On the Power of Uncovering Stories from the Past ‹ Literary Hub


Growing up, I was only allowed to watch one reality TV show: The History Detectives, which ran for eleven seasons on PBS. Viewers wrote in with questions like, did my grandfathers pocket watch really belong to Mark Twain, or is that just another family myth? Then, the hostsa sociologist, an architectural historian, and two auction appraiserstraveled to far-off libraries, scrolled through reams of microfiche, and interviewed other experts in search of an answer.

Somehow, all that reading on camera made for interesting TV, at least for me, the daughter of a classicist and a librarian. In the end, the resolution was often something like, this pocket watch could have belonged to Mark Twain. Along the way, the detectives illuminated the era that might contain the answer with the video footage and illustrations they uncovered in the archive, as if a history lesson was even better than a definitive solution.

They misled me into believing that “history detective” was a viable career, something I might one day become. The truth is, though, queer history needs detectives.

Mary Casal was the first historical figure to demand my services. New to New York City and determined to learn something about my chosen home, I picked up a book about Stonewall, which has become perhaps one of the most celebrated and studied moments in queer history. A single sentence on page eight stopped me in my tracks: Among the rare early American books to depict lesbian love is the autobiography of Mary Casal, The Stone Wall. The author noted that this early memoir likely gave the bar, originally called Bonnies Stone Wall, its name. I accepted those two pieces of information as fact without question.

I ditched the book about Stonewall and embarked on an obsessive study of Mary that would last years. If I were to make an episode of Queer History Detectives about her, the opening shot might be the day I received a copy of her out-of-print memoir in the mail and tore open the shrink wrap to get at the words inside. There might be a scene where I read the book, originally published in 1930, on Jacob Riis Beach.

The wind flutters the pages, and I lift my hand to my mouth every time Mary mentions the sexual abuse she suffered as a child at the hands of friends and family members, always paired with the insistence that it was not the abuse that led to “the side of my nature which called for a female mate.” She emphasized the joy in her life, whether it came from attending the theater to watch male impersonators perform on the stage or spending time with her beloved Juno, the woman who was her partner for over a decade.

Darling also helped identify, albeit indirectly, why queer history requires such careful attention and detection.

I could not find any evidence of Marys life outside the pages of her book until I met with queer historian and author Hugh Ryan for coffee one Saturday morning. (Cue dramatic music.) Ryan, the author of When Brooklyn Was Queer, explained to me that Mary had left no trail because her name wasnt Mary at all. He sent me off with a masters dissertation by Sherry A. Darling, a history detective in her own right, who had used clues about where “Mary” lived and who her neighbors were to hunt down the property records that would reveal her legal name: Ruth Fuller Field.

That fact I had taken as indisputable, that a woman named Mary Casal had penned one of the first American accounts of sexual and romantic love among women, was entirely fabricated. Ruth might have picked that pen name, as Darling pointed out, because Casal meant a married couple; a pair, male and female, representing her own twinned nature, an identity that ran deeper than her Gemini star sign.

Darling also helped identify, albeit indirectly, why queer history requires such careful attention and detection. By the time Ruthor rather, Mary, as I will always think of her, a character invented not only to mask her identity but also, perhaps, to shield her vulnerabilitiessat down to write her memoir, she was “the last one of all that large family left.” She had no children, no estate, and by that time, Juno was gone too. There was no one around to inherit her records.

At first I imagined that Mary had written her memoir out of some instinct to preserve, to make sure that no one else was sentenced to a life thinking they were “the only girl with such a nature.” That was another fiction. Mary wrote her memoir at the behest of two amateur sexologists, men who took advantage of the free publicity generated by obscenity laws to publish and sell books about sexuality.

“The ‘Lesbian’ manuscript I told you about has come in,” one wrote to his business partner. “It is not a great manuscript all the way through.”

I havent been able to get my hands on that original manuscript. All that is left for me to read is the published book, the version their hands marked invisibly and irreversibly when they edited Marys words, yet another force that obscures queer history. Many queer stories have been filtered through the lens by those who had the power to keep records, whether thats two amateur sexologists or a journalist reporting on a recent arrest or a police officer filling out an intake form. The queer history detective must identify those filters and remove as many of them as possible to get closer to the original subject.

More details unfolded from Darlings revelation. Ruth was born in Deerfield, Massachusetts. Her beloved was named Emma. Both had worked as secretaries for the philanthropist Helen Gould. I latched onto Helen because she was someone with the resources and name recognition to have her records preserved.

Cut to me biking to the New-York Historical Society on the Upper East Side, fingers rosy with the January cold, to comb through her letters and photographs and other papers, many of them detailing the humdrum business of making donations and maintaining a robust social calendar. The secretaries left little notes in pencil at the top of Helens correspondence to note when each was read and replied to. Were any of those lines left by Ruth, who would later become my Mary? I searched for some intimate trace of her, something that was mine alone.

Even after all this searching, there were still so many questions about Mary that remained unanswered: Where was the patent for the toy she invented, the one made out of paper that had brought her to New York, to Juno? What name did she file it under? Mary? Ruth? A made-up mans name? Were any photos of her still in existence? Could there be one in the yearbook of the high school where she taught? Did the books original dust jacket carry an author photo? Where did the name Stone Wall actually come from? Were the memoir and the bar named after some feature in the West Village that no longer stands? Who was Bonnie?

What I did have, though, was a portrait of queer life at the turn of the century. Shortly after Mary was born, female seminaries began to receive the collegiate charters they needed to become full-fledged colleges, starting with Mount Holyoke, which was quickly followed by Vassar and Wellesley.

White, upper middle-class women could now spend time away from their families, carving out a new chapter between living under the watchful eyes of their fathers and moving in with a husband, and, more importantly, time with each other. Some struck up relationships, and others even continued those relationships after they graduated, often called Boston Marriages.

I want to know what others can uncover about Mary, yes, but also about other unsung queer heroes and role models of history. With more queer history detectives, what could our future look like?

Other queer women werent lucky enough to fly under the radar. Local daily newspapers were rapidly expanding both in circulation and influence, and stories about “female husbands” who were outed either by scorned lovers or concerned community members and then often arrested made easy fodder to fill their pages. Jen Manion has put together a fantastic scholarly study, Female Husbands: A Trans History, exploring how these early pioneers transed gender and crossed the binary, even before they had the language for it that we have available today. These headlines unfortunately helped feed the medicalization of queerness as something to be studied that was on the rise toward the end of Marys life.

Cut to: Me at the New York Historical Society, still sifting through papers, texting my dad to get help deciphering the cursive handwriting of those long deceased. There was a letter about a refrigerator being shipped cross-country. An epistolary argument about whether to feed children sandwiches while they listen to Biblical readings. A speech Helen Gould was to give to the soldiers on Christmas. Wait. There. On the reverse side of the speech. Legible handwriting, in pencil, signed R.F. Field. Ruth Fuller Field. This wasnt an answer I was looking for, but it was something to grasp between my hands.

I promised myself one last road trip before I said goodbye to Mary. My girlfriend (I had found her, too, somewhere along the way) drove me to New Haven, where Yales Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library holds an original edition of The Stone Wall. The buildings security is stricter than TSA. Once inside, the librarians let me open their copy of Marys memoir, with the spine resting on a pillow to protect it from further wear and tear, and a weighted string to hold the pages open.

I immediately flipped to the back flap. No author photo. Maybe it was on the back jacket. I gingerly turned the book over. Still, no photo. There was, though, a line of descriptive copy that made me smile: “a fascinating tale of romance in which no man figures.”

Part of me still hasnt given up on uncovering answers to these questions. Whats for certain is that each new discovery will only bring more questions. That said, I did have a deadline for piecing together Marys story because it was slated to be the opening chapter in my debut book, a personal exploration of lesbian history through seven intimate, real life love stories spanning the twentieth century (eight, if you count my own): Lesbian Love Story: A Memoir in Archives.

Even though the book has already been printed, I still hear the siren song of queers I wish I could have included. I find myself reading entire books about Shakespearean actor Charlotte Cushman, who played Romeo himself during the Victorian era, and turn of the century photographer Alice Austen, who captured the cross-dressing parties she hosted at her Staten Island Home and co-founded the Staten Island Bicycle Club because bicycles offered women independent transportation.

Theres Sara Josephine Baker, introduced to me by a friend, a contemporary of Alices who worked as a physician and public health advocate in New York City and spent her later years with a “woman-oriented woman,” not to be confused with the queer Harlem Renaissance chorine turned movie star Josephine Baker. Surely theres room to add an entire chapter about Rusty Mae Moore and Chelsea Goodwin, founders of Transy House, a 1990s refuge for unhoused gender non-conforming people and the last place where queer liberation pioneer Sylvia Rivera lived.

I could start a franchise in the style of The Fast and the Furious. I could call the sequel Lesbian Stories 2 Love.

What I really want, though, are more queer history detectives. Someone to read this piece and write in with answers to these lingering questions, with corrections to facts I had taken as verified truth. I daydream that a legion of teenagers on Tumblr will attack these mysteries with the same appetite that they usually reserve for creating a relationship timeline for unverified celebrity couples. Mary and Juno will take their places alongside Larry and Gaylor.

I want to know what others can uncover about Mary, yes, but also about other unsung queer heroes and role models of history. With more queer history detectives, what could our future look like?


Lesbian Love Story: A Memoir in Archives by Amelia Possanza is available via Catapult.

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