Days, Vol. 1, 1887, p. 258.
  • [2] The Newgate Calendar, Vol. 2, 1825, p. 5.
  • [3] New York Medical Eclectic, Vol. 6, 1879, p. 523.
  • [4] The Newgate Calendar, p. 5.
  • [5] Ibid., p. 6.
  • [6] “Female Husband,” in Leicester Journal, 30 January 1829, p. 4.
  • [7] London Medical Gazette, Vol. 19, 1837,  p. 138.
  • [8] “Extraordinary Marriages,” in South London Press, 15 November 1884, p. 2.
  • [9] Ibid.
  • [10] Another Female Husband,” in Morning Chronicle, 30 January 1829, p. 1.
  • [11] Ibid.
  • [12] The Book of Days, p. 258.
  • [13] Ibid.
  • [14] Ibid.
  • [15] “Extraordinary Discovery—A Female Husband,” in Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 20 December 1834, p. 4.
  • [16] Ibid.
  • [17] “The Late Female Husband at Kennington,” in Bristol Mercury, 27 December 1834, p. 4.
  • [18] “Extraordinary Discovery—A Female Husband,” p, 4.

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