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Trial of Joseph Israel / Lucy Ann Lobdell

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Black and white photograph of Joseph Israel Lobdell, also called Lucy Ann and La-Roi Lobell, ca. 1854.

Joseph Israel Lobdell, also called Lucy Ann and La-Roi Lobell, ca. 1854.

Joseph Israel Lobdell, also known as La-Roi and Lucy Ann Lobdell, spent two years in Minnesota in the late 1850s. In 1858, a Meeker County attorney charged him with "impersonating a man," claiming that such an action was a crime. The judge trying the case disagreed, ruling that Lobdell (who had been assigned a female sex at birth) had committed no offense by dressing in men’s clothes.

Lobdell was born in Westerlo, New York, in 1829, and lived the first twenty-four years of life as a woman—Lucy Ann—in the town of Long Eddy. Lucy Ann and a raftsman named George Slater were married around 1851 and had a daughter together, but Slater left town after the baby was born.

By the autumn of 1854, Lobdell had left the child with family, crossed the New York border, and taken up residence in Bethany, Pennsylvania. Choosing the name Joseph Israel Lobdell, he began to present himself as a man for the first time. He found work at a music school, where he taught singing lessons, and became engaged to a local woman. When a visitor from Long Eddy recognized the young teacher and identified him as Lucy Ann, the townspeople forced him to flee.

Lobdell left Pennsylvania for New York and then headed to Minnesota Territory. He again presented himself as a man, wearing a calico suit and hat and calling himself La-Roi. After arriving in St. Paul he met Edwin Gribble, a homesteader with a claim on the north shore of Lake Minnetonka. The two became friends and lived together on the lake over the summer. Lobdell moved after a few months, traveling westward for some seventy miles before stopping at a wintering place near the future site of the city of Kandiyohi.

When summer came, Lobdell left Kandiyohi for a boarding house in Manannah. He introduced himself to the locals as La-Roi and lived peacefully among them for over a year. Then, in the summer of 1858, he was arrested, charged with the crime of "impersonating a man," and put in jail.

The circumstances of Lobdell’s arrest are unclear. The only extant eyewitness account comes from Abner Comstock Smith, a federal attorney at the local land office who became involved in the case. In a reminiscence published twenty years after the fact, he describes the incident in vague terms. “In the summer of 1858,” he writes, “by accident, ‘Satan, with the aid of original sin,’ discovered and exposed [Lobdell’s] sex.” As a result, Meeker County attorney William Richards filed a criminal charge of impersonation against Lobdell.

Lobdell stood trial in Forest City, a farming colony of about fifty people seven miles northeast of Litchfield that had been platted only a year before. Reverend and justice of the peace John Robson judged the case. Ulysses Samuel Wylie, with Smith as co-counsel, acted as Lobdell’s defense attorney and entered a plea of “not guilty” on his behalf.

The court found Lobdell innocent. Citing the sixth-century Code of Justinian as a precedent, Judge Robson ruled that laws in previous eras had granted women the legal right to dress as men. Therefore, he reasoned, Lobdell had not committed a crime and was free to go. Meeker County paid the expenses necessary for him to return to his family in New York.

Lobdell lived for another fifty-four years after his time in Minnesota. He married Marie Louise Perry in 1861, but police arrested the couple for vagrancy multiple times and sent them to jails and poorhouses. After an 1880 arrest in New York, the Court of Delaware County declared Lobdell a lunatic and sent him to Willard Asylum for the Insane. In 1892, he was admitted to Binghamton Insane Asylum, where he remained until his death, two decades later.

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Conover, Jefferson S. “Abner C. Smith.” In Freemasonry in Michigan: A Comprehensive History of Michigan Masonry From Its Earliest Introduction in 1764, 418–423. Vol 2. Coldwater, MI: Conover Engraving and Printing, 1898.
https://books.google.com/books?id=KkVOAAAAMAAJ&pg=PR17&lpg=PR17

Lobdell, Bambi L. A Strange Sort of Being: The Transgender Life of Lucy Ann / Joseph Israel Lobdell, 1829–1912. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2012.

“A Mountain Romance: Strange Life of Unhappy Women.” New York Times, April 8, 1877.
https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1877/04/08/80367952.html?pageNumber=7

Smith, Abner Comstock. A Random Historical Sketch of Meeker County, Minnesota: From Its First Settlement to July 4th, 1876. Litchfield, MN: Belfoy & Joubert, 1877.
https://archive.org/details/randomhistorical00smit

Van Cleve, Stewart. Land of 10,000 Loves: A Queer History of Minnesota. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012.

Wise, P. M. “Case of Sexual Perversion.” Alienist and Neurologist 4, no. 1 (1883): 87–91.
http://www.oneonta.edu/library/dailylife/family/lucyalienist.html

Related Images

Black and white photograph of Joseph Israel Lobdell, also called Lucy Ann and La-Roi Lobell, ca. 1854.
Black and white photograph of Joseph Israel Lobdell, also called Lucy Ann and La-Roi Lobell, ca. 1854.
Watercolor painting of Lake Minnetonka as it appeared when Joseph Israel Lobdell guarded a claim there in late 1856. By Edwin Whitefield, ca. 1856–1859.
Watercolor painting of Lake Minnetonka as it appeared when Joseph Israel Lobdell guarded a claim there in late 1856. By Edwin Whitefield, ca. 1856–1859.

Turning Point

In 1858, the residents of Forest City discover that the man they know as La-Roi Lobdell was assigned a female sex at birth. Meeker County attorney William Richards charges him with the crime of "impersonating a man."

Chronology

1829

Lucy Ann Lobdell is born in Westerlo, New York, on December 2.

1854

Lobdell moves to Pennsylvania, takes the name Joseph Israel Lobdell, dresses as a man, and teaches at a singing school for young women.

1855

Townspeople accost Lobdell after his engagement to a local woman and force him to leave the area.

early 1856

Lobdell moves to St. Paul, Minnesota Territory, and goes by the name La-Roi.

late 1856

Lobdell guards a homestead claim near Lake Minnetonka; he spends the winter in Kandiyohi.

1857

Lobdell moves to Manannah over the summer.

1858

During a trial held in Forest City, the only court in Meeker County finds Lobdell not guilty of the crime of "impersonating a man." Meeker County pays for Lobdell to return to his family in New York.

ca. 1862

Lobdell marries Marie Louise Perry.

1871

Police arrest Lobdell and Perry in Stoudsberg, Pennsylvania. In jail, officials discover that the couple are both female-assigned and send them to a poorhouse in Delhi.

1876

After escaping from the poorhouse, Lobdell and Perry live together in a cave outside Honesdale, Pennsylvania. Police arrest and jail Lobdell for vagrancy.

1880

The Court of Delaware County, New York, declares Lobdell a lunatic and sends him to Willard Asylum for the Insane in Ovid, New York.

1883

P. M. Wise, a doctor at Willard Asylum, publishes a clinical study of Lobdell that describes him as a sexual pervert.

1892

Lobdell is admitted to New York’s Binghamton Insane Asylum.

1912

Lobdell dies in Binghamton Insane Asylum.