LGBTQ History

James Allen was declared a “female husband” in the early 19th century to protect their wife

An image from the 19th century historic drama series
An image from the 19th century historic drama series "Gentleman Jack"Photo: HBO

This is an excerpt from Jen Manion’s Female Husbands: A Trans History. Meticulously researched and written entirely in non-binary language, the book is an engaging account of “transing” in the 18th and 19th centuries.

James and Abigail Allen married in 1807 at St. Giles’ Church in the Southwark borough of London. Life was never easy for the couple, but they were hardworking, resourceful, and had each other. After numerous jobs, several relocations, and 21 years of marriage, things came crashing to a halt. James Allen was bashed in the head and killed by a falling piece of timber while working as a bottom sawyer (a worker at a saw pit who stands below the timber) for ship-wright and builder Mr. Crisp in 1829.

James was declared dead en route to St. Thomas’ Hospital. The end of James’ life was the beginning of Abigail’s nightmare. Not only had she just lost her husband of 21 years and the primary earner for their family, but everyone learned that her husband was assigned female at birth.

Related: This gender-bending, history-making actress played Romeo & broke many women’s hearts

Allen’s death was a public affair with nearly a dozen people witness to the final moments of their life and the immediate aftermath. Co-workers witnessed the accident and rushed James to the hospital. Doctors and nurses received the now lifeless body, which was turned over to medical students, the coroner, and a jury to determine the cause of death.

Allen’s wife was summoned and she brought a friend with her. The owner of the shipyard where the incident took place came too, hoping he would not be found liable. The parties assembled had different stakes.

The surprisingly dignified treatment of James Allen after their death

Lawyer Thomas Shelton worked as the city coroner since 1788. He oversaw the jury inquest into the cause of James Allen’s death, which preceded his own death by just seven months. Shelton was skilled and experienced — and yet he had never encountered a situation quite like this one. He expressed “astonishment” about “so extraordinary a circumstance as two females living together as man and wife” for over 21 years.

The work of the autopsy itself was completed by someone with medical training, such as a senior medical student known as a “dresser.” In the case of James Allen, the dresser was Mr. John Martin. Martin declared that Allen was dead upon arrival at the hospital.

The cause of death was very clear: “The whole of the bones of the skull were fractured.” This was not an injury anyone was expected to survive. Inadvertently, Martin discovered that this hardworking man and beloved husband was anatomically female.

The inquest itself cites John Martin plainly stating, “The dead is a woman.” Word spread quickly throughout the hospital that there was something much more interesting at play in this case than a simple workplace accident. By the time the coroner arrived to oversee the trial, medical students from throughout the hospital packed into the jury room.

Coroner Shelton repeatedly referenced Allen using male pronouns and offered a rationale for why he did this. Shelton declared, “I call the deceased ‘he,’ because I considered it impossible for him to be a woman, as he had a wife.”

Shelton felt the need to substantiate this decision with further information – the fact that he saw the actual marriage certificate. He used his position to put an end to further inquiries into Allen’s life, asserting the sole purpose of such an inquest was to determine cause of death and not to investigate the lives of the dead.

Shelton was the most powerful person to officially weigh in on Allen’s life and gender. He represented the Crown in various capacities throughout his professional life and was highly regarded throughout his career. Shelton respected law, custom, and institutions.

He refused to refer to Allen with female pronouns because Allen was married to a woman; he refused to question the legitimacy of this marriage because he saw the legal document that made it so. Allen’s social gender – evident to co-workers, employers, and themself – was more important to Shelton than anatomical sex.

The state of Allen’s legal sex remained in limbo – suspended between competing claims from medical students asserting female anatomy and a lifetime of relationships, paperwork, and legal documents stating otherwise.

Perhaps most remarkable in this era of grave digging, body snatching, and general desperation on the part of doctors and medical students to gain access to dead bodies for dissection and training, Shelton declared Allen’s body off-limits.

News stories reported on “rumors” that “several well-known ‘resurrection men’ were lurking about, in the hope of procuring the corpse of so remarkable a subject for dissection.” Shelton took no chances, ordering the body of this impoverished laborer not to Potter’s field (a public graveyard for poor, unclaimed corpses) where it may easily have landed for Abigail’s lack of money but into a vault, safe and secure.

The news report characterized the vault as “belonging to a private burial-ground, in the parish of St. John’s Bermondsey, access to which is impossible it being well secured and guarded against the attack of body-snatchers.” No one was permitted additional examination of the naked body of James Allen. This was a remarkable dignity rarely allowed for people of indeterminate sex or gender.

The personal features that made a “masculine character” in 19th century England

An image of Abigail and James Allen circa 1829
An image of Abigail and James Allen circa 1829 Lewis Walpole Library

This tension between legal manhood and anatomical femaleness played out in the hearing as other people expressed their views of Allen. Clues that would help make sense of Allen’s gender were believed to be contained in their choice of clothing, social relations, physical attributes, and emotional disposition.

Allen was described as “a sober, steady, strong, and active man” and “a smart and handsome young man, and an excellent groom.” These characterizations were positive assessments of a laboring man, emphasizing both physical traits – strong and handsome – as well as mental ones – steady and smart.

Two co-workers from the shipyard asserted that the pitch of Allen’s voice was strange and that they teased them because of it. They also noted Allen’s lack of facial hair led them to believe Allen was intersex.

Allen was clearly a man in other respects: from their masculine hands to their sailor’s attire to their 21-year marriage to a woman. When pressed on how it was possible that she did not realize that her husband was not a man, Abigail said she was not suspicious of her husband’s sex because Allen was uncannily strong, with hands of a “masculine character.”

A news story that spoke of Allen with feminine pronouns conceded as much, stating, “The deceased appears to have been an interesting looking girl; her limbs were well proportioned; and the only thing of a masculine character that we observed about her was her hands, which were large, and the flesh extremely hard, owing to the work she performed for so many years.”

There was no disputing that working as a servant and laborer for decades, in jobs usually reserved for men, gave one exceptionally strong, muscular hands. Living as a certain kind of man – in this case, as a laborer – led one’s body to a physical transformation.

Clothing was a crucial indicator of gender and really the starting point for many people who thought about transing gender. Allen embraced a range of styles of men’s clothes depending on their occupation. They wore the uniform of a groomsman for years at service and then later turned to sailor’s clothes.

For the last two years of their life, Allen worked in a shipyard and would have easily blended in with their described “thick flannel waistcoats, which extended from the neck down to the hips.” Not only did this outfit allow Allen to blend in among co-workers, but it also supported Allen’s attempt to minimize their chest by binding, for which Allen wrapped a linen bandage around their upper torso.

Abigail reported she didn’t think twice about this practice because Allen claimed the bandage was to protect their lungs, something perfectly reasonable to assert for someone who worked outside, often in cold, rainy, or snowy conditions.

When people grappled with Allen’s life and gender, one thing was more important than the others: marriage. The fact that they were married to a woman made Allen into more of a man than any job, jacket, or beard ever would. In short, being married to a woman affirmed one’s manhood.

Marriage was crucial to Allen’s ability to live as a man in the eyes of co-workers who felt that Allen must be “most of a man” because they were “married so many years” despite their suspicions that Allen was intersex. While physical embodiment was one aspect of gender, it stood in contention with – and was overridden by –marital status as the most meaningful signifier of manhood.

While marriage served to uplift, legitimize, and verify the manhood of female husbands, it could lead to an incredible amount of harassment, judgment, and isolation for their wives. This is precisely what happened to Abigail when James died.

The erasing of Abigail’s queerness after her husband’s death

Jack Halberstam
Queer philosopher Jack Halberstam Joe Mabel via Wikimedia Commons

People harassed her endlessly, raising doubts about her gender and alleging that she knowingly entered into a fraudulent marriage. Abigail lived in “great terror” of those neighbors who targeted her.

But she had also built up quite a bit of respect and goodwill over the years in her community. Most newspaper reports verified her good name and trustworthiness, asserting that “those who know her give her an excellent character” and that she had an outstanding work ethic.

Still, Abigail felt the only way people would leave her alone was if she swore that she did not know that her husband was assigned female.

Abigail had very real legal, financial, and social reasons for asserting her own ignorance. The benefits of this clearly outweighed the downsides. But as a result, she was left standing as someone who was abused, manipulated, and duped.

If Abigail had in fact chosen James knowing they were assigned female, who would ever believe her? Maybe she waited to meet someone who lived between genders and chose James precisely because of their difference.

There was something intriguing about someone who blurred the line between sex and gender, embodying both masculine and feminine traits. Those who were raised and socialized as girls and then chose to live as men were special.

Abigail herself – quite possibly uninterested in other men and so thrilled when James showed interest in her – was no ordinary heterosexual woman. When she married James, Abigail Naylor took the surname of Allen. This marked a legal and social transition of her own, even if others were ignorant and assumed they were a typical couple.

The general public seemed eager to dismiss the idea that Abigail knew James was different. This was the path of least resistance. It would establish Abigail as an ordinary woman.

With James dead, it was Abigail’s difference that remained an open question and threat. It would serve the status quo if she went back to life as an ordinary woman of typical heterosexual desire.

The social pressure on surviving wives to deny knowledge of their partners’ bodies and distance themselves from questions of sexual intimacy was tremendous. It served to minimize the connection between the two parties. This erasure undermines any claim the Allens represent queer, trans, or same-sex relationships in the past, while etching a partial truth in the historic record.

Queer philosopher Jack Halberstam has described this hostile view of female masculinity as one where the husband has “a longing to be and to have a power that is always just out of reach.” From the perspective of queer and trans history, acceptance of the notion that these relationships were asexual had a devastating function by erasing the significance of sexual intimacy and emphasizing a husband’s inability to satisfy their wife.

Even without evidence of sex, female husbands are deemed legitimate subjects of a queer past because of their gender. Female wives, however, are never granted this standing.

We can only imagine that Abigail may herself have been the instigator of sexual intimacies, the lover of female masculinity who lured James close to her. What if Abigail pursued James, persuading James that she could see them and would love them for who they were? What if their life and love together was her idea?

In this case, the erasure of her role in shaping their relationship would be even more painful.

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