Publisher’s Synopsis: One day in 1855 Lucy Lobdell cut her hair, changed clothes, and went off to live her life as a man. By the time it was over, she was notorious. The New York Times thought her worthy of a lengthy obituary that began “Death of a Modern Diana . . . Dressed in Man’s Clothing She Win’s a Girl’s Love.” The obit detailed what the Times knew of Lucy’s life, from her backwoods upbringing to the dance school she ran disguised as a man, “where she won the love of a young lady scholar.” But that was just the start of the trouble; the Times did not know about Lucy’s arrest and trial for the crime of wearing men’s clothes or her jailbreak engineered by her wife, Marie Perry, to whom she had been married by an unsuspecting judge.
Lucy lived at a time when women did not commonly travel unescorted, carry a rifle, sit down in bars, or have romantic liaisons with other women. Lucy did these things in a personal quest—to work and be paid, to wear what she wanted, and to love whomever she cared to. But to gain those freedoms she had to endure public scorn and wrestle with a sexual identity whose vocabulary had yet to be invented. Lucy promised to write a book about it all, and over the decades, people have searched for that account. Author William Klaber searched also until he decided that the finding would have to be by way of echoes and dreams. This book is Lucy’s story, told in her words as heard and recorded by an upstream neighbor.
It has been named a Stonewall Book Award-Barbara Gittings Literature Award Honor Book for 2014.
4 out of 5 stars
This is once again, my favorite genre: real life figures set in a semi-fictional setting. I say semi-fictional because with Lucy Lobdell, there are quite a few facts that are known, but William Klaber has taken the liberty of mixing truth and fiction to create this outstanding memoir.
Lucy was born in upstate NY in 1879 where she was taught to hunt, and to play the violin by her father; both of which were considered unusual for that time. She married young to a scoundrel who left her soon after, alone and penniless and with a young daughter. Her family took her in, but never made her feel welcome and blamed her for the breakup of the marriage. Knowing there was no way for her to support her daughter as a woman, she left her family home dressed as a man in search of “man’s work” and became Joseph Lobdell.
Lobdell traveled all over the Midwest, hoping and planning to eventually buy land and raise horses. He did fall in love in the first town he lived in, where he posed as a violin teacher for the young society ladies, and his secret was almost discovered there. Choosing to run, he travels further Northwest into Minnesota. An ill-timed swim in the river left him discovered by a neighbor, who then raped him and had him arrested for masquerading as a man.
All charges were eventually dropped and Lodbell left Minnesota in search for his daughter. Finding that she had lived in an alms house, a poor house, before being adopted, Lobdell stayed at the same house and eventually married the proprietor, Marie. This could very well be the first same sex marriage on the books – I honestly don’t know.
Unfortunatly Lobdell was ultimately forced into multiple insane asylums later in life before his death at 83. It’s not clear if he was mentally ill, or defined as such by the times and the way he chose to live. There was no language at that time for gender identity, so anything differing from what was accepting was seen as an unholy aberration and locked away.
William Klaber was literally handed this book by a local historian as he lived in the area that Lucy/Joseph was born and raised in. I think he does a good job with the story and mixes fact and fiction well. Klaber tells us that the first time that the word “lesbian” was used, it was used to describe Lucy/Joseph Lobdell.
I found this book fascinating and an enjoyable read.