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The Queer Case of Marie Campbell, alias Johnnie Campbell

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The Queer Case of Marie Campbell, alias Johnnie Campbell

In this feature we explore the lives of Scottish people who were born female, but lived as men during the nineteenth century. These are complex stories of secrets with the protagonists actively trying to conceal their origins and identities from officials and the world at large with frequent changes of name and address to avoid detection. Piecing together these stories from our records has been challenging. We will be focusing on two roughly contemporary accounts from the nineteenth century, but despite our best efforts, significant gaps remain. 

Our focus is on Johnnie Campbell, born in early 1840s Scotland. This is a fascinating account of someone born female, but who spent the majority of their life living as a man, acquiring a wife and a readymade family in East Calder, Midlothian, before suddenly disappearing from the Scottish records in 1872. A possible conclusion to Johnnie Campbell’s extraordinary life can be found in the experiences of Murray Hall, a Scottish-born New York businessperson and politician who was born female, but had lived their entire life as a man. Hall died of breast cancer in 1901 and contemporary newspapers described Campbell and Hall as being one and the same. We have found some supporting evidence in the archives held by National Records of Scotland to support this claim, but given the great subterfuge needed by those who were gender non-conforming in Victorian Scotland, there remain significant gaps in the historical record. Either way, the stories we have uncovered in the archives give us a rare and fascinating glimpse into the world of gender, sexuality, social expectations and identity during this era.  

The details of Johnnie Campbell’s early years are vague and we have been unable to trace a birth entry for them on ScotlandsPeople. We are reliant on speculative newspaper accounts about the reasons why Campbell chose to begin living as a man. Campbell was described in some newspaper reports as an orphan, or having left their parental home at the age of 13 with their brother. The brother seems to have been most influential on young Campbell. It is claimed that Campbell left home at this time due to ‘consequence of bad usage’ which is suggestive of abuse of some kind. (Dundee Evening News, 5 January 1872) 

It might be presumed that Campbell adopted different identities while travelling east to the Lothians in search of work. It is also claimed that Campbell’s brother, who died in early adulthood, advised his sister to put on his clothes and start a new life, living and working as a man. In the middle of the nineteenth century, a man had greater employment opportunities and could command higher wages than a woman. Whatever motivated the young Campbell to live as a man, doing so opened up far greater economic and social possibilities.

John Campbell and Mary Anne McKenna of East Calder proclamation of banns, 1869

Detail from the Proclamations Register of Kirknewton Parish. John Campbell and Mary Anne McKenna of East Calder proclamation of banns were announced on 29 November 1869.
National Records of Scotland, CH2/412/10 page 35.

By 1869, we find the first definitive trace of Johnnie Campbell in the historical record. Campbell met Mary Ann McKenna while working as a miner in the East Calder area and they were married at East Calder on 3 December 1869:

Marriage entry for John Campbell and Mary Ann McKenna in the parish of Kirknewton and East Calder, 1869

Marriage entry for John Campbell, aged 19 and Mary Ann McKenna, aged 22 in the parish of Kirknewton and East Calder. Campbell’s occupation is recorded as ‘labourer at a shale pit’. The entry is annotated in the far right column, as the entry was corrected in 1872 by Thomas Dick, the session clerk, who had also recorded their proclamation of banns.
Crown copyright, National Records of Scotland, Statutory Register of Marriages, 1869, 690/6 page 3.

It would appear that both Campbell and McKenna were illiterate at the time of their marriage as they had signed their register with a cross. At the time of the marriage, McKenna already had two children. A son, Francis McDiarmid McKenna, was born on 20 May 1866 and Julia McKenna was born on 8 April 1868. They were both born at Campflat, Ratho, and recorded as illegitimate.

Campbell later declared that McKenna knew that Campbell had been born female and they had made this arrangement to live as a family as this was in their mutual interest. It is worth noting that having children outside marriage carried severe economic and social penalties at the time and McKenna’s marriage to Campbell would have improved both her and her children’s financial and social standing within West Calder.

Unfortunately, the marriage did not last long and the family unit of Campbell, McKenna and her children appears to have broken up by May 1870. John Campbell appeared in court, charged with contravening the 1854 Registration Act by providing false details on their marriage certificate. The court papers relevant to this case are yet to be found, if extant; the charges against Campbell were not pursued for unknown reasons. However, evidence of the court action is documented in the Register of Corrected Entries Register (RCE). Official entries in the Statutory Registers of birth, marriage and death cannot be altered, but if an error or additional information arises it is recorded in the RCE. In the margin of the original marriage entry for Campbell and McKenna, we are directed to the RCE entry here.

Register of Corrected Entries instructs that the whole marriage entry for John Campbell and Mary Ann McKenna in 1869 be cancelled.

The record in the Register of Corrected Entries instructs that the whole marriage entry for John Campbell and Mary Ann McKenna in 1869 be cancelled ‘under the direction, and by the written authority of the Sheriff in consequence of the Deposition (dated 20th August 1872) [of] Mary Ann McKenna, one of the interested parties’.
Crown copyright, National Records of Scotland, Statutory Register of Corrected Entries, 690/00 001 page 20.

McKenna gave birth to another child in August 1871. She made it known to poor law officials that Johnnie Campbell, as he was familiarly known, had absconded the marital home in May 1870, and in retaliation for doing so, exposed the true sex of her ‘husband’. The consequences of Campbell’s desertion of their wife and stepchildren were severe, McKenna was reduced to appealing to the parish for poor relief to provide for her children. She would also bear the stigma of being a woman of questionable virtue.

While the revelations around Campbell’s marriage would have undoubtedly caused a scandal in West Calder, Campbell seems to have moved on and continued to live as a man in a new town. From the late 1870s onwards, it appears that Campbell had been living undetected in Renfrew and working as a hammerman in the Henderson, Coulborn & Co. shipbuilding yard and lodging nearby with Thomas Early and his wife. Campbell regularly shared a bed with other male lodgers and enjoyed ‘ “sporting out” with lasses, treating them at the Glasgow Fair’ (Dundee Evening Post, 8 February 1901). Mrs Early had seemingly become fond of Campbell, who cared for her when sick and was ‘handy in household matters and especially in sewing and mending fellow lodgers’ clothes, that she gained the affection of all around her’ (Dundee Evening Post, 8 February 1901). Mrs Early disclosed that she had known Campbell for around five years, when living in Tranent in East Lothian, and Campbell worked as a surfaceman and on the construction of the ‘Dalkeith viaduct’.

However, it would appear that Campbell’s inconspicuous life in Renfrew would soon come to an end. On 29 November 1871, a doctor was called to the Early’s house on Pinkerton Lane, where their lodger, Johnnie Campbell had been taken ill. Dr Allison quickly diagnosed Campbell with smallpox; the disease was then rife in the west of Scotland. Dr Allison wished to remove Campbell to Paisley’s Infirmary but Campbell was resistant to leave their lodgings. The doctor realised Campbell’s concerns and asked the patient “Was it because of sex?” (Manchester Evening News, 5 January 1872), Campbell affirmed his suspicions. The paper continues to report ‘the supposed “Johnnie” was a lassie, and had worn male attire since she was 13 years of age’. The doctor asked Mrs Early to provide female clothing in which Campbell could be taken to the hospital and admitted as Marie Campbell. Other newspapers reported that the birth name of Campbell was ‘Mary Anderson’ and suggested that Campbell was the maiden name of their mother. The name Mary Anderson seems to have been attributed to Campbell by the renowned English psychologist Havelock Ellis, who was particularly interested in Campbell’s case.

Other aspects of Campbell’s past were also catching up with them. While convalescing in Paisley, the hospital’s medical officer received a request from the Inspector of the Poor of the parish of Kirknewton to visit Campbell, who had been a person of interest to the parochial board since May 1870. The Inspector, being aware that McKenna had given birth to another illegitimate child named James, sought to confirm the identity of Johnnie Campbell and determine his sex, McKenna ‘making it widely known that her ‘John’ was a woman’ and ‘deserted her on the 23rd May 1870’ (The Fife Herald, and Kinross, Strathern, and Clackmannan Advertiser, 28 December 1871). As McKenna ‘had not the best of characters’ the story ‘was not credited’ (source as before); the church wished to locate the absent husband in order to determine who should support McKenna and her children, the parish or the husband.

James McKenna or Campbell’s birth entry, 1871.

In the column of James McKenna or Campbell’s birth entry, it is written ‘Mary Ann McKenna wife of John Campbell, Labourer, who she declares is not the father of the child & further that she has had no personal communication with him for about a year’. The corrected entry for this birth entry removes the surname ‘Campbell’.
Mary Ann McKenna’s third child, James, born 5 August 1871.
Crown copyright, National Records of Scotland, Statutory Registers of Birth, 1871, 690/61 page 21.

On 22 December 1871, William Waddell, who was a witness at Campbell and McKenna’s wedding, accompanied the Inspector of the Poor to Paisley Infirmary to confirm the identity of Campbell. Upon seeing Waddell, Campbell is quoted as saying “Is that Will Waddell; how’s the wife and the bairns?” (The Fife Herald, and Kinross, Strathern, and Clackmannan Advertiser, 28 December 1871). This off the cuff comment confirmed Campbell’s ruse and true identity.

The police, having heard of the deception, obtained a warrant to remove Campbell to Edinburgh to appear at the sheriff court, to be charged with contravening the Registration Act. Campbell appeared at Edinburgh Sheriff Court in January 1872, but the hearing was adjourned until the defendant had fully recovered from smallpox, the disease that had revealed his true identity. Campbell was admitted to the Smallpox Hospital, Lauriston, Edinburgh to convalesce. Campbell appeared in front of the sheriff again, in better health, in June 1872 and was asked to make a declaration to the court. For reasons unknown, the criminal ‘charge was deserted’ and Campbell was welcomed back to the Smallpox Hospital to be employed as a cleaner, then moved to Ratho (nearby to Kirknewton) as a ‘dairywoman’ (Dundee Evening Post, 5 February 1901). It appears that Campbell agreed to continue to live as ‘Marie’ at her court hearing. It is at this point that Campbell disappears from the Scottish records.

We cannot say with absolute certainty what happened to Campbell after 1872, but Campbell had told the police officer who brought them to their trial in Edinburgh, that they planned to emigrate to the United States, a course of action taken by many Scots during the nineteenth century. Later, the police officer recalled that Campbell had ‘chatted away in Gaelic, in which she was proficient, all the way to Edinburgh’ (Dundee Evening Post, 8 February 1901). This substantiates previous newspaper reports that Campbell originated from Inverness-shire, although a ‘west coast’ dialect was thought to place Campbell coming from the Glasgow area. A relevant birth entry as not been traced, but a birth date of 1840 is probable, as given in newspaper accounts in Campbell’s case, which interestingly matches the date of birth of Murray Hall from New York 1900 census records.

It is also in 1872 that we find the first trace of the Scottish emigree Murray Hamilton  Hall in the American records. Given Hall’s success in business and politics, much of their late life is well recorded, but there is no trace of anyone of that name arriving in the US. Like Campbell, Hall had been born female but lived for many years as a man. Similarly, they also married a woman. Hall married Celia Francis Lowe on 24 December 1872 and they subsequently adopted a child named Imelia, who went on to inherit her father’s considerable wealth. 

Unlike Mary Ann McKenna, for whom marriage offered escape from grinding poverty and social stigma, Lowe came from a wealthy family and was educated to degree level. Hall was lacking in formal education and encouraged Lowe to take charge of the business and it was ‘conducted in her name until her death in 1898’ (The Evening World, New York, 18 January 1901). Hall became a well-known figure in New York politics.

Hall had secretly suffered from breast cancer for a number of years, and died on 16 January 1901. Hall’s sex was discovered by the family doctor who attended Hall in his last days. Reports of a well-known and popular politician’s death turned into a press frenzy in both New York and Scotland when it was proclaimed that Hall was born female; the public had been deceived by a woman.

Being assigned female at birth and living as a man was a life full of risks, not least the constant threat of exposure and social ruin, but it would appear that, for Campbell, it was preferable to living as a woman. Campbell had a difficult childhood, and contemporary press reports explained her lifestyle was due to ‘consequence of bad usage when she was thirteen years of age, she left her parents’ home to shift for herself’ (Manchester Evening News, 5 January 1872). Although it should be remembered that these reports were constructed at a time when understanding of the issues raised by Campbell’s life weren’t fully understood.

A glimpse of Campbell’s feelings towards men is present in the first newspaper article reporting on Campbell; when ‘asked if none of the men knew she was a woman, she said ‘Do you think I would have let these blackguards ken?’ (Renfrewshire Independent, 2 December 1871). By fulfilling her dying brother’s request to take and wear his clothes and live as a man. Campbell sought a better life and opportunities which were then only available to men. It is difficult to discern whether Campbell was transgender, homosexual, or ‘masquerading’ in men’s clothing just to get by in the world. Campbell certainly enjoyed female company and reported to have pursued many a ‘lassie’ or ‘sweetheart’ while traversing Scotland for work. The same could be said of Hall; described as a ‘great ladies’ man. Two or three times a day he would go to a barrel house around Eighth Avenue accompanied by two or three women’ (The Evening World, New York, 18 January 1901).

The death of the person who had lived for so many years as Murray Hall in New York and in all likelihood had spent a significant part of their earlier life in Scotland living as Johnnie Campbell, caused worldwide consternation. Many years later, subsequent cases of people born female but living as men, were linked to the Hall and Campbell case. As the Dundee Evening Post (5 February 1901) would have us believe:

‘Many women have masqueraded as men, many men have masqueraded as women, but none seem to have followed out their deception so successfully or so persistently as Mary Anderson, alias Maria Campbell, Alias Jonny Campbell, alias Murray Hall.’

British Newspaper Archive
Library of Congress US newspaper archive
Havelock Ellis, ‘Studies in the Psychology of Sex: Volume 1’ (1942)