Notes From The Frontier
Queer Tales of the Old West
Updated: Sep 28, 2021
Many flocked to the Frontier to seek freedom, especially sexual freedom. There are many fascinating stories of such cases, including George Armstrong Custer's laundress!
The Wild West was a frontier in many ways, especially sexually. Men and women went West for many reasons, that included escaping pasts and creating new identities. Sometimes those identities crossed genders and included stunning subterfuge and incredible incognitos that were maintained for entire lifetimes.
It is fascinating that most Native American tribes regarded trans-gender individuals in a vastly different way from European Christian and white cultures. They saw such people, who were born with one sex but emotionally lived in another, as "two spirits," bestowed with two identities or souls. Such individuals were allowed to live in the manner in which they wanted and were honored. There are historical cases in native civilizations in which women became great warriors and chiefs and had female wives, and males became honored bead artisans, wives, or shamans.
Today, sociologists, researchers, and the medical community generally agree that about 7-10% of the population is gay, lesbian or somewhere on the spectrum other than heterosexual. Emerging research in sexual orientations in the old West increasingly indicates that homosexuality was far more common than Hollywood movies and historical literature have indicated. Personal journals, archival photographs of same-sex couples, newspaper articles, and medical research at the time are uncovering fascinating stories and information about the secret private lives some men and women lived while navigating the strict mores of the Victorian age and desperately trying to fulfill their own emotional and physical identities.
There is some evidence, too, that women posed as men to avoid being molested or sexually abused and also provided more employment opportunities and greater pay for themselves. Since “women’s work” was very limited to cooking or housekeeping, posing as a man opened up far more opportunities for a person born a woman. One striking example of this was Sammy Williams, an 80-year-old lumberjack who died in Montana in 1908. The undertaker discovered his assigned sex to be female, dumbfounding the community that had only ever known him as a man.
Here are three true-story trans-gender tales of the Old West. (See the last montage with numbered photographs depicting these cases.)
1. HARRY ALLEN
Harry Allen was a dashing cowboy who dressed sharply and kept his hair trim. He was a lady killer, a bootlegger, a bronco-buster, a saloon brawler, hard drinker, and all-around rabble-rouser. He was the most notorious man in the Pacific Northwest at the turn of the century. His notoriety was heightened when newspapers discovered that this rough-and-ready cowpoke who so embodied the zeitgeist of the western frontier was, in fact, a woman!
In 1908, The Seattle Sunday Times interviewed Allen and reported on his discomfort with his assigned sex:“I did not like to be a girl; did not feel like a girl, and never did look like a girl,” he said. “So it seemed impossible to make myself a girl and, sick at heart over the thought that I would be an outcast of the feminine gender, I conceived the idea of making myself a man.” Allen’s identity fascinated local papers and readers.
Allen was constantly harangued by police with trumped up charges resulting in imprisonment. In 1912, he was arrested on charges of “white slavery,” when he cross state lines with Isabelle Maxwell, a prostitute who was posing as his wife. But Harry and Isabelle were actually a couple. The Portland police sentenced him to 90 days in jail for “vagrancy,” a catch-all for vague charges regarding gender nonconformity.
Newspapers continued to run lurid stories about Allen involving “love traps” and causing three young women to kill themselves over competing for his charms. But Allen's notoriety, constant haranguing from police and the press took its toll. He died at age 40.
2. MRS. NOONAN
Libbie and George Custer’s laundress, Mrs. Noonan, also happened to be a midwife, seamstress and the best pie-baker of all the wives of Custer’s 7th Cavalry. She was liked by everyone, especially Elizabeth Custer, and had already been married twice when she married Corporal John Noonan, George Armstrong Custer’s favorite hunting partner. She kept a tidy house, she and her husband attended balls, she was a gifted baker, and an even more gifted midwife for the cavalry wives. At Fort Lincoln, Mrs. Noonan fell extremely ill while her husband was gone scouting. She died and the cavalry women began to prepare her for a wake and burial. To their shock, they discovered that their wonderful Mrs. Noonan was a man! When Corporal Noonan returned to find his wife dead and the fort flabbergasted at his shocking secret, his grief was so great, he shot himself. (Read more about Corporal and Mrs. Noonan in the link below.)
3. JOSEPH LOBDELL
Joseph Lobdell was an amazing person who became known in the West as a rugged frontiersman and mighty hunter who traveled with his pet bear and could play a mean fiddle. He lived a wilderness life and even dressed as a Native American. But Joseph had been born as Lucy Ann Lobdell in 1829 to a working-class family in New York State. She was an excellent markswoman and became known as “The Female Hunter of Delaware County.” When she married a man who turned out to be abusive and later abandoned her, she was humiliated and left New York to make a new life in the frontier. She assumed the identity of Joseph Lobdell and started a music school. There he became engaged to a young woman. But a rival for her affection learned that Lobdell had been born a man and rallied the town to tar and feather him. Joseph’s fiancée warned him and fled.
He later met an educated woman named Marie Louise Perry who had also been abandoned by her husband. They married and lived in the wilderness with Lobdell’s pet bear, isolated from most of humanity, surviving on Joseph’s hunting skills.
But society would not let Marie Louise and Joseph live as they wanted alone in the woods. Joseph was arrested for vagrancy while visiting a town. During imprisonment, the jailers discovered Joseph was a woman. In 1879, Lobdell was taken to the Willard Insane Asylum in Ovid, New York. While in the asylum, Lobdell became a patient of Dr. P.M. Wise, who published a brief article "A Case of Sexual Perversion," in which the doctor noted Lobdell “considered herself a man in all that the name implies.". Wise also published an article using the word “lesbian” to describe Joseph, the first documented use of the word in American literature. Joseph was incarcerated at the insane asylum for 33 years and died at age 82 on May 28th, 1912, and is buried in the Binghamton State Hospital Cemetery.
You may enjoy these related posts:
-Homo (sexuality) on the Range
-Gay-iety on the Frontier
-Sex Myths of the 1800s-Part 1
-Sex Myths of the 1800s-Part 2
"Queer Tales of the Old West" was originally posted May 16, 2020 on Facebook and NotesfromtheFrontier.com
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