Still in her 20s, Lucy Ann Lobdell sat down to write her story, which, by 1855, included hunting in the mountains north of the Catskills and a short-lived marriage to a drunkard who abandoned her during pregnancy.
“I stole away with a heavy heart for I knew that I was going among strangers who did not know my circumstances,” she wrote in her 47-page self-published memoir.
Those “circumstances” are still under debate 160 years later. Some experts insist she was a pioneer transgender person who cut her hair, dressed in men’s clothing, took the name Joe and lived as a man.
Others, such as the physician who interviewed her at a New York asylum in the 1870s, said she suffered from “a case of sexual perversion” that included “Lesbian love.” Scholars say it’s the first time an American woman was ever formally described as a lesbian.
A recent book has rekindled the arguments about how to describe Lobdell and which pronoun to use. Experts do agree on one thing, though. When she wrote about “going among strangers” — she was talking about Minnesotans.
Lobdell arrived in Minnesota after her cover was blown while “Joe” offered dance lessons in Pennsylvania. Lobdell headed to the frontier just before Minnesota became a state in 1858. She lived around St. Paul, Lake Minnetonka and Manannah — a tiny Meeker County town between St. Cloud and Willmar.
If she wanted to get away from accusing eyes as a he, Lobdell picked a good spot — at first. None of the new Minnesota neighbors, who knew him as La-Roi, suspected anything initially.
“She could manage a gun or an ax with the skill of a man,” journalist Merle Potter wrote in his 1931 story “Meeker County’s Wild Woman.” He said La-Roi dressed in calico from pants to vest to jacket. Lobdell befriended the unsuspecting Edwin Gribbel in St. Paul and the two shared a claim on the upper shores of Lake Minnetonka.
Lobdell moved to Manannah in 1857, working as a hired man — chopping wood, hunting and even washing dishes. After a year, when it was “discovered that she was an impostor, and brought to her grief, it created quite a scandal in Meeker County,” according to Potter.
The county attorney alleged “one Lobdell, being a woman, falsely personates a man, to the great scandal of the community, and against the peace and dignity of Minnesota.”
With Minnesota’s statehood around the corner, “the influence of law and order was strong,” Potter says, so instead of a lynching, “she was eventually held as blameless.”
But “the legal whitewash wasn’t enough to preserve this unfortunate Amazon’s good reputation in Meeker County,” Potter wrote 84 years ago. “The county was hardly equal to anything as modern as that, and she became subjected to harsh treatment — treated as an outcast.”
Lobdell, penniless, said she wanted to return to her home in upstate New York. “And there she was sent at the expense of Meeker County,” Potter says, “for she had nothing but a rifle.”
Lobdell lived for a while with a woman in Pennsylvania in what they considered wedlock — and some consider the nation’s first gay marriage.
She wound up in an asylum in Willard, N.Y., and was buried in a potter’s field in 1879 when she was 50. The New York Times ran a obituary under the headline: “Death of a Modern Diana ... Dressed in Man’s Clothing She Wins a Girl’s Love.”
In her early writing, Lobdell promised to write a second book. If she did, it’s lost. But writer William Klaber, after 12 years of research, has written a new historical novel called “The Rebellion of Miss Lucy Ann Lobdell.” The New York Times calls it brilliant.
In a recent blog, Klaber argues that Lobdell was a lesbian, not a transgender person as other authors maintain. His character in the book doesn’t settle the debate.
“The vocabulary to describe or sort out her situation didn’t exist then — much less blogs or support groups,” Klaber writes. “To apply modern gender labels to historical characters is to invite error, but it seems clear to me that Lucy Lobdell by way of her writing was an early feminist.”
To wit: At the end of her early memoir, Lobdell writes: “If she is willing to toil, give her wages equal with that of a man. … permit her to wear the pants. … And though some do call me a strange sort of being … and though your name may be cast out as evil, you can rejoice, knowing that if you but endure to the end you will be saved. Amen!”
Curt Brown’s tale on Minnesota’s history appears each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org