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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #91 Chesser 1998 "A Woman Who Married Three Wives: Management of Disruptive Knowledge in the 1879 Australian Case of Edward De Lacy Evans"

Full citation: 

Chesser, Lucy. 1998. "A Woman Who Married Three Wives: Management of Disruptive Knowledge in the 1879 Australian Case of Edward De Lacy Evans" in Journal of Women's History vol 9 no 4: 53-77.

I have sometimes previously put LHMP entries under a cut with a "NSFW -- no, seriously, more than usual" tag due to explicit sexual content. I think this is the first time I've added a trigger warning (for rape and rape-like medical examination). The warning applies even more strongly to the original article.

This is also another "marriage between women" case that, in modern terms, falls far more on the "probably transgender" side than on the "lesbian subterfuge" side, despite the eventual resolution to a female presentation. The author has tried to be very conscious of pronoun/name use in the article, but as part of the analysis is of gendered language as used in the historic record, it may not always be clear in my summary when the language use reflects those records as opposed to the article. I have leaned toward using the surname "Evans" as reference, as this name was used at some point during both male and female presentations, and using "Ellen" and "Edward" when referring to specific presentations. I'm almost certainly going to screw this up at some point, but this will be my fault and not Chesser's.

* * *

This article concerns an individual who may more properly be interpreted as transgender, however as noted a number of times before, in a historic context where heteronormativity is so strong as to impede the ability to self-define as a woman-oriented woman, interpretation can be ambiguous.

The basic story is given in the article's abstract: Edward De Lacy Evans was born female but lived as a man for 23 years (1856-1879) in Victoria, Australia. During that time Evans married three women and was father to a daughter. Evans' biological sex was discovered on being sent from the town of Bendigo for admittance to a lunatic asylum for reasons that--as eventually discovered--related directly to social pressures around living a gender-transgressive life.

The article focuses primarily on how those who wrote about the case at the time framed and "managed" this information to neutralize its transgressive aspects. The article has an extensive discussion of pronoun usage, both in the texts under study and in the article itself. In order to be sensitive to all possible understandings of Evans' gender, I'm going to do my best to avoid misgendering, but since Evans isn't available to have a preference, I'm probably going to repeat the surname a lot.

Evans was 41 at the time of the asylum incident and had been living as a man since at least the age of 21 and working as a miner. The asylum send Evans back to the town of origin, asserting that they had commitment papers for a man, not a woman, and couldn't process the case. The case became a newspaper sensation, using the terms "imposture" and "concealment of sex". That Evans' personal history included marriage to three different women and being parent to a child led to a great deal of public interest in the sexual aspects of the case. This was an era when the motif of the "female husband" (both in pop culture and real life) had not yet given way to the sexologist's model of the "deviant mannish lesbian". (The article then goes into a lengthy consideration of modern sexuality theory and how it approaches historic individuals and behaviors.)

The public discussion and negotiation of understanding of Evans' case shows competing framings--some emphasizing control of the disruptive power of the story, some emphasizing heroic naratives of courage and individualism, some focused on the sexual aspects. The author notes that this public discussion eventually demanded Evans' own participation in the framing and gave significant power to Evans' own revision and re-negotiation of self-image. (Though, to some extent, only when that re-negotiation aligned with social demands.)

Initially the story was constructed from the narratives of those who knew Evans as friends and neighbors. Evans was identified as having been Ellen Tremayne, arriving in Victoria in 1856 as a passenger on an immigrant ship from Ireland at age 26. Ellen was a domestic servant, single, and had borne a child at some time previously. There were individuals still living in Bendigo who had known Ellen at that time. Ellen was remembered as dressing peculiarly, in a mix of male and female clothing, and traveling with a trunk of men's clothes labeled "Edward De Lacy Evans".

There was some speculation at the time that Ellen was a man in female disguise as Ellen sometimes made comments about plans to marry Ellen's berth companion, Mary Delahunty on arrival. This marriage, in fact, occurred less than a year later, after Evans left town briefly and returned in male clothing using the name Edward. The marriage broke up soon after and Mary left, re-marrying and countering those who said it was bigamy by declaring that Evans was a woman. Evans was working as a miner at this time. A couple years later, Evans, identifying as a widower, married Sarah Moore in Bendigo. They lived together for five years until Sarah's death.

A year later, Evans married Julia Marquand, a friend of Sarah's sister, who lived in Bendigo with relatives. The two often lived apart during the first few years of the marriage, but after 1872 they lived together in a cottage in Bendigo while Evans worked the mines. In 1877, Jula gave birth to a daughter. Shortly thereafter, Evans was injured on the job and became ill, while also having emotional disturbances related to the circumstances of Julia's pregnancy. These disturbances were why Evans was taken to the asylum in 1879, at which time the issue of Evans' biological sex arose during a mandatory intake bath. The asylum transferred Evans back to a regular hospital in Bendigo, where Evans stayed during the furor over the next three months, then was released as "cured".

Newspaper reports fastened onto both the several marriages and stories of Evans' "intimate friendships" with women during the voyage from Ireland and constructed a narrative in which Ellen was a nymphomaniac and that all the female partners had been victims of fraud and deceit. However in some cases the word "nymphomania" was also used of the wives, suggesting it was the reason they had gone along with the supposed imposture. This undermined the narrative that connected "unnatural desires" only with the gender-transgressive partner. Other cases of sex between women were adduced in the newspaper discussions as a way of providing context.

The question of what the wives "knew" held a fascination for the public, which created an impossible situation for Julia who had the evidence of a pregnancy to demonstrate sexual activity outside her marriage on top of whatever went on within it. Julia insisted on ignorance of Evans' biological sex, but also claimed ignorance of the source of her pregnancy, saying that Evans must have substituted a "real man" into her bed in the dark at some point. But this necessarily implied that she and Evans had enjoyed activities that could not be distinguished from heterosexual sex in the dark.

Speculations on Evans' first wife also fit the "deception" narrative, postulating that Mary's leaving had been rejection of the "irregular" relationship (given that Mary had clearly known Evans' biological sex from the shared voyage). Speculations on the second (deceased) wife resulted in construction of a sentimental and tragic story that could not be contradicted by inconvenient testimony.

On the use of gendered pronouns, the newspapers initially used "he", particularly during descriptions of male-coded activities, but gradually as the "imposture" narrative took hold, they shifted to using female pronouns and even referring to "Mrs. Evans", although all gendered references and relationship terms (husband/wife) were typically enclosed in scare-quotes. Another parallel shift in the narrative was from portraying Evans as dangerous, violent, and insane, to building a sympathetic portrayal, with "insanity" reserved for reconciling the details that remained intractable.

The newspapers' ability to sort out and construct the narrative was hampered at first by a flood of sensationalist "witnesses" who multiplied the number of wives and children involved with fictitious or confused additions. Despite Evans' long residence in the area, the newspapers were particularly interested in the ocean voyage and its circumstances, enabling the more sympathetic narrative to feature a young protagonist who more readily fit folk images of acceptable female cross-dressing. In combination with the medical evidence that the younger Evans had previously been pregnant, a narrative was constructed that had Evans seduced by the "real" Edward De Lacy Evans, then pregnant and abandoned, and either duped into boarding the immigrant ship or fleeing Ireland in shame, in both cases accompanied by "the real Edward's" traveling trunk with his clothing. Arriving in Melbourne, so the narrative went, alone and friendless, Evans had adopted male disguise for protection and economic opportunity. (Several other contemporary Australian cases of women passing for employment purposes are mentioned.)

This "masquerade" was treated sympathetically as understandable; it was the marriages that raised hackles. The newspapers seemed to settle on attributing them to Evans' "mental disorders" without further explanation, but with suggestions that such a breakdown was only to be expected when a female-bodied individual attempted to maintain the rigorous physical life required of a man. In the end, this medicalization of the situation enabled them to pronounce Edward--now once more Ellen--cured and unlikely to "un-sex herself" again.

In the progression to this resolution, Evans gradually abandoned resistance to medical control, attempted and then abandoned a hunger strike, and eventually agreed to wear female clothing and use a female name as a condition of release from the hospital. The medical record also makes clear that Evans was subjected to very invasive and abusive medical examinations to determine "her true sex" and visitors' accounts from this time indicate potentially suicidal depression.

As a coda, Julia finally abandoned her position of ignorance with regard to her pregnancy and accused her brother in law (her sister's husband) of having "seduced her" (and, in fact, of having sexually pursued her since she was a girl before meeting Evans) and having visited her repeatedly for the purpose of sex. There is the complication that the brother in law was also Evans' employer at the mine and had provided financial support to the couple at times.

The picture emerges of a coercive sexual relationship of which Evans was aware. This awareness, and the lack of any power to address it (quite likely involving the threat of blackmail or exposure), seems to have been the precipitating factor in Evans' mental breakdown. The defendant's lawyer portrayed Julia as promiscuous and immoral, Evans' own testimony was dismissed out of hand, and the accusation was found unproven. Evans left Bendigo after this trial, living as a woman, and trying to earn money in sideshow exhibitions as "the man-woman". Half a year later, Evans appealed for readmission to the asylum and lived in an Immigrants Home in failing health for another 21 years.

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