They Were No Different From Us
(well, perhaps some were!)
by Jonah Begone
Our tendency to create heroes is well documented. An admin clerk returning from Kuwait is designated a "Gulf War Hero," and a sandwich bag's worth of bone fragments (of a hero or a complete rogue - who can know?) unearthed at Antietam Battlefield is reinterred with full reenactment military honors. John Brown - a cold-blooded murderer - is granted martyr status, as is the rebellious slave Nat Turner, who orchestrated acts even more horrific. We amateur historians should know better.
Human nature being unchanged from generation to generation, it should come as no surprise that our forefathers will not bear this lionization. There were just as many rogues and oddballs among them as there are among us, and there is little point in granting them all gentleman, founding father or hero status just because it may be the politically correct thing to do.
Consider, for example, the early Virginia resident Thomas Hall, whose lamentable story is contained in the book Martin's Hundred by Ivor Noel Hume, a fascinating account of the archaeology of an early seventeenth-century site (also known as "Wolstenholme Towne") near the Carter's Grove mansion, in Virginia:
"...for us, patch-wearing in Virginia suborned us into joining the long line of curiosity-seekers who had peered up the skirts of Mr. Hall. Though he was not a resident of Martin's Hundred, his case went to trial on March 25, 1629, which, after all, was right in our period.
Hall was born in the north of England, at Newcastle-on-Tyne, where he claimed to have been christened Thomasine, not Thomas, and to have been dressed as a female by his parents. He had continued thus for another ten years while living with his aunt in London. Then, in the summer of 1627, he cut his hair, put on male clothes, and enlisted as a soldier to join the Duke of Buckingham's ill-fated expedition against the French at the Isle of Rhe. On November 8, all that was left of the Duke's army returned to England, Hall disembarking at Plymouth, where he again put on female clothes and took a job as a lacemaker. At the age of twenty-four, changing yet again, he elected to take his chances as a servant settler on a ship bound for Virginia. Presumably he took his female clothes with him in case he should have further second thoughts, for in 1629 he was again beskirted, and passing as a woman on a plantation across the river from Martin's Hundred - until someone blew his cover and spread the word that `the said Hall did ly wth a maid of Mr Richard Bennetts called greate Besse.' Two local men heard the rumor and took it upon themselves to grab Hall to see what was up. They concluded that Thomasine was a man. John Tyros, however, in whose household Hall worked as a female servant, remained convinced that he was Thomasine and not Thomas, a conclusion later supported by testimony from one of three women who made a similar inspection. Hall was taken before the local magistrate where he claimed to be both man and woman. When asked why he chose to wear woman's clothes, he gave the surprising and rather unsatisfactory answer that `I goe in weomans aparell to gett a bitt for my Catt.'
Although the magistrate ruled that Hall should continue to dress as a woman, this did not satisfy his neighbors. One Sunday a group of both sexes grabbed him again. Satisfied that he was a male, they sent him back to the magistrate, who referred the matter to the acting governor of Virginia, John Pott, who should have been particularly well equipped to arbitrate such knotty issues, having for years been the colony's physician. Pott's court concluded that Hall was a true hermaphrodite and, in a Solomon-like decision, ruled that he/she should `goe Clothed in mans apparell, only his head to bee attired in a Coyfe and Croscloth wth an Apron before him And that hee shall finde suerties for his good behavior.' Thus was the confused and probably deeply unhappy Thomas Hall condemned to endure the daily derision of his countrymen - and women.
...the warning inherent in this sad little tale, namely that even among the small population of Virginia in 1629 there were some whom fate had made different and who did not fit into our stereotyped vision of the Nation's First Families and Founding Fathers."
Not to belabor the point, but I'm certain that if reenactors had heard about Mr. Hall's unidentified bones being discovered uncommemorated at some historic site he would be granted Indian massacre hero/victim status, whereas if he were alive and walking among us he would be a featured guest on the Oprah Winfrey show!
The lesson in this story for us reenactors is not that now one of the five or six guys doing seventeenth-century first person impressions at Jamestown may occasionally dress as a woman in honor of Mr. Hall and turn that site into something other than a family attraction, but that people during the early colonial, Revolutionary War or Civil War eras were just like us and that there's no point in bestowing upon them virtues (or even normalcy) that perhaps they did not have!
To read about modern cross-dressing reenactors - you may even tent with one! - click here!
And here's an article about the Dragoon in Drag