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Why--and How--I Wrote Masquerade
--from Alfred Young
Deborah Sampson has been on my mind for some years, but I never thought I would write her biography. In the late 1980s when I became a guest curator at the Chicago Historical Society for an exhibit featuring ordinary people in the American Revolution, I came upon Herman Mann’s strange 1797 book about her. We put the book on exhibit in a display called “Veterans Remember the Revolution,” but the puzzle of the woman who disguised herself as a man and spent a year and a half in the Continental Army stayed with me.
I had already explored the life of a “man in the street” in American Revolution-era Boston in my study of the shoemaker, George R. T. Hewes, but my students and my family often asked why I did not do more with women of the “laboring classes.” My usual excuses—that they are hard to get at, that few contemporary sources document female lives—foundered when I reread notes I had accumulated in writing about the Boston of Hewes’s time. So in 1993 when I received an invitation to deliver a paper at a conference about “personal identities” in early America, I went back to the mystery of Deborah Sampson. She was a Massachusetts farm woman all her life—a former indentured servant, a weaver and school teacher before she became a soldier. Why did she disguise herself as a man and go into the army? How did she get away with it? And what did she do with the rest of her life? I knew she went on a lecture tour of New England and New York in 1802-03. She was a public woman so I rapidly accumulated fascinating data about her but I could not sufficiently boil down her identity for an essay that the conference requested I write.
Around this time, an editor asked whether I was interested in doing a short book about writing life histories of ordinary people. I offered instead to focus on Deborah Sampson Gannett. The task turned out to be both daunting and exhilarating. There were no “Deborah Sampson Papers.” Two letters that she wrote have survived, but neither of them mention her time in the army. She kept a diary only for the year of her lecture tour and no letters written to her remain. Searching for Deborah Sampson became a detective hunt
My search involved paying attention to what the historian Carlo Ginzburg calls “slender clues” or “details usually considered of little importance,” the sort that Sherlock Holmes or Sigmund Freud delighted in. Early on, I lucked out when I was put in touch with the small band of enthusiasts in Massachusetts who had been exploring Sampson’s life since the early 1970s and had succeeded in having her declared the Official Historian of Massachusetts. Pat Leonard, a retired Pinkerton detective, and his co-workers introduced me to the mounds of sources they had unearthed. Janet Griffith and Jan Lewis Nelson took me to the sites of Sampson’s youth in Middleborough, MA, and Daniel Arguimbau welcomed me to his farm and farmhouse where Deborah and Benjamin Gannett and her son’s family lived for the last fifteen years of her life.
Muriel Nelson, born in the Gannett homestead in 1910, showed me the scrapbooks kept over the twentieth century and the hutch/table that had been passed down. She in turn sent me to Beatrice Bostock, another great-granddaughter in her eighties, in Truro on Cape Cod. In search of a diary, I found instead a dress of Deborah’s handed down over 200 years which a costume historian authenticated as a 1785 dress which very likely could have been Sampson’s wedding gown.
In the last part of the book I take up the many ways in which Sampson has been claimed and appropriated over 200 years. Was she black? This claim is based, I discovered, on a misreading of a nineteenth century source. Was she a lesbian? Aside from this being an unfamiliar concept to Americans in the eighteenth century who did not usually assign sexual identities to people, this claim is based solely on the story of Herman Mann. In his first telling of the tale of a love between the disguised Sampson with a “Miss P” in Philadelphia, it was a chaste affair; thirty years later when he rewrote the memoir, it became a steamy sexual encounter. Both versions, I suspect, are the product of Mann’s lurid imagination.
Going down many unexpected paths, I learned far more about Deborah Sampson than I believed it was possible to learn about a woman of “low birth and station” when I set out. She was a woman of “uncommon intellect and ability” as one of her admirers put it. Through her entire life, she was a rebel against the restraints imposed on a woman of her class, a story that takes on meaning in the era of the American Revolution when many individuals tried to turn the world upside down.
From the Hardcover edition.