On the Science of Changing Sex

Stolen History II

Posted in Editorial by Kay Brown on December 21, 2018

Kay Brown 2010In an essay I wrote nearly two decades, I wrote how transhistory is stolen from us, how especially the history of transmen is erased, usurped, and misgendered to support Oppression Theory, misrepresenting our lives and identities instead of respecting them.  Well… just this month, the New York Times has stolen a piece of our history again.  But in the spirit of internet meme corrections, “There I fixed it for you…”  I offer this edited version of Charley Parkhurst’s Obit in the Times as it should have been,

Overlooked No More: Charley Parkhurst, Gold Rush And Transgender Legend

A swashbuckling, one-eyed stagecoach driver lived his life as a man. After his death, the revelation that he was transgender provoked widespread astonishment.

Since 1851, obituaries in The New York Times have been dominated by white men. With Overlooked, we’re adding the stories of remarkable people whose deaths went unreported in The Times.

By Tim Arango (corrected by Kay Brown)

Charley Parkhurst was a legendary driver of six-horse stagecoaches during California’s Gold Rush — the “best whip in California,” by one account.

The job was treacherous and not for the faint of heart — pulling cargos of gold over tight mountain passes and open desert, at constant peril from rattlesnakes and desperadoes — but Parkhurst had the makeup for it: “short and stocky,” a whiskey drinker, cigar smoker and tobacco chewer who wore a black eyepatch after being kicked in the left eye by a horse.

And there was one other attribute, this one carefully hidden from the outside world. When Parkhurst died in 1879 at age 67, near Watsonville, Calif., of cancer of the tongue, a doctor discovered that the famous stagecoach driver was biologically female. Charley, it turned out, had chosen to masculinize his dead name Charlotte.

“The discoveries of the successful concealment for protracted periods of the female sex under the disguise of the masculine are not infrequent, but the case of Charley Parkhurst may fairly claim to rank as by all odds the most astonishing of them all,” The San Francisco Call wrote not long after his death, in an article that was reprinted in The New York Times under the transphobic headline “Thirty Years in Disguise.”

Charlotte Darkey Parkhurst was born in 1812 in New Hampshire. Abandoned by his parents, he was consigned to an orphanage, from which historians believe he ran away wearing boys’ clothes. He wound up in Worcester, Mass., where he got a job cleaning horse stables. He also found a mentor, Ebenezer Balch, who taught him how to handle horses.

“The story goes that while in the poor house he discovered that boys have a great advantage over girls in the battle of life, and he desired to become a boy,” The Providence Journal in Rhode Island wrote respectfully of his identity as a man in an article after his death, as reporters on both coasts tried to piece together his life.

After working as a stagecoach driver on the East Coast for several years, Parkhurst journeyed west, like so many Americans seeking fortune and reinvention in California. He traveled by ship to Panama, traversed a short overland route, and then boarded another ship to San Francisco, where he arrived in 1850 or 1851.

In California, he quickly became known for his ability to move passengers and gold safely over important routes between gold-mining outposts and major towns like San Francisco or Sacramento. “Only a rare breed of men (and women),” wrote the historian Ed Sams in his 2014 book “The Real Mountain Charley,” “could be depended upon to ignore the gold fever of the 1850s and hold down a steady job of grueling travel over narrow one-way dirt roads that swerved around mountain curves, plummeting into deep canyons and often forded swollen, icy streams.”

Parkhurst wore “long-fingered, beaded gloves,” Sams wrote, supposedly to hide his “feminine” hands. He was considered one of the safest stagecoach drivers — not a daredevil, like so many of his contemporaries — and had a special rapport with the horses. He drove for Wells Fargo, at least once moving a large cargo of gold across the country.

A 1969 article about Parkhurst in the Travel section of The New York Times evoked some of the perils he faced: “Indians and grizzly bears also were a major menace. The state lines of California in the post-Gold Rush period were certainly no place for a lady, and nobody ever accused Charley of being one.”

“The only feminine trait her acquaintances could recall,” the article added, “was her fondness for children.”

Once he was kicked in the eye by a horse, which was perhaps startled by a rattlesnake; that earned him the nickname “One-Eyed Charley,” for the black patch he wore over his left eye.

Parkhurst’s story has long been shrouded in myth and thinly sourced anecdotes. (A well-worn tale has him killing a famous bandit known as Sugarfoot after he held up his stagecoach on the route between Mariposa and Stockton.)

In “Charley’s Choice,” a 2008 work of historical fiction, the writer Fern J. Hill imagines that as a child, Parkhurst told a friend of his dreams of driving a stagecoach. When the friend replied, “You can’t, you’re a girl,” young Charley decided then and there to live as a man.

And in another novel, “The Whip,” by Karen Kondazian (2012), Parkhurst is cast as a straight woman who wanted her freedom, thus being a perfect example of stolen history. “I would have done that,” Ms. Kondazian said in a telephone interview.  “I would have probably put on men’s clothes, to be free like a man.”  She added: “You can kind of use her in any way you want, because we don’t have the total facts about her.” thus indicating that she has no respect for transgender history in the face of obvious facts of his life.

Some historians say that had Parkhurst lived today, he might well have identified as gay or transgender. “Being gay at that time was seen as negative,” said Mark Jarrett, a textbook publisher who included Parkhurst in a new book intended to comply with a California law requiring social studies curriculums to recognize the historical role of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

“It was illegal, it was a crime,” he said, “so people didn’t go around professing what their real identities were. They were hidden identities.”

In the late 1860s, with the growing popularity of railroads, stagecoach driving became a dying profession. Parkhurst retired and opened a saloon for a time, and also worked as a lumberjack in Northern California.  After he died, The Santa Cruz Sentinel wrote, “Her accumulations were regular and her wealth considerable at the time of her death, which took place in a lonely cabin, with no one near and her secret her own.”

Parkhurst could claim one other distinction: An 1867 registry in Santa Cruz County lists a Charles Darkey Parkhurst from New Hampshire as having registered to vote — more than 50 years before the 19th Amendment gave women the franchise nation wide. While there is no evidence he voted in the 1868 presidential election, his gravestone in Watsonville, misgendering him and stealing our history is etched with these words: “The First Woman to Vote in the U.S.” (The claim is known to be wrong as women held the franchise in New Jersey until they lost that right in 1807.)

Even in the 19th century, however, there was admiration for Parkhurst’s successful transition and stealth life, if not actually understanding the nature of transgender experience and identity,

“The only people who have occasion to be disturbed by the career of Charley Parkhurst are the gentlemen who have so much to say about ‘woman’s sphere’ and ‘the weaker vessel,’ ” The Providence Journal wrote. “It is beyond question that one of the soberest, pleasantest, most expert drivers in this State, and one of the most celebrated of the world-famed California drivers was a woman. And is it not true that a woman has done what a woman can do?”

Original Obit:

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/05/obituaries/charley-parkhurst-overlooked.html

Further Reading:

Stolen History

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