Life Story: Thomas(ine) Hall2021-05-25T16:44:15-04:00

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Life Story: Thomas(ine) Hall

Gender Non-conforming in Colonial Virginia

This is the story of an intersex person who ran afoul of a small community in colonial Virginia.

Les Deux Paysons

Unidentified artist, Les Deux Paysons de Sainct Ouen et de Mont–Morancy dans leur Agreable Conferance Touchant la Guerre de Paris, 1650. The University of Texas at Austin, Harry Ransom Center.

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Civis Coloniensis Filia

Hollar, Wenceslaus, Bohemian (1607–1677) Civis Coloniensis Filia, 1643. Etching. New Hollstein, no. 501, State i/iii National Gallery of Art, Rosenwald Collection, 1943.3.4991.

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This video was created by the New-York Historical Society Teen Leaders in collaboration with the Untold project.

NOTE: Because there is no record indicating which gender Thomas(ine) preferred to be identified with, their pronouns will change throughout the narration of this story depending on which identity they had assumed/been assigned at that point in the story.

According to his own testimony, Thomas Hall was born and named Thomasine around the year 1600 in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England. Thomasine was raised as a woman. When she turned 12, she was sent to live with her aunt in London, where she still “went clothed in women’s apparel.”

When Thomasine was about 24 years old, her brother was drafted into the English Army, and she decided to go with him. Thomasine cut her hair, put on men’s clothing, and joined the Army as Thomas. Thomas served in the army for a year. When his service was done, he settled in Plymouth, England, at which time he put on women’s clothing and started living as Thomasine again.

Thomasine stayed in England for a few years longer. She made a living by crafting bone lace and doing other needlework, traditional women’s work. Like other lower-class people of her day, Thomasine was interested in the opportunities for a new life in the English colonies of North America. She decided to take her chances in the New World as an indentured servant. In late 1627, she put on men’s clothing and became Thomas before setting out across the Atlantic Ocean.

When Thomas arrived in the colony of Virginia, he went to work for John Tyos on a tiny tobacco plantation in Virginia. At first, Thomas continued to dress and do the work of a man, but at some point, he started to dress as a woman and take on traditional female labor. John Tyos appears to have had no problem with this switch, as he swore to the community at large that Thomasine was female. But other members of the community were less comfortable with the change. There were rumors that Thomasine had had sex with a maid from another household. If Thomasine was male, this act was the crime of fornication, and he would have to stand trial. But if Thomasine was female, there was no crime. Simply accepting Thomasine at her word was not an option.

Three respected married women of the community inspected Thomasine’s body. They decided that Thomasine was definitely a man, but Thomasine’s master John continued to disagree. The situation got more complicated when John Atkins, another member of the community, started to consider buying Thomasine’s contract from John Tyos. John Atkins did not feel comfortable making the purchase unless he was sure of her gender. Without knowing if Thomasine was a man or a woman, he could not be sure what kind of work Thomasine was capable of doing, or what price to pay for her contract. John Atkins appealed to a plantation owner in the community. The plantation owner interviewed Thomasine, who confessed that she had “a piece of flesh growing at the . . . belly as big as the top of his little finger,” but that she “had not the use of the man’s parts.”

This quote reveals that Thomasine was an intersex person, someone born with a combination of men’s and women’s genitalia, but she didn’t have full use of her penis. The plantation owner considered Thomasine’s confession reasonable, and ordered that from then on, Thomasine would wear women’s clothing, signifying her status as a female laborer in the colony. Satisfied with this conclusion, John Atkins purchased Thomasine’s labor contract, and she took up a position in his home as a female laborer.

From that point forward, Thomas(ine) was required to wear the clothing of both sexes: the breeches and shirt of a man with the cap and apron of a woman.

The women who first inspected Thomasine were unhappy with this decision, so they conducted a second examination of her body while she was asleep. Then they invited John Atkins to inspect her, too. During this third examination, Thomasine confessed to having “a piece of a hole,” her first reference to having female anatomy, but her wording implies that, like her penis, her vagina was not fully functional. Atkins and the women searched Thomasine for evidence of a vagina, and when they didn’t find it, they went back to the plantation owner, who reversed his decision and declared Thomas must wear men’s clothing from that point forward. At this point, the entire community was aware of Thomas’s story, and two more men examined Thomas when they came upon him in the road. The men stripped Thomas, pulled out his parts, and decided that Thomas was “a perfect man.” As far as the community was concerned, the question of Thomas’s gender was settled. Now they had to punish Thomas for the crime of pretending to be a woman and upsetting the whole community.

This is how Thomas Hall found himself standing before the Quarter Court of Virginia in 1629, sharing a gender-defying life story that upset all of colonial Virginia’s understandings of the roles of men and women. After listening to Thomas’s story, the governor handed down an extraordinary verdict. Thomas(ine) was declared to be both a man and a woman. From that point forward, Thomas(ine) was required to wear the clothing of both sexes: the breeches and shirt of a man with the cap and apron of a woman. This was so “all the Inhabitants there may take notice” of Thomas(ine)’s unusual status, and no one could ever be caught unaware again.

This verdict was not a victory for anyone. The new clothing robbed Thomas(ine) of the chance of ever again blending in with colonial society. And while this could be interpreted as the punishment the community wanted, the court did not clear up any of the questions they had about what work Thomas(ine) could do going forward. At this point, Thomas(ine) drops out of the official records, and there is no information on how their story ended. But it serves as a fascinating case study for how sex, gender, and identity were expressed and policed in the English colonies.

Vocabulary

  • bone lace: A kind of lace made using tools that were traditionally made from bone.
  • indentured servant: A person under contract to work for another person for a definite period of time without pay, usually in exchange for transport to a new place.
  • fornication: The crime of sexual intercourse between unmarried people.
  • intersex: A person who is born with body parts that do not fit the typical definitions of a male or female body.
  • Quarter Court: The criminal and civil court session held four times a year in rural colonial Virginia.
  • gender: The state of being male or female based on culture (like clothing) rather than body parts.
  • breeches: Short trousers that fastened just below the knee.

Pronunciation

  • Thomas(ine): TAW-ma-seen

Discussion Questions

  • In what circumstances did Thomas(ine) identify as a man? In what circumstances did Thomas(ine) identify as a woman? What do Thomas(ine)’s choices reveal about the opportunities afforded men and women in the seventeenth century?
  • Why were Thomas(ine)’s neighbors so disturbed by their gender fluidity? Why do you think they were so anxious to preserve difference between the sexes?
  • What does the court’s verdict in Thomas(ine)’s case mean for the rest of their life in the colonies?
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Suggested Activities

  • Use this life story in a lesson plan about life in the colonies to illustrate how there was very little room for difference in the social structure of the English colonies.
  • Invite students to create an illustration of the costume Thomas(ine) is ordered to wear by Governor John Potts, based on the pictured examples of colonial clothing. Then ask students to write about how this costume might affect Thomas(ine)’s life going forward.
  • It can be difficult for modern students to understand why Thomas(ine)’s community was so concerned with gender identity. To help clarify the stakes of gender identity in colonial Virginia, pair this life story with Act I of the Virginia Grand Assembly.
  • Connect Thomas(ine)’s story with the modern debate over transgender bathroom access—how does this more contemporary debate echo the historical one? What has changed?
  • Teach this document together with the Weetamoo life story to spark a discussion about how different cultures respond to people who live and work outside gender norms.
  • Pair this document with the life story of Dennis and Hannah Holland for a larger lesson about the lives of indentured servants in the New World.

Themes

AMERICAN IDENTITY AND CITIZENSHIP; WORK, LABOR, AND ECONOMY

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