Saturday, October 3, 2015

The First Transgender Governor of New York

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New York City has a longstanding reputation for being more tolerant of deviation from sexual norms. This tolerance has a long history. Few people remember that Colonial New York was once governed by a man who openly dressed as a woman.

The Colonial Cross Dressing Governor

Edward Hyde, known as Lord Cornbury, and later the Third Earl of Clarendon, served as Governor of the colonies of New York and New Jersey from 1702 until 1708.  Testimony from the time indicates that the Cornbury enjoyed going openly in women's clothing, even doing State business dressed as a woman.  There is even a portrait allegedly painted of him dressed as a woman. There is, however, debate as to whether the painting is actually the Governor, or whether an apocryphal story became associated with this painting.
Lord Cornbury (allegedly) Gov. of NY and NJ 
From the NY Historical Society 

Whether or not the painting is genuine, there are indisputably several contemporary witnesses who have discussed Lord Cornbury's predilection to go out in public dressed as a woman. Several letters have been discovered which were written during the Governor's tenure and which mention his wardrobe decisions.

Robert Livingston, the Grandfather of his namesake, a New York Patriot during the American Revolution, was quoted as saying that hundreds saw the Governor daily promenading "in women's cloths."  Lewis Morris, who would later serve as Governor of New Jersey himself later in life, and also a Grandfather of a namesake who served in the Continental Congress noted that Lord Conrbury  “rarely fails of being dresst in Women’s Cloaths every day, and almost half his time is spent that way, and seldom misses it on sacrement day...and this is not privately, but in the face of the sun and the sight of the town.”  Elias Neau, a prominent merchant who also became known as a religious educator for slaves, noted: “My Lord Cornbury has and dos still make use of an unfortunate Custom of dressing himself in Womens Cloaths and of exposing himself in that Garb upon the Ramparts to the view of the public; in that dress he draws a World of Spectators about him and consequently as many Censures.”

Some have dismissed these accounts, arguing that none of the witnesses say they saw these events first hand and all of whom were political enemies of the Governor.  That said, it is difficult to believe that such stories would be written as complete fabrications.  The danger of being sued for defamation would likely be enough to prevent such false reporting.

New York Colony in 1702

In 1702, New York City was not the thriving metropolis that it is today.  It was a bit of a political backwater.  The area had been settled by the Dutch nearly 100 years earlier, even before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock.  But the population of Dutch, Germans, Swedes, and others never grew terribly large.  The area mostly  had been a trading outpost to trade for furs with the local natives.

The Dutch claimed control of the whole area, from Connecticut to Delaware, calling the area "New Netherland."  The British never really recognized this claim, but did not do much to dispute it either.  Britain remained busy building "New England" to the north and its Virginia Colony to the south.

In 1664, King Charles II, newly back on the thrown after the end of Oliver Cromwell's interregnum, decided to grant the area controlled by the Dutch to his brother James, the Duke of York.  This was part of a larger effort by Britain to take control of Dutch holdings and trade routes  worldwide and to establish a friendly government in the Netherlands themselves, ruled by the King's nephew William of Orange.

British control of New Netherlands was settled by the mid 1670's.  The Dutch population in New York was permitted to retain property and continue living in the colony after swearing allegiance to the King.  This was not true everywhere.  A group of Mennonite colonists in Delaware were massacred, with survivors being sold into slavery in Virginia.  New Yorkers were probably further comforted with the Dutch William of Orange became King of England in 1689, ruling over both Britain and the Netherlands.

Still New York colony remained a backwater.  In the twenty years before Lord Cornwall took control ten different men had served as Governor or acting Governor.  The entire colony consisted of less than 20,000 colonists, from a wide range of different countries, and with different languages, traditions, and cultures.  New York City was a main port, but mostly served as a haven for pirates and smugglers.  Several Governors ended their tenures by being hanged or imprisoned for crimes.  The appointed Governor before Lord Cornwall, was a financial backer of the notorious pirate Captain Kidd.

Not much was expected of Royal Colonial Governors who were appointed by the King. The positions often seemed to be ways to get rid of people in the aristocracy whose presence was no longer desired in Britain.

Edward Hyde

The honorable Edward Hyde was born into a family of position and wealth.  His Grandfather, the 1st Earl of Clarendon was also the Grandfather of the woman who would become Queen Anne, making her is cousin.

Despite a privileged birth, Hyde's childhood does not seem to be particularly pleasant.  His mother died when  he was a toddler.  He was raised by servants and eventually a step-mother.  His relationship with his father appears to have been rather distant.  Hyde graduated from Oxford.  His family purchased a Commission for him in the military and he started life as a Lt. Col. in the Royal Regiment of Dragoons, taking on a prominent position working for the husband of his cousin, the future Queen Anne.

His position also enabled him to win a seat in Parliament, where he served unremarkably for about a decade.  When the Glorious Revolution began in 1688, he took command of a regiment of soldiers under King James, then promptly switched sides and used his command to overthrow the King.  He backed the ascension of his Aunt's husband William of Orange as the new King.

A contemporary described him at the time as "a young man of slender abilities, loose principles, and violent temper,"  Another account called him "a spendthrift, a grafter, a bigoted oppressor and a drunken vain fool." Still, he backed the winner of the struggle for the crown and was rewarded by the new King.

It is unclear whether Lord Cornbury as he was now known, exhibited any of his unconventional dressing behavior at this time.  If it was, it was certainly kept quiet as was common for many eccentricities of the aristocracy of the time.

Whatever his true personal sexual preferences, as a member of the nobility he married into another aristocratic family and had five children.  On the surface, at least, it seemed he was living a respectable life of minor nobility.


In 1701, King William appointed Lord Cornbury Captain-General and Governor-in-Chief of of New York and New Jersey and sent him and his family off to New York.  William died the following year, to be succeeded by his daughter and Lord Cornbury's cousin, Queen Anne.

As Governor, Lord Cornbury seemed to move comfortably into the corrupt criminal environment prevalent in the colony.  Whatever attempts were made to hide his moral failing in Britain seemed to fall away in New York.  Some accounts rate him as  the "worst governor Britain ever imposed on an American colony."

Apparently the Governor refused to give his wife a clothing allowance.  In order to maintain appropriate dress, she apparently "borrowed" expensive dresses and never returned them.  The Governor himself apparently openly took bribes.  He also raided the colonial treasury, using funds to be spend on colonial defense for personal benefit.  He insisted on being addressed as "your high mightiness."

At this same time, stories of his cross-dressing began to percolate.   This has led some historians to dismiss these rumors as simply attempts to further defame the corrupt drunken governor and not out of any basis in reality. Still, the gossip seems plentiful.  He was rumored to have attended his wife's funeral in female dress.  There is a story Cornbury opened the 1702 New York Assembly  wearing a hooped gown and an elaborate headdress and carrying a fan, similar the style of of Queen Anne. When his choice of clothing was questioned, he replied, "You are all very stupid people not to see the propriety of it all. In this place and occasion, I represent a woman [The Queen], and in all respects I ought to represent her as faithfully as I can."  Another story says that while dressed as a woman, he had a habit of lurking "behind trees to pounce, shrieking with laughter, on his victims."

Accounts of his behavior could no longer be ignored in Britain.  In 1708, Queen Anne recalled him as Governor and he was immediately thrown into jail for his debts.  With the passing of his father the following year, Lord Cornbury inherited the title of Third Earl of Clarendon.  As a peer, he could no longer be imprisoned and was released.  He returned to England.  His position entitled him to sit in the House of Lords, which he apparently did.

Final Years

Despite his behavior, the Crown still conferred favor on him.  He was appointed a Privy Councillor in 1711.  Several years later, in 1714, he was sent to  Hanover Germany as Envoy Extraordinary.  He seemed to live the rest of his life in reasonable respectability.

His family life seems to have remained strained and distant as well.  His wife died while he was Governor, and he never remarried.  Only one of his four daughters lived to adulthood.  She seemed to have married well and maintained a distance from her father.  Lord Cornbury never seems to mention his son in any of his personal papers.  His son was apparently a drunkard, which contributed to his 1713 death in his early twenties.

Edward Hyde, third Earl of Clarendon died himself in 1723.  He had been forced to sell his family land in 1719 to pay off his many debts.  He was buried with honor in Westminster. Without a male heir, his title passed to his cousin Henry Hyde.

Lady Theresa Lister seems to have summed up his life best. "Edward Hyde, third Earl of Clarendon, presents one of those melancholy instances which too often occur amongst the descendants of distinguished men, where the name, the honours, the titles are reproduced, but unsupported and ungraced by any one of those qualities or virtues which won distinction for their ancestor. His conduct through life was a blot upon his name, and brought down upon him the scorn and reproach of two hemispheres."


Of course the term "transgender" did not exist in 1700.  It is unclear, even if the stories are true, whether Edward Hyde really wanted to be a woman, or simply enjoyed being a cross-dresser.  He certainly had a normal marriage to a woman and had children with her.  But such was demanded of any aristocracy at the time.  Marriages were often not about love but of maintaining family position and rank.  There is no actual evidence that he ever had a homosexual relationship or attempted to live as a woman beyond dressing as one. If he ever did have such a relationship, it most certainly would have been very well hidden.  Of course, any medical procedures that would allow bodily changes to another sex were still centuries away and not an option.  Similarly, society at that time simply would not permit him to live openly as a woman, even if he desired to do so. So whether Hyde was truly transgender will likely never be resolved based on the historical record.

Further Reading:

There are several good online resources about Lord Conrbury:

There are also several books on the topic.

The Lord Cornbury Scandal: The Politics of Reputation in British America by Patricia U. Bonomi (2000) - this book goes to great efforts to debunk the rumors of cross-dressing.

Fall from Grace: Sex, Scandal and Corruption in American Politics from 1702 to Present by Shelley Ross  (1988).

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