Rebel with a secret | The story of Lucy Ann Lobdell and the 1st same-sex marriage in the U.S.

Lisa Neff, Staff writer

Lucy Ann Lobdell was in her 20s when she wrote a short self-published memoir about her early life in New York in the 1800s. She hunted in the mountains, an unusual pastime for a girl and a young woman. She went to a learning academy, getting a better education than most girls of the time. And she briefly married a man who abandoned her in pregnancy.

About 41 pages into this 47-page memoir, Lobdell tells the reader, “I made up my mind to dress in men’s attire to seek labor, as I was used to men’s work. And as I might work harder at house-work, and get only a dollar per week, and I was capable of doing men’s work, and getting men’s wages, I resolved to try … to get work away among strangers.”

And that Lobdell did, setting out to find independence and earn a living.

“So, I stole away with a heavy heart, for I knew that I was going among strangers, who did not know my circumstances, or see my heart, so broken, and know its struggles.”

On the next page of Narrative of Lucy Ann Lobdell, the Female Hunter of Delaware and Sullivan Counties, Lobdell writes, “I must now leave the reader for a short time, and then I intend to write another book, in which I shall give a full account of my adventures whilst I adopted male attire.”

If Lobdell did write a second narrative, it was never found.

So William Klaber wrote the book for her — The Rebellion of Miss Lucy Ann Lobdell, published this spring by St. Martin’s Press and described as “historical fiction.”

Fact or fiction, Klaber’s memoir is riveting for readers.

And also resurrecting a debate familiar to queer studies scholars about Lobdell’s identity — a pioneering transgender person who lived as a man among strangers or a pioneering lesbian who was joined by an unsuspecting judge in possibly the first same-sex marriage in the United States.

Klaber, a part-time journalist, lives in Upper Eddy in upstate New York, not far from where Lobdell lived 160 years ago. He and his wife bought the farmhouse in 1980, and it was there that Jack Niflot, a local historian, delivered to him a satchel containing recollections and articles about Lobdell. The historical record contains details of how Lobdell took the name of Joseph, taught music, song and dance, traveled from east to the frontier, married a woman named Marie Wilson and was committed to an asylum as a case of “sexual perversion” with a history of “Lesbian love.”

Niflot had collected a lot of information about Lobdell, but couldn’t find a second memoir. He turned his research over to Klaber, who made an unsuccessful search for the book and then decided to write his own.

“Lucy lived at a time when women did not commonly carry a rifle, sit down in bars or have romantic liaisons with other women,” said Klaber. “Lucy did these things in a personal quest — to work and to be paid, to wear what she wanted and to love whomever she cared to.”

Klaber’s story — brilliant and beautiful — begins about where Lobdell’s own memoir ends, with Lobdell quietly leaving home and catching a train, a transformative journey.

Lobdell, near the end of her narrative, writes of passing a neighbor on her way to the depot, “I heard him say, ‘There goes the female hunter.’”

Klaber, in the opening chapter, writes of Lobdell settling on the train: “There were no leaves yet on the trees, and as the sun flickered through the gray branches, I could see on the glass a faint reflection of myself, appearing and disappearing like a spirit trying to enter the world.”