Sunday, July 13, 2014

An 1888 Same-Sex Marriage

The first marriage of a
same-sex couple?
Many opponents of, or even those skeptical of same-sex marriage act as if same-sex couples are some sort of modern novelty, and Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito made the claim that same-sex marriage was “newer than cell phones.” Even if same-sex marriage were newer than cell phones, it’s not clear that would necessarily put it outside of constitutional protection.

An article in the Springfield Daily Republic of Springfield, Ohio on July 13, 1888, suggests that same-sex marriage might be significantly older than the cell phone. The article describes it as perhaps “the first case on record where one man was duly married to and living with another.” For that, of course, they had to get around the usual procedures.

How they did that, it’s not clear. Perhaps George Burton had been living long enough as a hermaphrodite that they were able to convoke the clergyman, J. Y. Campbell, that Burton counted as a woman. But then why did they name the bride Georgeann Holly?
Jailed on the Charge of Sodomy

Fort Smith, Ark., July 13 — A white man named Chesser was arrested for disorderly conduct Monday at the house of a colored man named George Burton, who has been known here for some years past as a hermaphrodite. At Chesser’s trial it came to light that he was married to Burton.

The county records were examined and it was found that on May 10 Chesser procured a license to marry George Ann Holly, who is no other than George Burton, and the marriage ceremony was duly performed at the house of Burton, a preacher named Campbell officiating. This rather stumped the official, as there could be no law on the books covering the case.

Finally a physician was summoned and the so-called Mrs. Chesser was subjected to an examination, when it was discovered that Burton was not what he professed to be, but a natural man. Upon this discovery both were lodged in jail on a charge of sodomy. This is thought to be the first case on record where one man was duly married to and living with another.
An unhappy end to a
brief marriage
The reference to the marriage license helps shed a little light on things. Chesser’s name was James Chesser and he was twenty-three at the time of his marriage, so he was born in about 1865. Burton, or Holly was twenty-eight, with a birthdate of about 1860. The marriage license does not, alas, provide anything to go further on (some states provide the names of the parents on marriage licenses). There are enough men named James Chesser and enough named George Burton who are likely enough candidates, without being a definite match.

We have a young, interracial same-sex couple living in Forth Smith, Arkansas in from May to July of 1888 (when Mr. Chesser’s unfortunate conduct did interrupt this bliss). It is not clear from the scant record how Mr. Burton/Miss Holly/Mrs. Chesser identified. Was Burton/Chesser an early example of a transgender person? Or did Burton/Chesser view romantic and sexual desires toward other men as a sign he was some sort of psychological hermaphrodite (this would be fairly in keeping with some of the early thoughts about sexuality, in which “inverts” were thought to be a third sex, neither fully male nor fully female. Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis had been published two years prior, introducing Krafft-Ebing’s theory of sexual inversion. Obviously, history is mute on how Burton/Holly/Chesser would identify.

This was five years after the article on Joseph Carp, but it seems that we can see a slow development of a gay identity deep within the nineteenth century. While the court had to call in a doctor to examine Mrs. Chesser and found that he was an anatomically typical male, it’s clear that Mr. Chesser knew the physical sex of the person with whom he was sharing a bed.
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