Legal Case: Thomas/sine Hall, Virginia, March 25, 1629
Man, Woman, or Man and Woman? Fornication? Sodomy?
The records of the Virginia Court reveal the history of a servant, Thomas or Thomasine Hall, who claimed to be "both a man and a woman," but who was alleged by neighbors to be a man.(1)
This document is valuable for the study of the historically specific reaction to sexual ambiguity (in this case, perhaps a physical ambiguity, certainly a mental one). The recorded testimony leaves it unclear whether Hall was actually physically hermaphroditic, or was a biological male who had long dressed and worked as a female and had come to consider him/herself male and female.
Whatever Hall's physiological character, the documents reveal a three-way competition to define Hall's sexuality: by Hall him/herself; by the general populace; and by the governor.
These documents reveal Hall's neighbors trying to fit this sexually ambiguous individual into the existing category, "man."
In contrast, the governor, in resolving this case, officially pronounced Hall "a man and a woman," and required him/her to wear items of each sex's clothing-thereby accepting "man" and "woman" as non-exclusive categories. This resolution was congruent with the relative lack of official stress placed on sexual differentiation in this era when both men and women necessarily did many of the same kinds of work.(2) Later, in the 1800s, the rigidification of and absolute opposition between the categories "male" and "female," and the different kinds of work performed by each, would make such a resolution unlikely: Sexual ambiguity (physical or mental) would then be resolved by categorizing an individual as either "male" or "female."(2)
In testimony before the Virginia Court in 1629, Hall told of being "born at or near Newcastle Upon Tyne." Hall was often told of being christened "by the name of Thomasine," by which name he/she was called. Hall had dressed "in woman's apparel ... until the age of twelve." At that age Thomasine Hall was sent to an aunt in London, where Hall lived for ten years. At that time Thomasine Hall's brother was pressed into military service. Hall, now twenty-two years old, "cut off his hair and changed his [woman's] apparel into the fashion of a man" -and joined the army. Returning from military duty to Plymouth, England, Hall again "changed himself into woman's apparel and made bone lace and did other work with his needle." Shortly afterward, Hall once more changed "his apparel into the habit of a man and so came over into this country."
After Hall's arrival as a male in America, he once again changed his social-sexual character, dressing and working as a woman.
Francis England's Testimony
But rumors spread that Hall was actually a man--and that "he" had committed fornication. Francis England told the Virginia Court of a "rumor" that "Hall did lie with a [serving] maid ... called Great Bess."
England also testified that, when questioned by a certain Captain Basse, Hall "answered ... that he was both man and woman." Asked why he dressed as a woman, Hall reportedly answered, "I go in woman's apparel to get a bit for my cat." This was apparently a seventeenth-century working-class women's expression for sexual intercourse. Hall's phrase seems akin to the modern, slang, heterosexual male expression "To get a piece of pussy." Hall apparently meant that she dressed as a woman in order to obtain sexual access to a man.
Hall's response to Captain Basse did not satisfy Virginians. Francis England further testified that he and Roger Rodes were alone with Hall after hearing the rumors that Hall was a man. Rodes then told Hall "I will see what thou carriest," whereupon Rodes and England "laid hands upon" Hall, "threw" Hall "on his back," and England "pulled out his members"--which convinced England that Hall "was a perfect man."
John Atkins testified that Alice Longe, Dorothye Rodes, and Barbara Hall, after hearing the rumors that Hall was "a man and a woman," physically searched Hall, afterward reporting that "he was a man." It was then that Captain Basse had asked if Hall was a "man or woman," and (according to this testimony) "Hall replied he was both, only he had not the use of the man's Pte. "[?] The original document, which is mutilated here, suggests that Basse inspected Hall and discovered "a piece of flesh growing at the [section missing] belly as big as the top of his little finger [an] inch long." After this, Captain Basse "commanded [Hall] to be put in woman's apparel," apparently deciding to accept Hall as female.
But those who had earlier searched Hall were still not convinced of Hall's female sex. About February 12, 1629, Hall was living at John Atkins's house. A group of searchers, finding Hall asleep, inspected Hall again, and once more found Hall "to be a man."
The following Sunday, a group of serchers assembled once more, and two women inspected Hall in John Atkins's presence. Atkins testified that he asked Hall "if that were all he had, to which he IHall] answered 'I have a piece of a hole.' " Atkins, Hall's master, commanded Hall "to lie on his back and show the same." The women, searching Hall, "did again find him to be a man." Atkins then commanded Hall "to be put in man's apparel." The next day Atkins went to Captain Basse's, told him that Hall "was found to be a man," and asked that Hall "be punished for his abuse" (probably his fornication with Great Bess, and possibly his cross-dressing, and claim to be both man and woman).
The Court's Decision
The Virginia Court, accepting Hall's own self-definition, finally ordered it to "be published in the plantation" where Hall lived, "that he is a man and a woman." Hall was ordered by the court to "go clothed in man's apparel, only his head to be attired in a coyse[?] and crosscioth [a linen cloth worn across the forehead, especially by women] with an apron before him." Hall was also ordered to "find sureties" [leave bond] "for his good behavior ... until the Court shall discharge him ...."
- Adapted from Jonathan Ned Katz, Gay/Lesbian Almanac (NY: Harper & Row, 1983), pp. 71-72, which cites H. R. McIlwaine, ed., Minutes of the Council and General Court of Colonial Virginia . . . (Richmond, VA: Colonial Press, 1924), pp. 194-95. A "crosscloth" is identified in the Oxford English Dictionary. Women's "head clothes" as a sign of their submission to male authority are discussed in Kohler,Search, p. 196
- Discussed in the introductory essay to the section of colonial American documents in Jonathan Ned Katz, Gay/Lesbian Almanac (NY: Harper & Row, 1983).
- See two reports of "hermaphrodites" in 1836 and 1839 cited in backnote 37, p. 676 in Jonathan Ned Katz, Gay/Lesbian Almanac (NY: Harper & Row, 1983).