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LHMP #118 Lyons 2007 “Mapping an Atlantic Sexual Culture: Homoeroticism in Eighteenth-Century Philadelphia”

Full citation: 

Lyons, Clare A. 2007. “Mapping an Atlantic Sexual Culture: Homoeroticism in Eighteenth-Century Philadelphia” in: Foster, Thomas A. (ed). Long Before Stonewall: Histories of Same-Sex Sexuality in Early America. New York University Press, New York. ISBN 13-978-0-8147-2749-2


The scarcity of documentary material for homoeroticism in early America can be frustrating, given how plentiful references are plentiful back in Europe in the same era. If anything, this paper points up the problem, given that the author looks heavily to European sources to try to develop a context for the rather off-hand treatment of same-sex relationships in Philadelphian courts in the 18th century.

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The overall thesis of this paper seems to be that the combination of the peculiarly cosmopolitan nature of Philadelphia, and the lower emphasis on sexual sins that may be traced to the colony’s Quaker origins (as contrasted with the Puritan origins of some other colonial settlements) led to a tolerance (though certainly not an acceptance) of homoerotic behavior in 18th century Philadelphia, as evidenced in the scraps of documentation that have come down to us. This focus on creating a context for interpreting the fragmentary data means that a fair amount of the article focuses on “here are texts, experiences, and pop culture understandings that were presumably available to the residents of Philadelphia in this era.” My summary will focus on the concrete documentary evidence, rather than on this framing material. As usual for an article that includes both male and female experiences, the bulk of the material involves male experiences.

The article opens by summarizing two case histories of Philadelphia residents: “At the end of the eighteenth century, Ann Alweye, a male transvestite, lived with John Crawford in a relationship presumed to be sexual. Half a century earlier, Mary Hamilton had fled England for the New World after her conviction for ‘pretending herself a Man’ and living as husband to Mary Price.” Both cases are noted as unusual in that the persons involved appear to have lived out their lives in Philadelphia in relative peace, despite these facts being known.

18th c Philadelphia was not an isolated frontier town, but part of a complex cultural web, connected largely by sea trade, not only with the Atlantic seaboard, but with European ports. Although Puritan New England leaves a solid record of legal and religious condemnation of sodomy, studies of specific individuals suggest that this official condemnation co-existed with tolerance of men who practiced it as long as their behavior didn’t disrupt the social hierarchy or create unavoidable scandal. Despite records of theoretical condemnation, actual trials for same-sex activity were rare, even in Puritan-influenced regions, and even less frequent in Philadelphia. There were no prosecutions for sodomy in Philadelphia courts from 1750 to 1800 (and no indication of any in the surviving court records from the first half of the century). There was a single instance of lesbian-like cohabitation mentioned in court records.

The next section of the article is a broad survey of the cultural influences available to Philadelphians, the presence of seasonal maritime workers from the entire Atlantic region, and a consideration of sexual literature and practices in 18th century England that were presumbed to form a basis for Philadelphians’ awareness of the possibilities. The author notes that in England and the Netherlands, the legal records indicate a shift away from the “libertine” 17th century to more repressive prosecutions against “sodomites” in the 18th century. There’s a brief discussion of the differing conceptions of female and male homoeroticism at this time, in particular the two competing framings of female homoeroticism as a “deviant choice” versus a physiology-based inherent orientation.

Returning to Philadelphia, the author notes that Pennsylvanian law didn’t include the sort of inflammatory language singling out sodomy as especially problematic, unlike New England legal codes. Further, Pennsylvanian law specified relatively lenient penalties for it, although this was in part aligned with its avoidance of capital punishmunt for anything except murder. Advice given to legal authorities to treat sodomy accusations skeptically (“so easily charged, and the negative so difficult to be proved”) may also contribute to the absence of prosecutions. There is circumstantial evidence that other sexual offences such as fornication, adultery, and bigamy were pursued generally only when there was a “wronged party” complaining, rather than as a matter of public interest.

The two cases that inspired this article were recorded somewhat incidentally, with the sexual aspect being mentioned in the context of other concerns. For example, the matter of Ann Alweye and John Crawford’s co-habitation came to light because John Crawford was accused of adultery and rested his defense on the point that his relationship with Alweye was not adultery because Alweye was not a woman. (At the very least, this suggests that the parties concerned thought that gender disguise and the suspicion of sodomy would be less problematic than the accusation of heterosexual adultery.)

Moving into the section focusing on women, the author reviews a number of popular English literary works that involve female homoeroticism, as well as medical texts, stories of “female husbands”, lurid tales of secret lesbian cabals, and the recorded experiences of individuals such as Anne Lister. This leads into the case of Mary/Charles Hamilton, whose story appears in a letter in the Pennsylvania Gazette in July 1752. Her story was that the had been “brought up to the business of a Doctor and Surgeon under one Doctor Green, a noted Mountebank in England” and as the itinerant Doctor Charles Hamilton had set sail for Philadelphia but been “cast away” in North Carolina and was making her way north, supporting herself by selling medicines and treating patients. Although the specific reasons for suspicion weren’t mentioned, “it being suspected that the Doctor was a Woman in Mens Cloaths, [she] was taken up, examined, and found to be a Woman; and confessed she had used that Disguise for several Years.”

The author suggests that correspondences in this story with the subject of Henry Fielding’s fictionalized The Female Husband (1746)--including aspects of Mary Hamilton’s story that match Fielding’s original model but that he altered in the published version--strongly suggest that this is the same person. Fielding’s subject served a six-month jail term for fraud in marrying a supposedly unsuspecting woman, but the colonial Mary Hamilton was only detained “till we see whether any Body appears against her, if not she will be discharged.” That is, there was an expectation that the disguise might have been used for fraudulent purposes, but if no claims were made against her, the disguise itself was not treated as criminal.

The one documented legal case involving female cohabitation involved just such as a personal claim: in 1792, Ann Hannah was charged on oath by Margaret Marshall for “harboring and cohabiting with the said Margaret”. The case reads almost identically to cases of heterosexual cohabitation (usually with a complaint lodged by a wronged spouse). Just how Margaret Marshall felt herself to be wronged is not made clear and Ann Hannah was released the same day. The author speculates on what the precipitating cause might have been, but in any event, the language of sexual cohabitation was used in the record but the genders involved were not treated as being of any significance.


In wrapping up conclusions about why Philadelphians may have been unusually unconcerned about homoerotic encounters, the author suggests that cultural and racial politics of the time, rather than than focusing categorical anxieties about “who is a man?” on images of effeminacy, were instead focused on creating a unified identity of “shared masculinity” expanded to white men of all classes, in opposition to women and non-white men. [Note that this is not exactly the most edifying basis for an acceptance of homoerotic relationships, nor would it apply to how women’s relationships were treated.]

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