Thomas(ine) Hall

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Thomas Hall, born Thomasine Hall (c.1603[1] – after 1629), was an English servant in colonial Virginia whose wearing of female attire and, on subsequent investigation, a liaison with a maid provoked public controversy in 1629.[2] Hall was subjected to a physical inspection, and the case reached the Quarter Court at Jamestown, which ruled that Hall was both a man and a woman and must dress in male and female clothing simultaneously.

Hall's given name is typically written as "Thomas(ine)" or "Thomas/ine" in scholarly literature on the case.

Early life[edit]

According to Hall's own account, Hall was born and christened Thomasine Hall in Newcastle upon Tyne, England.[3] Hall was raised as a female and became skilled at traditional women's crafts, such as needlework. At the age of twelve, Hall was sent to London to live with an aunt. Hall lived there for ten years and observed the popularity among the aristocracy of crossover male and female fashion. These trends may have influenced Hall to break away from social norms.[3]

As a young adult in the early 1620s, Hall decided to adopt a man's hairstyle and "changed into the fashion of a man" in order to follow Hall's brother into the all-male military service.[3] Hall then served in the military in England and France.[3] Hall returned home and returned, for a time, to needlework and other female social conventions, reverting to the lifestyle of Thomasine,[3] before later moving to colonial Virginia.[2]


Hearing of work opportunities in North America, Hall left England and settled in Jamestown. Hall supported themself by making bone lace and other needlework.[3] Pursuing a different work opportunity, Hall relocated to the small settlement at Warrosquyoacke, Virginia, in an Indian village across from the James River, likely a village of fewer than 200 in the 1620s.[3] Tobacco planters in need of workers preferred hiring men.[4] Hall switched from Thomasine to Thomas to be hired as a male servant.[3]

In early 1628, Hall appears to have been arrested on a charge of receiving stolen goods, though there is a slight doubt about whether this is the same Thomas Hall.[5] Hall was living with a John and Jane Tyos. It was claimed that Hall and the Tyoses had encouraged a neighbor to commit theft and sell the stolen goods to them. The property was found in the Tyoses' house.[5]

Local controversy[edit]

Hall was not strict about presenting consistently as male in this new environment. Hall occasionally wore female clothing, which confused neighbors, masters, and captains of plantations. When queried about wearing women's clothes, Hall replied: "I goe in womans apparel to get a bitt for my Catt",[3] apparently meaning that it allowed Hall to have sexual relations with men. Sometimes, even when presenting as Thomasine, Hall was rumored to be having sexual relations with women. For example, stories spread that Hall had sexual relations with the maid nicknamed "Great Besse", who worked for the former governor of Virginia, Richard Bennett.[6] This was an issue of criminal responsibility; as a male, Hall could be prosecuted for sexual misconduct with a servant.[6] Hall accused a woman called Alice Long of spreading the rumor, but Long said that the story originated with Hall's previous employers the Tyoses.[5]

Residents of Warrosquyoacke claimed that Hall's changes of dress and sexual relations with members of both sexes were causing disorder.[6] Lacking a local court or church, some of them tried to determine Hall's anatomical gender for themselves.[6] In this era, married women were considered the best resources for understanding the female body.[3] Three women–Alice Long, Dorothy Rodes, and Barbara Hall–decided to examine Hall's anatomy.[7] More than once, they entered Hall's home while Hall slept and observed Hall's genitalia. They decided that Hall lacked a "readable set of female genitalia" and persuaded Hall's plantation master, John Atkins, to confirm their determination.[3] Atkins had previously claimed that Hall was female but, after inspecting Hall during sleep, agreed that Hall was male, having seen "a small piece of flesh protruding from [Hall's] body".[3] Hall apparently claimed also to have female anatomy, described as "a peece of an hole", but Atkins and the women said that they could find no evidence of this.[1]

Atkins ordered Hall to wear exclusively male clothing and urged the most prominent tobacco planter in the village, Captain Nathanial Bass, to punish Hall. Bass confronted Hall and bluntly asked if Hall was a man or a woman. Hall claimed to be both, "although he had what appeared to be a small penis".[3] Hall said that it was only an inch (2.5 cm) long and was not functional. Male incompetence was considered sufficient to determine female gender during the early modern colonial period, and Bass decided that Hall was not properly a man.[4] This meant that Hall could not be prosecuted for debauching Besse.

The Quarter Court[edit]

The villagers decided to take the case to the Quarter Court of Jamestown, just as Christians in Europe did in similar situations.[8] As described by Reis, a "solution consistent with scripture-based laws as interpreted by Talmudic commentaries and consonant with early modern European customs" was to make an individual choose either male or female gender.[2]

Hall's case reached the Quarter Court on April 8, 1629. Governor John Pott presided and the court heard from several witnesses, as well as from Hall. In a departure from similar European cases,[9] the court ruled that Hall had a "dual nature" gender, or what modern society classifies as intersex: "hee is a man and a woeman". Before Hall's time, any individual determined by court to be "man and woman" was forced to adopt either a permanent male or female identity.[4] Instead, as punishment for Hall's previous gender ambiguity and alternating identities as a man and a woman, the court denied Hall the freedom to choose a single gender identity. As a form of public ridicule, Hall was forced to "goe clothed in man's apparell, only his head to bee attired in a coyfe and croscloth with an apron before him".[10] In addition, Hall had to provide evidence of good behavior to each Quarter Court.[10]

Nothing further is known about Hall's life or about how long the dual-gendered clothing rule was applied.[a]


Taylor states that, in the early modern period, medical theorists and scientists considered that women were not a separate sex but "a flawed variant of men".[4] They believed that male organs were tucked inside of women because they did not have enough heat to develop external genitalia. They believed that strenuous physical activity or even “mannish behavior” could cause testicles to exit from inside the vagina.[4] Since they believed men were perfect individuals, they explained this by stating it was "nature's unerring tendency toward a state of greater perfection".[4] Because they did not have clear definitions for anatomical sex categories, they relied on "performing" gender through consistent dress, names, occupations, and sexual relationships.[4]

However, early common law, consistent with canon law, held that the sex of an hermaphrodite (now termed an intersex person), depended on the sex that predominates. The 12th-century Decretum Gratiani states that "Whether an hermaphrodite may witness a testament, depends on which sex prevails", [11] while Henry de Bracton's De Legibus et Consuetudinibus Angliae ("On the Laws and Customs of England"), c. 1235,[12] states that, "A hermaphrodite is classed with male or female according to the predominance of the sexual organs."[13]

Reis states that the novel solution required by the court was a deliberate form of punishment, "not to endorse uncertainty, but to preclude future acts of deception, to mark the offender, and to warn others against similar abomination. The dual-sexed Hall embodied an impermissible category of gender."[2] She states that making Hall a public spectacle would have been devastating and limiting of Hall's personhood, and this radical act contradicts not only earlier legal accounts, but also later legal and medical responses to hermaphroditism.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Further court records have not survived. The goods of a recently deceased Thomas Hall are recorded as being disposed of in early 1633. Another Thomas Hall appears to have been living in the vicinity in the 1640s. There is no way of knowing whether either of them are the Hall recorded in this case.[5]


  1. ^ a b Norton, Mary Beth, "Communal Definitions of Gendered Identity in Colonial America", Ronald Hoffman, Mechal Sobel, Fredrika J. Teute (eds) Through a Glass Darkly: Reflections on Personal Identity in Early America (University of North Carolina Press, 1997), pp. 40ff. Hall said she moved to London at the age of twelve and chose to change gender in 1625, ten years later.
  2. ^ a b c d Reis, Elizabeth (September 2005). "Impossible Hermaphrodites: Intersex in America, 1620–1960". The Journal of American History: 411–441. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Brown, Kathleen (1995). "'Changed into the Fashion of a Man': The Politics of Sexual Difference in a Seventeenth Century Anglo-American Settlement". Journal of the History of Sexuality. 6 (2): 171–193. JSTOR 3704121. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f g Taylor, Dale (1997). The Writer's Guide to Everyday Life in Colonial America. Cincinnati, OH: Writer's Digest. 
  5. ^ a b c d Norton, Mary Beth, "Communal Definitions of Gendered identity in Colonial America", Ronald Hoffman, Mechal Sobel, Fredrika J. Teute (eds) Through a Glass Darkly: Reflections on Personal Identity in Early America, UNC Press, 1997, pp. 40ff.
  6. ^ a b c d Vaughan, Alden (1978). "The Sad Case of Thomas(ine) Hall". The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography. 86 (2): 146–148. JSTOR 4248200. 
  7. ^ Meadow, Tea (2010). "'A Rose Is a Rose': On Producing Legal Gender Classifications". Gender and Society. 24 (6): 814–837. doi:10.1177/0891243210385918. JSTOR 25789908. 
  8. ^ Bridenbaugh, Carl (1980). Jamestown, 1544-1699. Oxford University Press. pp. 118–49. 
  9. ^ Smith, Merril (2008). Women's Roles in Seventeenth-century America. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood. 
  10. ^ a b Floyd, Don (2010). The Captain and Thomasine. Raleigh, NC: Lulu Enterprises. p. 251. ISBN 978-0-557-37676-6. 
  11. ^ "Decretum Gratiani (Kirchenrechtssammlung)". Bayerische StaatsBibliothek (Bavarian State Library). February 5, 2009. 
  12. ^ Henry de Bracton. (2009). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 17 March 2009, from Encyclopædia Britannica Online
  13. ^ de Bracton, Henry. On the Laws and Customs of England. 2 (Thorne ed.). p. 32. 

External links[edit]

  • John Demos, "Daughters of the Revolution", New York Times, April 28, 1996; a brief summary of the case in a review of Mary Beth Norton, Founding Mothers & Fathers: Gendered Power and the Forming of American Society (NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996)