Monday, December 07, 2015

The curious case of Ellen/Edgar Burnham (Part 1)

Here's a favorite Old Testament passage lifted out of context --- as we all are wont to do --- from Ecclesiastes 1: "The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun. Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? It hath been already of old time, which was before us."

Here's is a story that illustrates this truth in two contexts. First, involving the fluidity of gender identity and sexual orientation; second, the habit of "the media" of intruding into private lives for no reason other than the fact writers and/or editors believe their readers will find a story titillating.

We may not be comfortable talking about sex, but we sure do enjoy the heck out of reading about it.

The subject is Edgar Wales Burnham, a resident of Waterloo from ca. 1864 until the 1885. Edgar was born Ellen M. Burnham in Vermont during 1841, transitioned from the feminine Ellen into masculine Edgar during the early 1860s in Wisconsin, then moved with his family to Waterloo during the mid-1860s. He married once as Ellen and twice as Edgar, but most likely for anatomical reasons, left no descendants.

There's no indication that Edgar ever wished more than to live a decent life --- and he seems to have accomplished that --- but we know the story because media intruded big time on two occasions, first during 1868 not long after the transition had occurred; then again in 1882, when the St. Paul Pioneer Press resurrected his story and it was reprinted widely across the Midwest.

This latest invasion of his privacy --- more than a century after his 1918 death --- is based upon Page 1 stories published in The Chariton Democrat of Jan. 18, 1868, and Feb. 13, 1868, and The Chariton Patriot of March 29, 1882, as well as  other resources. There was no specific Chariton connection; its editors just thought their readers would be interested.


A little terminology will come in handy here.

Although it's too late now to prove this for sure, Edgar most likely was what we would call today an intersex person. The Intersex Society of North America describes this as, "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.... Or a person may be born with mosaic genetics, so that some cells have XX chromosomes and some of them have XY."

Intersex is not always evident at birth, but can become evident at puberty, at other times or in specific situations (determining reasons for infertility is one). During much of the 20th century, when intersex  characteristics were evident at birth, physicians often utilized surgery and hormonal therapy in an attempt to mimic a conventional gender-anatomy match. Medical research has suggested increasingly, however, that intersex bodies are normal, although rare, variants in human biology and there is increasing resistance to alterations involving the very young.

Intersex is not the same as transgender. A transgender person's gender identity or expression does not conform to his or her anatomy, or "assigned" sex, which generally is clearly defined. Caitlyn Jenner, an Iowa girl herself because she graduated from Lamoni's Graceland University in 1973 as Bruce Jenner, is transgender.


Edgar's parents were Dr. Milo L. Burnham and his wife, Ellen Douglas Blish. Dr. Burnham, born in 1812, was a native of Pomfret, Vermont; Ellen, born 1817, a native of Woodstock, Vermont.

According to a genealogy of the Blish family published during 1905, they were married on May 10, 1840, probably in Woodstock. He had been a school teacher who enrolled in and graduated from medical college in Woodstock.

By 1850, the couple had removed to Lawrenceville, New York, where he was practicing medicine when the 1850 census of St. Lawrence County was taken. The Burnham household included of Milo, age 36; Ellen, age 33; daughter Ellen M., 9, and son Justuce A., age 3. Ellen M. was born in Vermont; Justuce, in New York.

The family moved to Brodhead on the border of Green and Rock counties, Wisconsin, prior to 1857, when they were among the organizers of the village's First Congregational Church.

Dr. Burnham practiced medicine at Brodhead and also, as many physicians did at that time, operated a drug store. He was, according to the 1905 Blish genealogy, "a radical temperance man" who refused to sell liquor for any purpose."

The genealogy does not mention Ellen M. Burnham, listing instead Edgar Wales Burnham, as the elder of the couple's two children --- without citing a birth date. Edgar's Cook County, Illinois, death certificate (issued during 1918) gives his birth date as 18 March 1840. Most likely he actually was born March 18, 1841, within a year of his parents' marriage.

Ellen, a talented musician, organized classes in that field and also assisted in her father's drug store during the years after their move to Wisconsin, then on Feb. 16, 1860, married L.W. Powell, at the time editor and publisher of a new Brodhead newspaper called "The Reporter."

Ellen apparently began to transition from feminine identity to masculine about 1862. She and Powell were divorced and after a time in Chicago, Ellen returned to Brodhead as Edgar and went to work again in the family drug store.

About 1864, the entire family relocated to Waterloo, Iowa, in part I suspect to escape the attention focused on them in a very small town. Dr. Burnham established another practice in Waterloo and opened, with his now son, another drug store.

Their story received broad attention when someone in Waterloo caught wind of Edgar's background and set out to investigate. He wrote to the editor of the La Crosse, Wisconsin, Democrat, seeking more information. That editor. familiar with a version of the story, published it in one of his editions of early January 1868 and that published story --- not especially accurate but certainly titillating --- was republished in other newspapers, including on the front page of The Chariton Democrat of Jan. 18 by its editor John Faith.

In response to the La Crosse story, the editor of the Brodhead Independent published a much longer and far more detailed account of what had transpired on Feb. 1. John Faith picked up that story, too, and published it in The Democrat of Feb. 15.

The story reads like a novel, but there's no reason to doubt its accuracy. I'm guessing, however, that the author exaggerated a little when writing about the masculine characteristics he claimed to perceive in Ellen during the years up to and including her marriage. He also was unnecessarily unkind to Edgar who, after all, merely was just doing his best to live with the skin he'd been born with.

Whatever the case, here's the story as published in The Chariton Democrat of Feb. 15, 1868. I'll come back another day to finish the story. But to summarize, Edgar's second marriage endured, as did his third and he lived a long and what appears to have been fulfilling and productive life,

A Correct Account of the Mysterious Female Man
Truth Stranger Than Fiction
From the Brodhead (Wis.) Independent, Feb. 1

About the year 1856 there came to this village a family by the name of Burnham, consisting of Dr. M.L. Burnham, his wife, and two children, a daughter aged 16, and a son three or four years younger. Dr. Burnham was a man of some property and of the highest respectability. The family soon became active members of our village society, the doctor being an active member and one of the deacons of the Congregational church. Dr. Burnham was a well-read physician and did some practice in addition to keeping a drug store, in which his daughter, Ellen, assisted him as a clerk for the first two years of the doctor's residence here.

Miss Ellen Burnham was by no means a beautiful girl. Her hair and eyes were dark; features regular, but rather coarse and masculine; form tall, square shouldered, and wanting in that grace of outline that inspires admiration. If a stranger were tempted to look at her the second time, it would be from surprise at the strong, masculine appearance unnatural to a woman, especially one so young.

Miss Burnham was not a favorite with our young men, nor did she seem anxious to be. Her time, outside of her domestic duties, was devoted to instrumental music and horse-back riding, in both of which she was decidedly accomplished. Her life for the four years subsequent to 1856 were not unlike that of other young ladies of the place. She had a large class, mostly of young girls, instructed in instrumental music.

In the fall of 1858, a young man by the name of Powell came here and was employed as principal of our village school. Powell resigned the leadership of the school in the spring of 1859, and started the Reporter, the first paper published in our village. During that summer he became intimate with the family of Dr. Burnham, and became engaged to Miss Burnham in the fall of 1859. The engagement soon became known outside of the family. The only surprise excited on account of it was surprise at the taste of Mr. Powell in selecting a girl of masculine appearance. Miss Burnham's parents seemed particularly pleased at the prospective marriage of their daughter, whom they believed well qualified to make a good wife for an editor. In February of 1860, L.W. Powell and Miss Ellen Burnham were married by Rev. Mr. Cochran, the Congregational minister.

The happy couple took a short bridal tour, preparatory to settling down for life. After an absence of a week, they returned to the residence of the bride's parents, who, in honor of their daughter's marriage, sent out invitations to large numbers of our citizens to welcome the bride and groom. We were present at this wedding party, and could not but think that both the bride and groom appeared remarkably solemn. We did not kiss the bride, although that was the fashion. Our objection to the kissing part of the programme was a dislike to come in contact with an unusually heavy and black moustache which marred the upper lip of the bride.

Mrs. Powell became more and more masculine in her appearance as she grew older. She took a case in the Reporter office, and learned the printer's trade rapidly. And in a short time she proved to be the best jour in the office. She also took to smoking, in the cultivation of which habit she proved herself a printer.

In the spring of 1861, when Powell had been married about a year and a half, the 7th Wisconsin regiment was organized. Powell's wife not having presented him with an heir to make home doubly pleasant, he resolved to go to the wars. He sought, and, through the influence of friends, obtained, the appointment of state agent or "wet nurse" for the gallant 7th, then ordered to Washington. Mrs. Powell, being of a tough and hardy make, resolved to accompany her husband to the front. No objection being raised, she fitted herself out and went to Washington.

The regiment was for a time detained at Washington, and Mrs. Powell made herself happy by working up that moral town. A few weeks after her arrival there, while she was riding on horseback one day, her masculine appearance attracted the attention of a government detective, who made up his mind that Mrs. Powell was a man and a rebel spy. The detective followed her about the city and to her quarters. He dogged her steps for several days until, just before the regiment was ordered off, Mrs. Powell took it into her head to return to Brodhead.

She had packed up her rig, took leave of her husband and the regiment, and started for home. The detective accompanied her to Chicago on the same train, and at the Briggs house, where the lady booked her name, he placed her under arrest as a rebel in disguise. In vain she claimed to be a woman and the wife of a member of the 7th regiment. She called in the landlady, who asserted that she had seen Mrs. Powell at the house before. Mrs. Powell finally induced the detective to telegraph to Gov. Randall, of this state, and to her husband at Washington. Gov. Randall telegraphed back that there was such a lady. A second telegram arrived from Washington and the detective released her and returned to Washington. In a few days, Mr. Powell reached Chicago, and the unhappy couple made their way home to this village.

Language cannot describe the feelings of this unhappy pair. Hardly over the first flush of connubial felicity, and the wife had become an object of suspicion to strangers, and was in constant danger of being arrested as a man. They remained here a few days, when Mrs. Powell informed her parents that she was going to visit some relations east. The fond parents, little dreaming of the arrest and subsequent scenes at the Briggs house, urged her to remain and replenish her wardrobe. She readily answered that she could procure more becoming and stylish garments in the east.

After her departure, Mr. Powell procured some cloth and went to Mr. Mooney, one of our tailors, and informed him that he wished to present his brother with a suit of clothes. He informed the tailor that his garments fitted his brother, and a suit made to fit himself would be just the thing. The clothes were made and expressed to Chicago.

Mr. Powell informed Dr. Burnham, the father of his wife, that Ellen had changed her dress, and was now wearing man's attire, and living at Chicago. The doctor was thunderstruck, the mother half crazy. The only satisfaction they could get out of Powell was, that his wife was not a woman and would no longer try to act the part of one.

The doctor insisted upon an examination. At length, to satisfy her father, she consented that the late Dr. Brainard should examine her. Dr. Brainard did so, and informed the father that his daughter was not a female and had done the best thing to be done in changing her attire. After much solicitation, Ellen permitted her father to examine her and satisfy himself that she was not a woman.

Dr. Burnham then procured a situation for her, under the name of Edgar Burnham, in the wholesale drug house of J. H. Reed & Co., in whose employ he remained about one year. During this time, he roomed and slept with a young man by the name of Andrews, now doing businiess in Crosby's Opera House block. He also became engaged to a young lady on State street, the daughter of his landlady.

We frequently visited young Burnham at his room on Washington street, being ourselves at the time in the law offices of Meech & Redfield, the office being on Dearborn street. Young Burnham made up in appearance as a man of all the beauty and grace he lacked as a woman. Chicago had few better-looking young men than the former Mrs. Powell. He was a portion of this time organist at the Plymouth church, Rev. J.R. Shepherd, pastor, and for a time organist of one of the Baptist churches. We were particularly amused at his hearty admiration of the girls. He would leave his piano or work any time to look at a woman.

In 1863, young Burnham returned to Brodhead, and went into the drug business with his father. He was at this time engaged to the State street lady, who was entirely ignorant of the story of her lover's life. We have it from the best authority --- a young man who resided in the family of the young lady --- that Burnham was a devoted lover, and, even after he removed to Brodhead, corresponded regularly twice a week with his betrothed, and paid visits of two or three days' duration.

After his removal to Brodhead, he was a decided favorite in the society there, both on account of his good looks and his skill as a musician. Men, women and children flocked to the drug store of Burnham & Son to trade, for the sake of seeing the young man who was once a wife.

At length Dr. Burnham sold out his property here in 1864 and removed to Waterloo, Iowa, taking Edgar with him, and there opened a drug store. Soon after the removal of family to Waterloo, Edgar sought and obtained in marriage the hand of Miss Gerta Everette, one of the brightest girls in Spring Valley, Rock County,  Wis. The Chicago engagement had been broken off.

They have now been married about three years and living at Waterloo. They have no children as yet, all stories to the contrary notwithstanding. Should they ever have children, or either of them, we shall make haste to inform our readers of the fact.

It is simply ridiculous to suppose that Edgar Burnham was ever a mother, and quite as insane to believe that he can be a father.

From the best of authority, namely from Mr. Powell and from the surgeon who examined him, we know that Edgar Burnham is a It, and will never be anything else. It is due to the young lady to whom he was engaged in Chicago to say that she never knew the make-up of her lover from first to last, and that the engagement was broken off by her before his history became known.

Miss Everett, his present wife, knew the facts of his remarkable case, substantially as we have related them, and married It willingly of her own accord and against the wishes of her parents. She undoubtedly knows the facts more definitely now than we do and can comfort herself accordingly. We wish her joy of her union with an It if there is any joy in it.

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