Why you should care
Joe Lobdell and Marie Perry had to fight to live and love in an unforgiving age.
It had been a wild few days, even for Joseph Israel Lobdell, soon to be 42 years old that week in the fall of 1871. On Monday night, a gentleman named E.O. Ward of Bethany, Pennsylvania, had found Joe on his doorstep, singing and dancing in scandalous fashion. Tuesday morning, Joe had gotten into John Hacker’s wagon on a countryside drive, “hugging him all the way to town,” as the newspaper reports recounted. As if such tomfoolery wasn’t enough, Joe was then found kissing the statue of the local Civil War hero on Tuesday afternoon, climbing it before terrorizing a class full of schoolchildren the next day.
The latter offense finally landed him in the Honesdale jail, where he sang bawdy songs and tore his garments from inside his prison cell. From the outside, his loyal wife, Marie Louise Perry, penned a letter to the local judge begging for his freedom, writing it with a whittled stick and ink from the juice of scavenged pokeberries.
It was neither the first time Joe had caused a disturbance nor the first time his wife had to plead for his release. In fact, Joe was a regular in the newspapers — often under headlines like “The Female Hunter,” “The Wild Woman of Meeker County” and “The Lady in Pantaloons.” You see, Joe was born Lucy Ann Lobdell, a master trapper, hunter and self-taught ace shot who left home in men’s clothes to escape a troubled marriage in his 20s. And while most scholars of queer history focus on Joe’s status as a transgender trendsetter more than a century ago, his relationship with Perry merits its own digression. “When I look at the story, I see it as this epic love story that is just riddled with all these adventures and drama,” says Bambi Lobdell, Joe’s great-great-granddaughter and author of his biography, A Strange Sort of Being.
Lobdell and Perry met at the Delhi, New York, poorhouse in 1860. He had lived a hard life since leaving home six years before, wearing “men’s clothes of fine black cloth and a stovepipe hat,” neighbors whispered. Leaving behind a bad marriage and a young daughter, Joe had done a number of odd stints, from establishing a singing school in Bethany to becoming known as “The Slayer of Hundreds of Bears and Wild-Cats” in Meeker County, Minnesota. But in each location, he found trouble and was driven out — with locals often forcing him to wear female garb as they sent him away.
Now in his 30s and forced to dress in women’s clothing at the poorhouse, Joe was “depressed, moody and sullen,” the New York Times would later write. That is, “until Marie entered about a year later, when [Joe] became the most cheerful person in the place.” Perry was running from her own demons: While on honeymoon, her new husband had run off with the landlady’s daughter. Rather than return to her father, who had disapproved of the nuptials, she had fled.
The pair fell in love in that hopeless place, getting married a few days after escaping the poorhouse and setting the stage for a whirlwind life of living on the land (and skipping town whenever Joe’s sex was inevitably discovered). Early in 1862, the two moved to Whitman, Massachusetts, living on Perry’s father’s estate near Pleasant Street. Joe was considered a hard worker, dressed well and was “very masculine,” Bambi says: “Perhaps too much so, as it seems he was a flirt with the ladies, causing Marie some jealousy.” Eventually, her family grew suspicious of his sex and had him arrested: In a sign of the times to come, it would require “frequent epistoles [sic] to the governor entreating his assistance” before Joe would be released.
They lived in utter poverty. But they also lived in utter freedom.
Bambi Lobdell, author of A Strange Sort of Being
The scant accounts of their life together provide a glimpse into the life of a queer couple trying to survive in difficult times. While in Pennsylvania, the two were called the “Romantic Paupers” in Jackson township in the fall of 1867. A party of fishermen discovered them living in a cave in Barrett township, and soon after, Joe — calling himself a “Reverend” — appeared in a nearby village with his wife and a bear cub, preaching a gospel of “the new dispensation” while passing his hat around for donations. There is no evidence that the bear accompanied them on later journeys (although there is also no evidence that it did not).
“They were very happy together. Especially when you think of the way they set up an alternative domesticity in the woods,” Bambi says. “They lived in utter poverty. But they also lived in utter freedom.”
There has been some debate in scholarly circles as to whether Joe was transgender or a lesbian woman living a masculine lifestyle. “To apply modern gender labels to historical characters is to invite error,” wrote William Klaber, author of The Rebellion of Miss Lucy Ann Lobdell, published in 2013. “But it seems clear to me that Lucy Lobdell, by way of her writing, was an early feminist.”
Bambi completely rejects the notion that Joe was simply a lesbian or bisexual. “I may be a woman in one sense, but I have peculiar organs that make me more a man than a woman,” Joe told a doctor, who additionally noted that Joe had “an enlarged clitoris” (which suggests Joe was either hermaphroditic or that his sex may have been misidentified at birth).
What is known is that Joe and Perry’s romance ended tragically. He was sent to the Willard Asylum for the Chronic Insane in Ovid, New York, in 1880. Perry, thinking Joe was dead owing to a tall tale started by his relatives, returned to her family in Massachusetts … but not before publishing a letter to the editor in the Wayne County Herald arguing that women needed the right to vote if male politicians wouldn’t give them adequate work to support themselves. Even in his confinement, Joe was thinking of his wife, telling his doctor that he “had not experienced connubial content with [his] husband, but with [his] late companion nuptial satisfaction was complete.” So maybe bragging about their sex life wasn’t the most romantic reflection. Still, it was true to the love affair they had built: one with no rules, and certainly no taboos.