They Stood Trial for Impersonating a Man

Black and white photograph of Lucy Lobdell with long braids, dressed in hunting clothes and wearing moccasins.

For many years, U.S. history books neglected to mention many  people due to their race or ethnicity or gender. These gaps in knowledge allow some to claim “this never happened in the past.” But women, people of color, and people who cross-dressed female-to-male and some male-to-female existed throughout our history. They found freedom living as cowboys, cowgirls, law officers, outlaws, and as the opposite gender.  One such person was born Lucy Lobdell and who, in 1858, stood trial for impersonating a man. 

Early Life

The first born of Sara and lumberman, James, Lobdell was a daughter who died before she turned two. Their second daughter was born on December 2, 1889 in Westerlo, New York. They named her Lucy Ann Lobdell. 

During her early years, Lucy wandered the woods around her home. If she’d been born in a later century, she might have been called a tomboy. 

At ten years old, she told her father she wanted to attend school. In the nineteenth century, parents had to pay for their children to attend school. Society followed a system known as the Cult of Domesticity. This limited “women’s sphere of influence to home and family.”2 Therefore, girls rarely got an education. But Lucy’s father agreed she could attend school if she paid her own way. So Lucy learned how to care for and protect livestock, how to shoot, and how to hunt and trap.  

The cover of Lucy's autobiography has what appears to be antlers framing the title "The narrative of Lucy Ann Lobdell" subtitled a woman's case for equality and edited by Lisa Maccia Ohliger.

According to Lucy’s autobiography (The Narrative of Lucy Ann Lobdell,(1855)) she felt her parents spoiled her until more children were born to them. She wrote that she was an accomplished violinist and loved debating with the neighborhood ministers. She also recorded that she had many suitors.

First Adventures

One of her suitors in the 1840s was George Washington Slater. Lucy’s father didn’t approve of Slater’s courtship4.  When she told Slater her father forbade her to see him, he grew agitated and declared his love for her. She promised to see him again. So she donned her brother’s clothes,  stole her father’s horse, and ran away from home to find Slater. It took a while for her to discover where he’d gone. Approaching the house where he was, she saw him in a window with what appeared to be a doctor attending to him. Reassured he was okay, she rode home through a drenching rain.

Later, she described her escape as exhilarating. 

She continued to visit Slater until she feared she was growing too close to Slater. So she left home. Lucy stayed with an aunt in Coxsackie, Greene County, New York. She had made enough money raising calves and poultry to pay her expenses and to attend school there.5


Her father wrote and said that if she wanted to live in Coxsackie, he’d sell out and move there. She replied that she didn’t want to stay there, but advised him they were selling land cheap in Delaware and Sullivan Counties. 

The family moved to Delaware County and she returned to live with them. Shortly after that, Slater reappeared in her life. 

Lucy told her father that her adolescent love for Slater was gone, but he was a good workman, and an innocent boy. She told Slater she’d marry him if he could convince her father to approve of their marriage. He pushed for an early marriage, and got both her parents to approve. He told Lucy he didn’t have the five dollars for their marriage fee. So Lucy told him her brother would pay it, then slipped her brother the five dollars from her own money.


After she married Slater, Lucy taught at the district school. She developed friendships with other educated people. Slater grew jealous of those friendships and of her ability to play the violin. She didn’t like his vulgarity or his card-playing friends. The tensions between them escalated. Slater accused her of paying attention to other men and publicly claimed he was sorry for having paid five dollars to marry her when now he’d pay ten to be unmarried. 

By some accounts Slater was abusive, by others she was afraid of his anger. Whatever the real reason, she moved back in with her parents. In 1852, Slater left the area, leaving then twenty-three-year-old Lucy behind and pregnant. She gave birth to a daughter she named Helen.

Her mother grew quite frail, and her father became lame. Lucy took care of them, their home, their livestock, and hunted for their food. 

Around 1854, Slater returned and wanted Lucy to live with him again. She told him she could care for herself and her daughter without him. Thereafter, she used her maiden name more and more.


In October 1854, Lucy felt hard times pressing in upon her and her family. She knew she might get a dollar a week if she hired out as a housekeeper. But men got paid much more for work like she’d been doing for her family. She decided to find work as a man. She couldn’t tell her parents about her plans for fear they’d call her crazy and tie her up. So one day she got up, put on a suit of clothes, then put her hunting clothes over those. She told her parents she was going hunting and “stole away.” She regretted being unable to tell her daughter she left to find a job to support them and that she couldn’t even kiss her daughter goodbye. 

Lucy planned to walk to the Hankins Depot, but someone saw her that morning. Fearing her plan would be uncovered, she went a different direction and stayed overnight at Miss Hawkins’s. The next morning, she walked to Callicoon Depot and bought a ticket for Narrowsburgh.

Singing School

Black and white photograph of Joseph Israel Lobdell (Lucy Ann Lobdell) with a man's short hairstyle and wearing a man's cravat and coat.

From this point forward, Lucy became Joseph (Joe) Israel Lobdell. The details of Joe’s life are only discoverable in newspapers, medical journals, and legal documents.

After leaving Callicoon Depot, Joe opened a singing school in Bethany, Pennsylvania. It was a modest success and by some accounts, so was he. His students liked him and he danced with a lot of young women. 

Joe got engaged to a young woman. Two days before Joe’s wedding, an old acquaintance identified Joe as Lucy. This information enraged the townsmen. They threatened to tar and feather him. Fortunately, Joe’s fiancé warned him and he escaped. 

Life as a Man

Joe appears to have lived a quiet life for a few years. Then in 1858, he reappeared in Minnesota territory, going by the name La-Roi. According to the court records of Meeker County, an attorney charged Joe, aka La-Roi, with impersonating a man. There is no record of how Joe’s birth identity was discovered. But the judge ruled that a woman wearing men’s clothing was not a crime and dismissed the case. However, the county wanted Joe to go away so badly they paid his way to return to his family in New York.

No Work

In New York, Joe was unable to find work. Destitute, he went to the County Poor House in Delhi, New York in 1880. There he met Mary Louise Perry, a poor but well-educated woman whose husband left her shortly after they’d eloped.

Joe married Perry in 1868 in Wayne County, Pennsylvania. They lived a nomadic life with their pet bear. They survived by  hunting, gathering, and through charity gifts. Arrested for vagrancy, they spent time in Stroudsburg jail. The jailers discovered “that the supposed man was a woman”3 and forced Joe to wear women’s clothes while in jail. Later, Joe was arrested for vagrancy at least once more. 

Declared Insane

Around 1878, Joe collected a pension after Slater was killed in the Civil War. Shortly after he began collecting the pension, Joe’s brother had him declared insane. They committed Joe to the Willard Insane Asylum in Ovid, New York, in 1879. There he became a patient of Dr. P. M. Wise. 

Dr. Wise published an article about Joe in 1883. The article, “A Was of Sexual Perversion,” reported that Joe “considers herself a man in all that the name implies.”6 Dr. Wise reported that “she” had repeated attacks of erotomania and exhilaration, followed by periods of mental and physical depression. 

One of the doctor’s last notes about Joe mentioned that “she” had seemed to give up her male identity, as she’d been quiet for the last few months.


Newspapers published Joe’s obituary once in 1879 and once in 1885.

According to the Binghamton State Hospital Cemetery8, in Binghamton, New York, Lucy Ann Lobdell, aka La-Roi, aka Joseph Israel Lobdell, died on May 28, 1912 at 82. 

A Brave Life

Neither the word transgender, nor the word lesbian, were in the day-to-day vocabulary of American society in the late 1800s. While those words weren’t in use, records show that there were many who lived as the opposite of the gender identified as theirs at birth.

Today, some argue Joe Lobdell was transgender. Others argue she lived as a man to make a living. Each argument has some validity. In her autobiography, Lucy wrote how she couldn’t make a living as a woman and passionately argued that women should earn the same as a man. Joe lived for twenty-eight years as a man and insisted he was a man. Even in jail. Even in a mental hospital. 

I honor Joe’s identity by using pronouns he used. 

No matter how we define Joe’s gender identity, he lived life his way. And in that day and age, it was a very brave choice.


1. Roberson Museum, YouTube




5. Out History 




Image Credits:

Top photo: Crawson family of Basket Creek, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Last photo: Crawson family of Basket Creek, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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