Celebrating Intersex Awareness Day with Thomas/ine Hall, an Intersex Virginian
Portrait of Thomas/ine Hall, pencil and watercolor by Ren Tolson Copyright 2020: Ren Tolson All Rights Reserved
We stand on the shoulders of giants. When we celebrate our progress, we look to those who came before. This LGBTQIA History Month and Intersex Awareness Day (October 26) we uncover one of history’s buried giants and rejoice in their story. While the LGBTQIA abbreviation is modern, the individuals represented by the letters are not. People of gender and sexual minorities have always existed, though their lives and bodies have often been rendered invisible in the historic record. They lived full lives and were significant actors in shaping our modern world.
As a member of the Colonial Williamsburg Gender and Sexual Diversity Research Committee, I examine the history of marginalized people and try to piece together their lives based on the scant evidence left behind. Many of the people I study were pushed to the fringes of society. The words and actions of those around them, often filled with hate and harsh judgment, are sometimes all that mark their passing and time on Earth. How can you know a person when you only hear about them from those who abuse and spurn them? It is only by submerging completely in the details that a picture begins to crystalize. Each life a world entire; full of ambitions, lives impacted, and loved ones left behind. When we research and bring these stories to light we gain a more vibrant view of history, beautifully true and ours. There is a power in speaking truth, not just looking at the past in nostalgia of a time gone by and progress made; but truly acknowledging the complexities. As a watercolor artist, I have made it a habit to speak the names and paint the people I research so that I can focus on the human behind the text. This helps me to honor their lives and keep their humanity in mind, even while reading the sometimes heartbreaking stories of their treatment by those around them. One such individual is Thomas/Thomasine Hall, an intersex Virginian whose entire life is marked in the historic record by a single court case.
The term intersex, and the conditions which fall under that umbrella, is still widely debated. For the purposes of this blog, I will be using the following definition:
“Intersex is a general term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male.” (Intersex Society of North America)
This is not a research paper but for clarity, sex is the biological classification determined by no less than 5 different physical factors: internal and external genitalia, gonads, hormones, genetics, etc. Sex is not binary, with only two options. While the majority of people do fall into the categories of male or female; intersex people make up an estimated 1.7% of the population. (Anne Fausto-Sterling). That percentage is roughly the same as the number of people with red hair, making intersex people a not insignificant part of our population. Gender, typically described in terms of masculinity and femininity, is a social construction that varies across different cultures, locations, and over time. That is to say that being a man and manly meant something different in 17th-and 18th-century Virginia than it does today. Anyone who has visited Colonial Williamsburg and seen our clothing, can attest to that.
The historic English equivalent for the term intersex is hermaphrodite, which is an offensive term today. It refers to the Ancient Roman story of Hermaphroditus and Salmacis, whose bodies were combined to make one perfect man-woman figure. But in the 17th and 18 centuries, hermaphrodite was the common term used for people with reproductive or sexual anatomy that did not fit the sex binary of male or female. Or, as George Arnaud defines in his 1750 ‘A Dissertation on Hermaphrodites’, by the term hermaphrodite “we understand him or her, in whom the parts which form the essential difference between the two sexes, are found together, either perfectly or imperfectly.” In this dissertation Arnaud also states that he will not use the Greek term for the same condition, ‘androgynes,’ as the term hermaphrodite is “more common and popular.”
In 1741, James Parsons writes how in the 17th and early 18th centuries, there was a common belief that there were three sexes: man, woman, and hermaphrodite. Despite this common belief, English legal precedent of the time showed that an intersex, then called a hermaphrodite, person may have an ambiguous body and sex expression, but they still had to dress and act as either a man or a woman. No physical alterations were expected but intersex individuals covered their bodies with gendered clothing and fit themselves within the social male-female binary as much as possible to avoid persecution.
There were undoubtably intersex people in the British Colony of Virginia; we just need to find the records of their lives. But being a normal, even if rare, occurrence there was little reason to document or write about these people unless the intersex individual was unable to fit into the gender binary or they brought attention to themselves in some other way. This means that when researching intersex individuals in history, our best sources are often medical treatises and court documents. One of the first well documented English cases of an intersex person in Virginia is that of Thomas/ine Hall.
In 1629, in the settlement of Warrosquyoacke near ‘James Cittie’, Virginia there was an indentured servant going by the name of Thomas Hall. They were recently arrived in the colony and their behavior and sexual identity caused a controversy in the settlement. Hall was reported to have alternatively dressed in men’s and women’s clothing and when confronted and asked, “whether he were a man or woeman,” Hall replied that they were both. Upon questioning and examination by members of Hall’s community, Thomas/ine was alternatively declared a man, then a woman, then a man again before the case was sent before the General Court in Jamestown to be decided upon.
The clerk of the court documented the attempts by the members of the Warrosquyoacke community to gender Hall by examining their body. He also recorded Hall’s own narrative history and description of their body, which Hall described as ambiguous and having both male and female anatomy. Statements recorded by the clerk document that Hall was born and christened as a girl going by the name Thomasine in England. At the age of 22 they “cut of his heire and Changed his apparel into the fashion of man” to join the military and serve under the name Thomas after their brother was pressed into service. Hall fought with or for their brother as an English soldier at the Isle of Rhe, considered to be the opening conflict of the Anglo-French War of 1627-1629. When they returned from their military service, they resumed feminine life as Thomasine before immigrating to Virginia and entering into an indenture contract as a man under the name Thomas again. While living in Virginia, they were noted for alternatively dressing in men’s and women’s clothing, something that went directly against English social norms.
After listening to the testimony from members of the Warrosquyoacke community and Hall themselves, the General Court declared a sentence. They ordered that “it shall bee published in the [plantation] where the said Hall lyveth that hee is a man and a woeman”. Hall was also compelled to wear “man’s apparel only his head to be attired in a Coyfe and Croscloth with an Apron before him”. Men’s apparel would notably consist of a doublet with breeches. The women’s accessories of ‘Coyfe and Croscloth’, which is today spelled coif and cross cloth, combined to make a type of head covering and the ‘Apron’ was a specifically feminine cut. This is the first instance in Virginia of a person being declared both a man and a woman, previously intersex individuals usually had to declare either a masculine or feminine identity. The punishment that followed the declaration was equally unusual, requiring Hall to wear both masculine and feminine attire together, something that defied all English norms of the time. This ruling acknowledged Thomas/ine’s ambiguous intersex nature and dual gender, while also punishing them for not molding themselves into the acceptable English gender presentation of man or woman. Their mixed clothing would deny them both the protections given to women and the privileges given to men. And their intersex body, which was previously kept private underneath their clothing, was now declared publicly to every person they met.
Wonderful example of working-class doublet from the 1620s. Jerkin or stump by Hugo de Groot (Delft 1583 - Rostock 1645), goatskin with hooks and eyes, nesting holes and bells. Rotterdam Museum, ca. 1610-1620.
After this court ruling, Thomas/ine Hall is lost to history as they do not appear again in any written or public record yet uncovered. This judgment and court record are the only glimpses we get into their life and it is without image or depiction of what Hall looked like or what the judgment meant. Wearing mixed gendered clothing was not a common occurrence, let alone in the fashion that Thomas/ine was punished with. Using images of people from the first quarter of the 17th century and the references to their physical appearance found in the testimony, I was able to form a complete image of Thomas/ine and the punishment they were sentenced to.
Reading the descriptions in the court record to give a face to Thomas/ine Hall allows us to acknowledge their humanity, something they were largely denied by their community and this court ruling. We can acknowledge them as an intersex individual who identified as both a man and a woman while also remembering their impact beyond that identity. We can rejoice in their life and the strings that connect them to others. Remember their teen years in London under the guardianship of an Aunt who raised them. Honor their service and sacrifice as a veteran of the British Military, whose familial devotion led them to follow their drafted brother into service. Admire their time as a tradesperson in England doing needlework and making bone lace. And acknowledge their bravery in crossing an ocean to work on a plantation here in Virginia, becoming one of Virginia’s earliest English settlers. Thomas/ine Hall was more than what this trial and the actions of their neighbors could show.
This court case and ruling did not define Thomas/ine but it does provide an impression of who they were. This was a person who when asked to define themselves cleanly for others, and at no small cost to themselves, spoke their own truth. Who identified openly as both a man and a woman and did not waver from that. Even as their neighbors ordered them into gendered clothing, demanded they submit their body to examinations, and declared Thomas/ine’s gender for them; when asked, Thomas/ine spoke their own truth and continued to speak it again and again even as the situation and consequences for doing so escalated.
As we recall and honor those who came before during LGBTQIA History month and raise awareness for the intersex people who exist today and have always existed; let us celebrate the life, actions, and choices of Thomas/ine Hall. A normal, everyday person whose very existence was viewed by their community as an act of rebellion. The indominable spirit who refused to make themselves small to make others more comfortable. Today we honor them by putting a face to their name and telling their story beyond the persecution they suffered; Thomas/ine Hall: Veteran, Tradesperson, Man-Woman, and Intersex Virginian.
Ren Tolson is an interpreter and has been with Colonial Williamsburg Foundation for 4 years. They have done research on a diverse number of subjects to better understand 18th-century life, including sex and gender construction, enslavement and body autonomy, medicine, midwifery, natural philosophy, watercolors, and much more. Whether or not they are researching they enjoy spending time with their twin, Victoria.
A dissertation on hermaphrodites. Arnaud de Ronsil, Georges, 1698. 1774. Eighteenth Century Collections Online
A Mechanical and Critical Enquiry into the Nature of Hermaphrodites by James Parsons, 1741. Eighteenth Century Collections Online
Minutes of the Council and General court of colonial Virginia, 1622-1632, 1670-1676, with notes and excerpts from original Council and General court records, into 1683, now lost
Sir Edward Coke, Selected Writings of Sir Edward Coke, vol. II . https://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/coke-selected-writings-of-sir-edward-coke-vol-ii
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