An Extraordinary Career: Marie alias Johnnie Campbell, 1871

RENFREW, November 1871

A fog had descended over Renfrew, swept in by the brisk November winds. Dr Allison turned his collars up against the chill and peered through the gloom, spying the address on Pinkerton Lane where a desperately ill young man awaited his attention. Discarding his cheroot, the doctor knocked firmly on the front door. He heard steps approaching and the door opened to reveal a tidy, middle-aged woman.

‘Mrs Early?’, Allison enquired.

“Aye doctor. Come in, he’s no’ well at aw!”

The doctor was led through the house to a dimly lit back bedroom, where a figure lay still, illuminated by a single candle, the dancing flame reflecting off his sickly pallor.

Dr Allison approached the patient. “Mr Campbell?” The man nodded, weakly wiping sweat from his brow.

“My back aches”, moaned Campbell, “and my head is fit to burst!”

Dr Allison noted the young man’s light voice, a weakness perhaps? Yet, as the doctor’s hand brushed the man’s cheek, he could not help but notice the smoothness of the skin. The doctor lit another candle and his patient recoiled, pulling the bedclothes further towards his chin. His hands gripped the woollen blanket; they were small hands, chubby with short fingers. He examined the patient, taking his temperature and checking his glands. He tutted loudly.

“Mr Campbell, I am in no doubt that you will need to accompany me to the Infirmary,” said the doctor, placing a reassuring hand on Campbell’s shoulder. “This is a most grave fever.”

The young man closed his eyes and muttered, “That, I cannot.”

“Then I’m afraid,” began the doctor, “you may breathe your last in this room. Your salvation is the hospital. There we can administer treatment that may very well prolong your life.” Campbell was still resistant.

“No,” he responded weakly, his eyes barely opening, “hospital presents all manner of risks.”

The doctor brought his face to within inches of his patient’s.

“Is it because of your sex?”

A New Life in Renfrew

When John Campbell had fallen ill with smallpox, he was residing as a lodger with the Early family in Renfrew, while he laboured at the local shipbuilders, Henderson, Coulborn and Co. Thomas Early had known ‘Johnnie’ for some time, striking up a friendship while they had worked farms in West Lothian, before Early and his wife settled in Renfrew. John had returned to East Calder where he courted and then married Mary Ann McKenna and had begun married life in Kirknewton. Their marriage had raised some eyebrows locally as McKenna’s reputation had been sullied by the birth of two illegitmate children, Julia and Francis, before she was twenty years old. However, the marriage was seemingly illsuited to both parties, and John had left the marital home within 5 months.

When Johnnie had arrived in Renfrew in search of work, he had contacted his friend Thomas Early, who had been happy to offer room and board. Mrs Early later reflected on just how amiable, agreeable and helpful Johnnie had been since his arrival, often helping her in the kitchen, and fellow lodgers with darning and sewing. So attentive had Johnnie been when Mrs Early fell ill with influenza that her husband had become quite jealous of their intimacy. Yet, Johnnie was much more interested in local lass Kate Martin whom he treated to trips to Edinburgh and with whom he shared many of his evenings. Johnnie, throughout his time since leaving Kirknewton, ‘adhered to the old habit of loving and associating with the lassies’. But what Kate and the Earlys were unaware of was that Johnnie had deserted a wife and three children in Kirknewton to start his life afresh on the west coast – the marriage had seemingly produced a third, legitimate, child.

In Kirknewton, Johnnie’s deserted wife Mary Ann had been brought before parish authorities who demanded to know where her husband was, and why he was no longer financially supporting his family. Mary Ann, fearful that her relief would be stopped made a quite extraordinary claim.

“John Campbell is not my husband.”

That was impossible stated her interrogators, for they possessed a copy of the marriage lines.

“I’m am not denying that we stood before God and made our commitment. But it was a fraud! For John is not John, she is Marie.”

A Life Unravels

The parish board dismissed Mary Ann’s claim. Surely a minister with the experience of Henry Smith would not be fooled by such an alleged masquerade? It was simply outrageous. She had also admitted that her recently born child was not her husband’s. So, what was it to be? Was her husband a woman, or, had Mary Ann deceived him and bore another man’s child? Perhaps, filled with betrayal and torment he deserted her? The latter explanation was much more palatable to the authorities; Mary Ann had already bore two illegitimate children. Her habit of lying with men that were not her husband had blackened her reputation. The board were resolute. Mary Ann was a liar and a reputed harlot. They had already experienced Mary Ann’s mendaciousness when investigating the paternity of her two previous illegitimate children, two children whom John Campbell had happily agreed to bring up as his own.

One can only imagine the consternation when news reached Kirknewton of an extraordinary case of fraud from Renfrew involving a woman posing as a man named John or Johnnie Campbell. The parish board gathered together a delegation to travel to Paisley Infirmary to investigate this ‘fraud’.

Mary Ann accompanied the Kirknewton Inspector of the Poor, and Will Waddell who had been a witness at the wedding, to Paisley Infirmary. On seeing her husband in a hospital bed in a female ward, Mary Ann exclaimed, “There she is, my supposed husband!”. John, or Marie, who was now attired in a nightdress, exclaimed, “Is that you Will Waddell? How’s the wife an’ bairns?”

When questioned, Marie claimed that Mary Ann had known full well about her sex: “Mary Ann knew that I was a woman; it was to make us more comfortable that we lived together”. Mary Ann however, claimed that she had married John, then a shale pit labourer, in good faith, and that the revelation had only occurred after the wedding. It seems that unlikely that revelation took so long to occur, as the couple had cohabited for 5 months before John’s desertion. Whatever the truth, Marie Campbell, alias John or Johnnie Campbell, had embarked on an extraordinary career from an early age. Her older brother, on his deathbed, had advised his sister to make her way in life as a man, for a woman’s lot was not a happy one. An alternative reason was given by Marie that she had been subject to ‘bad usage’ at a young age and for her own state of mind and security attired and lived as a man. From the age of 15, John of Johnnie, had worked in various labouring roles, from road surfacing to mining. In the language of the day many people, like Johnnie, may have struggled to accurately and publicly describe their own feelings. They also had to consider the potential opprobrium directed their way by a society largely ignorant of diversity.

Despite the shock that the revelations brought to those who knew Johnnie Campbell, few had scornful words. Former colleagues in Renfrew started a subscription to support their former colleague, stating that “a more kindly and obliging worker never was engaged in the yard”. The Earlys, particularly Mrs Early, thought of Johnnie with such fondness that she could not condemn. Marie faced charges under the Registration Act for fraudulently contracting a marriage; Mary Ann returned to West Lothian; and life in Pinkerton Lane returned to normal. Yet, everyone who knew Marie, alias Johnnie Campbell continued to remember fondly, the young person who had touched their lives.

History does not offer us an opportunity to ask questions of the long deceased, to explore their motivations, and it is difficult to apply 21st century definitions or labels. But it does enable us to demonstrate that within Victorian Scotland, attitudes towards ‘non-conformity’ were not necessarily all negative. Johnnie/Marie was liked, loved even, by the individuals they met and worked with. Prosecution did follow, but for misusing the legal institution of marriage and for fraudulently registering a marriage, and not for any issues relating to sex, sexuality or gender.

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