‘I Always Dressed This Way:’ Surfacing Nineteenth Century Trans History Through Mary Jones

Lithograph image of Mary Jones from the Harry T. Peters “America on Stone” Lithography Collection, National Museum of American History. Henry R. Robinson, New York: 1836.

Transness is a theory of change, of futurity. As trans people, we reject pre-written narratives to build more livable futures. Maybe this is why transsexuality is a recurring trope in science fiction, why whenever transness receives media attention it is framed as unheard of and new. Perhaps this also has bearing on why our histories are so often difficult for many of us. The Gender Dysphoria Bible, describes a condition of “existential dysphoria” – profound feelings of loss manifesting as a sense of a lost past. The fact that I was raised as a boy means I missed so many of the crucial experiences of girlhood: whatever changes I acquire through my transition, I’ll never go to my first slumber party to whisper secrets and do my nails. I wonder if existential dysphoria might also describe a deeper condition of having no past as a people. If we broaden existential dysphoria out from our personal histories to our erasure from larger cultural narratives, dysphoria emerges not merely as personal discomfort, but as social critique, a dissatisfaction with our removal from history. In this light, attending to the lost trans women of history becomes a kind of care work, a working through of my own existential dysphoria and a righting of the wrong articulated by my dysphoric critique. 

The Digital Transgender Archive (DTA) founded by K.J. Rawson is a free online archive hosting digitized materials donated from a variety of host institutions. Part of my work at the project over the last year and a half has been to search the content of other archives for unmarked trans content that we might make more accessible on the DTA. Surfacing trans lives out of the chaos of the past on the DTA allows for a reengagement with our histories, reminders that we’ve been here before. The DTA can be thought of as a kind of balm for existential dysphoria, inviting visitors to explore the complex, understudied, and incomplete items attesting to trans history.

One of the people I’ve returned to with increasing fascination over the course of my work at the DTA is Mary Jones, a figure whose public existence as a woman in the mid-nineteenth century contributed to her risking and enduring incarceration. The materials collected by the DTA about Jones are among the site’s most disturbing in their depiction of a potent confluence of anti-Black and transmisogynist bigotry, even as the archival items predate these terms. Jones has been exceptionally well-recorded in comparison to other trans people of color from the period, but we still know little about her life. We know she was born free in New York City, where she lived most of her life. We know she served in the military. We know that white men solicited sexual services from her, and that she reportedly suited herself not only in women’s dress but also in a contraption made of beef or leather designed to mimic a vulva. We know that she was a frequent target for carceral violence and public mockery.  We know the lurid details of her legal troubles made her a minor recurring figure in local newspapers during her life. One rare glimpse of her own voice comes from court testimony recorded during People vs. Sewally when she was asked why she wore women’s clothing. Jones explained

I have been in the practice of waiting upon Girls of ill fame…they induced me to dress in Women’s Clothes, saying I looked so much better in them and I have always attended parties among the people of my own Colour dressed in this way – and in New Orleans I always dressed this way.²  

But beyond the brief, strategically crafted narratives given in court, little of her life, thoughts, feelings, and relationships is known.

Jones’ interactions with the carceral system–and her intermittent, sensationalized appearances in newspapers throughout the 1830’s to 50’s–must be understood within her specific historical context. The United States’ growing urban populations, particularly in northeastern cities such as New York, rendered trans communities increasingly visible, inviting increasing public and political concern with crossdressing. A wave of anti-masquerade laws intended to forestall deceptions across racial lines were passed across the United States during Jones’ lifetime, including New York’s 1845 penal code 240.35(4); they were also quickly marshaled to harass trans people. In 1836, Jones was arrested for stealing the wallet of Robert Haslem, a white man who solicited her sex work. A  lithograph published following her conviction for grand larceny depicts Jones as a beautiful woman, elegantly dressed and calmly side-eyeing the viewer. The caption describes her as “The MAN-MONSTER.” As Tavia Nyong’o notes, her treatment in the press spoke to cultural fears about amalgamation in Jones’ person (and in her crime), white and Black, man and woman, human and animal mingle in ways unsettling to a popular audience.² Hence “man-monster,” a label that at once denies Jones’ womanhood by suturing her to the category “man” while excluding her from that category through the epithet “monster.” 

The name “man-monster” places Jones at the nexus of two continuing histories of attempted dehumanization. Misogynoir constructs Black women as improperly feminine and therefore improperly human. Transmisogynist bigotry dehumanizes trans women by denying manhood and womanhood, thus rendering us neuter–an inhuman “it.” The archival objects that inform us about Jones bear witness to forms of oppression that continue to the present– to an intricate, pernicious, and ongoing mingling of racism, misogyny, and transphobia. The public mockery and carceral violence inflicted on Jones should be understood as analogous to the violent backlash against trans women of color that has followed our current moment of trans visibility – a backlash resulting in 2021 being the deadliest year for trans people on record in the United States. Justice demands that we remember the cruelties Jones suffered as we work to build a world that would make them truly locked in a historical past. 

 But Jones, even the version of Jones offered by a hostile press, cannot be reduced to her victimization. Following her incarceration, Jones reappears again and again–always in women’s dress. Ten years after the sentencing narrated in the lithograph, Jones returns, still appearing in public as a woman. The DTA has collected several newspaper clippings documenting Jones’ return to the spotlight. An author for the Newark Daily Advertiser hatefully described Jones, but also hinted at a begrudging respect when they wrote that her “ruling passion appears too strong for punishment to subdue.” Another account of an arrest for “sailing under false colors” attests that she put up “some show of fight” against the police. In collecting these items, the DTA allows for readings counter to their apparent design: we can see in them glimpses of Jones’ strength, her commitment to living her truth in the face of enormous hostility. Attending to these glimpses allows us to surface her subjectivity, and relate to her in sisterhood.

When we attend to the narratives of trans women in nineteenth-century American history we soothe the ache of our existential dysphoria and know the truth of our past. Technologies like the DTA allow us to reorient ourselves to our histories, re-experience our presents, and pursue new futures. Too many historical narratives describe Jones as a deceptive queer man. Reading against the grain of her mocking narrators, we can imagine her dress not as a deception but as a manifestation of her truth. Doing so unlocks new modes of understanding a key moment in transgender’s prehistory. Historical practices that might do justice to Mary Jones and the other lost trans women of history also do justice to the trans people of today. In attending to them, we can know ourselves not as the latest invention of Western medicine but as the scions of a long tradition of people who fought to determine the shape of their lives. We might draw on the strength of those who came before us as we steel ourselves to today’s fight.

¹ I intentionally use the anachronism “trans” throughout this article not to reduce the complexity of historical gender practices but to affirm the kinship a contemporary trans person might feel with people of the past with non-normative relationships to gender.
² And here we might also consider C. Riley Snorton’s insights regarding the fungibility of Black persons, including their gendering.

Further Reading: For existing scholarship on Mary Jones, I recommend Tavia Nyong’o’s Amalgamation Waltz, Jonathan Ned Katz’s Love Stories, and C. Riley Snorton’s Black on Both Sides. Further information on Jones can be found on the DTA and in the transcripts of her trial. For historical context including information on anti-masquerade laws see Susan Stryker’s Transgender History.

Eamon Schlotterback is a doctoral candidate in literature at Northeastern University. Her dissertation project seeks to understand gender transition and memoir as technologies of self-making. She is currently Lab Coordinator at the Digital Transgender Archive.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.