"Infamy and Infidelity"

the Barry and Somerset sodomy scandal, freedom of the press, 1820s sex between men and colonial sex scandals

Warning: this article discusses period typical state and social violence against men who had sex with other men including public executions. This article also contains reference to suicide, sexual assault and public outing.

In Cape Town on June 1st, 1824 a placard was attached a bridge at the crossroads of several main Cape Town streets declaring that Lord Charles Somerset had been seen buggering Dr. James Barry.  

Even though the placard was quickly torn town the accusation spread through Cape Town and within the day it had become a full-blown scandal. By the end of the week an official government investigation into the origins of the placard was under way.

The case has largely not been studied within the wider context of sodomy scandals. This is probably because Barry's involvement has kept writers from viewing the Barry/Somerset scandal as a 'real sodomy' scandal. Regardless of Barry's assigned gender though, the sodomy scandal he and Somerset found themselves embroiled in on June 1st was very much a real sodomy scandal.

Both Barry and Somerset presented themselves as men and would do so for the rest of their lives. They were both viewed exclusively as men professionally, socially, and privately. As far as both the public and private letters and documents we have from both Somerset and Barry are concerned they both viewed each other as men as well.  They were also well known for having a close, loving relationship with each other that pushed beyond the socially acceptable limits of friendship.

So when the accusation of sodomy was made not only did it come with very real consequences for both Barry and Somerset but it also fit into much larger narratives of sodomy accusations during the early 19th century, the role of the press in these scandals, and the use of sex scandal in policing colonial British society.  

June 1824 was the worst time for the scandal to happen for both Barry and Somerset. Barry was embroiled in the C. F. Liesching licensing episode while Somerset's political support back in England had been steadily waning. Both were on some of the thinnest political ice they'd been since arriving in Cape Town. The very last thing either of them needed that summer was to be involved in a scandal, particularly one of this magnitude and severity.

In 1824 being found guilty of sodomy, forced sodomy or attempted sodomy under British law could lead to prison, transportation, pillorying or death.

(A pamphlet reporting on the execution of D. T. Myers for sodomy in 1812, courtesy of the British Library)

Lord Charles Somerset was the son of a duke and, more importantly, the highest authority in the Cape Colony. The likelihood that he would be imprisoned or punished was low. According to testimony during the investigation that followed over the next month though, when Barry first heard details of the accusation and how far through Cape Town society it had spread he broke down in tears. It was an unusual reaction him since he usually responded to threats with anger and frantic action.

Almost immediately the investigation into exactly who was behind the placard began.  Denyssen, His Majesty's Fiscal, took the lead on the investigation. Despite him and Somerset's personal animosity, the accusations were an attempted strike at the stability of the British government in the Cape Colony and it was in everyone's favor to show a united front and shut down the entire scandal as quickly as possible before it could spiral out of control.

Over the next month, Denyssen brought forward two suspects he believed were responsible for posting the placard, Mr. George Greig and Mr. William Edwards.

They were identified as being responsible in an anonymous letter sent to Barry shortly after the scandal broke, which he had passed on to Denyssen, and in the testimonies given by several servants.

George Greig's was a printer who, along with Thomas Pringle and John Fairbairn, produced the South African Commercial Advertiser. William Edwards was an ex-solicitor and a well-known figure to everyone involved in the scandal. Only a month or so earlier he had been tried and found guilty for libel against a laundry list of government officials including Somerset and Barry. Most of the accusations that during contested during the trial had to do with government corruption. Edwards had accused key government officials of mismanaging the colonies assets as well as cronyism. Many of these accusations he continued to stand by even in court. Where Barry was concerned Edward's argued that it was unfair for one individual to hold as many civil service positions as Barry did, meaning that he was paid three different salaries, although none of them very large. Edwards had also pointed out that there seemed to be one law for most of the other doctors and pharmacists in the Cape Colony and then a completely different set of laws for the doctors and pharmacists in Somerset's good graces, particularly Barry.

For Barry, who was already involved in the pharmacist licensing issue with Liesching, this point, in particular, must have been a touchy subject. Edwards also added insult to injury by referring to Barry publicly as "Little Barry." Barry, who was particularly sensitive about his height took great offense. Along with political attacks and the jab at Barry's expense Edwards had also made public comments about Somerset's eldest daughter, which Somerset took great offense to.  

All this was enough to see Edwards tried and convicted. He was stripped of his ability to practice law in the Cape Colony and sentenced to transportation. His reasons for posting the placard, according to Denyssen's investigation, was as revenge against Somerset. According to the, slightly conflicting, testimony of several servants George Greig had printed the placard for Edwards and had it posted in a public area where it would be seen. Both denied involvement but they were exactly the culprits the Cape Colony government needed.

The accusations of sodomy against Somerset and Barry were officially ruled as false, untruths concocted by anti-government fringe actors. Anyone involved with Edwards and Greig was arrested and the governing of the Cape Colony continued as normal.

Instead of politically or socially drawing away from Barry Somerset continued to openly support him. There friendship continued seemingly unhindered.

Gossip in Cape Town also continued though.

The entire incident was coyly referred to as having involved Somerset and Barry's wife, or sometimes just as a scandal involving Barry's wife. This was a social shorthand more palatable than actually coming out and saying 'buggery' but meaning the same thing. Mentioning "Barry's wife", carried special significance because as Bishop Burnett wrote "[Barry] is, ever has been, and if rumuor speaks truth, ever will keep single."

It is hard to know if rumors that Barry was a man who preferred men had been widespread throughout Cape Town society before the scandal but they certainly were afterward.

For all that Somerset was better protected in the eyes of society, both by his rank and by his marriage his reputation did not go unscathed either. Samuel Hudson wrote in his diary shortly after the scandal broke that he felt sorry for Lady Mary Somerset to have infidelity and infamy added to Somerset's age and haughty personality.

Somerset and Barry's personal feelings about the scandal have not been recorded. The recounting of Barry bursting into tears is the closest record we have of the way these months worth of investigation and gossip affected them. Denyssen opened his report on the placard and its accused authors by noting that the accusation had no doubt been intended to "wound [Somerset's] heart."   

Ultimately, there would be no sodomy trial probably since there was no eye witness of the act to go along with the accusation. The placard and the investigation though was one of a series of events that took place during 1824 and 1825 that effectively ended Barry's career in the Cape Colony and caused Somerset to finally leave his position as Governor.

After 1824 Barry would never again face accusations of sexual impropriety but then Somerset was, as far as we know, Barry's most intimate and intense relationship.

The Barry and Somerset scandal come at the intersection of a number of different issues. The issue of freedom of the press in the Cape Colony and the wider British Empire was certainly a prominent one. Fear of revolution along with growing social and labor unrest throughout Britain saw serious curtailing of freedom of the press along with other civil liberties during the 1820s. The Six Acts passed in direct response to the Peterloo Massacre in 1819 specifically targeted newspapers and other printed material by significantly strengthening the already existing laws against blasphemous and seditious libel. The Six Acts also included The Newspaper and Stamp Duties Act which placed a much higher tax on printed materials including newspapers.

In the colonies, fear of revolution was coupled with fear of slave revolt for those British colonies that still allowed slave labor including the Cape Colony. To retain control over the population of the Cape the British colonial government not allowed independent newspapers that operate in Cape Town. As the non-native population of Cape Town and the Cape Colony, in general, began to grow through control over the presses became harder to maintain.

The 1820s saw a wave of immigrants from Britain and Europe coming to settle in the Cape Colony and this included Thomas Pringle and John Fairbairn. Thomas Pringle was a writer and a poet originally born in Scotland who immigrated to South Africa 1820. He was radical abolitionist and opposed the British Colonial government for continuing slavery within the Cape Colony. John Fairbairn was also originally Scottish and had worked as a school teacher before immigrating to Cape Town in 1823. Fairbrain was strongly reform-minded stemming from his strict middle-class Protestant beliefs. He came to the Cape Colony with the hope of starting a school but struggled to do so within the confines of colonial bureaucracy. When Pringle and Fairbrain began writing the Cape Colony's first independent newspaper, the South African Commercial Advertiser in January of 1824, they did so with the express purpose of using it further social and political reform within the Cape.

Despite the Cape Colony having no actual laws against independent newspapers Somerset and the Cape government still demanded the right to inspect and censor any material before it was printed, which Greig did comply with. The paper also ran at least one article criticizing the Cape Colony government in every issue of the South African Commercial Advertiser published between January and May and most issues included an article calling for greater freedom of the press. There were also articles on why the government should not regulate education in the Cape, one article calling for the abolition of slavery and suggesting that the government was taking money from slave owners to continue the practice. There was an article criticizing the government for too heavily taxing imports and another calling for a mixed government to better represent the different communities living within the Cape Colony. Finally, the South African Commercial Advertiser's article detailing the Edwards' trial all but accused His Majesty's Fiscal of fabricating evidence against Edwards.

(The first page of the last issue of the South African Commercial Advertiser in 1824)  

On May 5th Denyssen demanded further rights to censor the paper probably in an effort to stop the flow of articles critical of the government and Denyssen himself. Greig preempted this new round of censorship by shutting down the newspaper but not before sending out one final issue what included all of the correspondence between the newspaper's staff and various government officials along with all of the passages that had been previously censored from earlier issues of the newspaper. On May 10th Somerset empowered Denyssen to make sure the paper remained shut down and to limit private publishers' ability to publish and print independent newspapers.

(A page of postscripts of the South African Commercial Advertiser including passages from older articles that had previously been censored by the government)

Only a few weeks later, on June 1st, the placard regarding Somerset and Barry was posted.   

It is important to note that neither Pringle nor Fairbairn were directly implicated in posting the placard. Instead George Greig was accused and arrested for printing the placard. Greig both technically owned, published and printed the South African Commercial Advertiser. By implicating him in printing libel against the Governor the government also guaranteed that the Advertiser could not be quickly restarted. Even if Pringle and Fairbairn were willing to write against the ban Somerset had put on the paper with Greig in prison, is printing pressed almost certainly either confiscated or destroyed, they would have no one to print it for them.

It is impossible to know if Greig and Edwards were actually behind the placard almost two hundred years after the fact. It is important to note though that the accusation of buggery against Somerset and Barry did not happen in a vacuum. In 1824 Britain was seeing a huge influx of sodomy trials and scandals many involving upper-class men. Therefore Barry and Somerset's scandal cannot be seen as an isolated event but in fact as part of a larger story of sex between men during this period.

As Charles Upchurch lays out in his book Before Wilde: sex between men in Britain's Age of Reform throughout the 1820s  the number of sodomy cases tried in the courts and reported on by the presses drastically increased. In 1815 Upchurch found fifteen court cases involving sex between in England none reported on by The Weekly Dispatch or the Times two widely read newspapers at the time. In 1825 though there were forty-two cases of which we still have records for with thirty-four articles on the subject of sex between men being printed in the Times and twenty-four in the Weekly Dispatch. This increase did not indicate that more men were having sexual contact with each other but the way sex between men was thought of and policed had begun to shift.

These facts stand in contrast to an older view of sex between men, and sexuality in general, during the 19th century. For a long time, it had been scholars had hypothesized that changing moral and societal views during the later half of the 18th century had led to the erasure of any mention of same-sex attraction particularly between men. From court records to military records to newspaper reports and literature 19th-century British society had viewed sex between men too taboo a subject to even mention. This silence lasted until the late Victorian era where anxieties about a supposed moral decline among the middle class had combined with a growing interest within the medical community to define sexuality medically to create the modern concept of homosexuality.

Upchurch's research and the research of other scholars over the last decade have come to question this narrative of same-sex sexuality and sex between men in Britain during the 19th century. In fact, their work has pointed to an increase not only in sodomy trials during the early 19th century but also the cultural conversations around sex between men.

Seth LeJacq in his article “Rears and Vices: The Austens and Naval Sodomy” addressed a joke in Jane Austen's Mansfield Park that has long plagued Austen scholars. In Chapter 6, when Mary Crawford says: “Certainly, my home at my uncle’s brought me acquainted with a circle of admirals. Of Rears and Vices, I saw enough. Now do not be suspecting me of a pun, I entreat.” Many Austen scholars have maintained that this passage could not be read as a joke about buggery in the British navy because Austen, being well-bred, middle-class lady would not have known enough about anal sex, much less sex between men, to make a joke about it, and neither would her equally respectable readership. As LeJacq and Upchurch point out though this is actually not necessarily the case. In Austen's case both of her brothers served on naval tribunals for no less than ten different sodomy cases all of which were highly publicized. In fact the newspapers were so eager to cover navel sodomy cases that Charles Austen lamented "officers in the Navy are too frequently accused of acts tending to the commission of unnatural offenses… [H]ow frequent are the reports we are doomed at the present day, with grief, to peruse in the public prints.”

Civil cases involving sex between men were just as likely to be reported on as well as Upchurch's research makes clear. Even in court documents many witnesses to men either having sex or soliciting sex from other men reported that they understood and could identify such acts and behavior due to reading them in the paper.

Cases of sex between men involving upper class, powerful or aristocratic men in particular grabbed the public's attention. In 1822 the Percy Jocelyn, Bishop of Clogher, and member of the House of Lords was witnessed having sex with a soldier in a tavern and subsequently arrested. Jocelyn's case, in particular, galvanized the presses because in 1811 Percy Jocelyn had been accused of sexual assaulting a coachman named James Byrne. Not only had Jocelyn leaned upon his power and political influence to have the charges quashed but he'd also accused Byrne of libel for bringing the charges at all. A public spectacle of a trial had followed where Jocelyn had been defended by a number of well known politicians and members of the nobility. All had vouched for Jocelyn's good character as a gentleman and cast doubts on common born James Byrne's character. Byrne ultimately forced to sign a confession alleging the allegations had been a lie and was sentenced to time in prison and public flogging, a punishment he barely survived.

Percy Jocelyn's 1822 arrest, and with it the public realization that Byrne had been telling the truth about his assault, instantly made the case a symbol of class unrest. In the radical and even the liberal leaning presses Jocelyn represented the corruption and hypocrisy of both the Church and the State. What better way to characterize the aristocracy's cruelty and predatory intent towards the working class than a lord who had not only gotten away with sexually assaulting a working class man but managed to get the man beaten within an inch of his life for daring to speak up at all?

(A political cartoon by George Cruikshank depicting Jocelyn's arrest 1822)

Far from thinking of sodomy as too taboo a subject to even write about the luridness of the accusations highlighting the deprived levels that the upper classes had sunk to and the lengths the justice system, the political system and even the church would go to in order to protect them. The situation was made worse when Jocelyn was allowed to post bail and immediately fled the country leaving the soldier, John Moverley, to stand trial by himself.

The link sodomy to state and class corruption being made in even liberal and moderate newspapers was strengthened further when only a month after Jocelyn's arrest Robert Stewart Viscount Castlereagh, the current Foreign Secretary and one of the strongest political voice behind passing the Six Acts died by suicide after confessing that he was being blackmailed for having sex with other men. Between 1822 and 1825 two notable sodomy trials involving members of the aristocracy, John Grossett Muirhead Esq. and Lieutenant-Colonel Richard Archdall both arrested for soliciting sex from working class men, would take place and were covered heavily by the press. While three other members of Parliament either fled the country or died by suicide before accusations could be made.

These cases not only kept sodomy in the newspaper and cultural interest in sex between men running high over the next few years. It also forced a close connection, particularly within radical and liberal newspapers between government corruption and aristocratic men who committed sodomy.

Both the parties who originally created and posted the placard along with the general public of Cape Town would have surely known as well about this connection. The accusation made it plain that Somerset wasn't just a tyrant with his foot on the throat of the common farmers, enslaved peoples and growing middle class of the Cape Colony he was the worst kind of tyrant who committed unnatural acts and used his power to protect both himself and his lover. Not only did this damaging and coded message come hot on the heels of Somerset's banning of the Advertiser but also among growing questions back in England regarding the running of the Cape Colony government under Somerset that would only continue to grow for the rest of Somerset's time in office. When he left the Cape in 1826 it would be to face a Parliamentary investigation into his conduct as Governor although the investigation would ultimately find him not guilty of any major mismanagement.

On top of this, as Kirsten McKenzie points out in her book Scandal in the Colonies: Sydney and Cape Town, 1820-1850 sexual scandal and gossip were more common within the British colonies where they helped to maintain social hierarchy and order. The accusations put forth by the placard were spread throughout the Cape Town's high society Barry's bachelor status became the focus. Barry was both more socially vulnerable than Somerset and also tended not to conform to societal expectations. The gossip around Barry's lack of wife and the rumor that he would never have a wife because he wasn't that kind of a man was meant to reinforce the middle class standards Barry should have been conforming to, but didn't largely through his unusually close relationship with Somerset. Gossip about Barry's non socially normative conduct would only grow as he embarked on his feud with Plasket over the next year. Largely what would loose Barry his job just a year after the scandal was his inability or unwillingness to conform to colonial society's expectations of how someone of his rank and class should have behaved. Barry was by definition an unruly subject and the rumors that he was also queer did nothing to reign that in.   

Although the Somerset and Barry sodomy scandal has been given little attention by Barry's biographers it stands at an interesting intersection of social tensions around governmental oversight, social reform and the disruptive power of non-normative sex both at home in Britain and abroad.  

Sources Used:

Marks on the Body

Dr. James Barry, stretch marks and politics creating a pregnancy

Warning: this post includes discussions of the supposed sexual assault of a child, childbirth, and pregnancy. It also includes an in-depth discussion of material that purposefully misgenders and biologically essentializes Barry while also perpetuating the forced feminizes of trans and masculine-presenting people. I have tried to discuss these topics while also adhering to the name and pronouns Barry chose and used for himself as best I can but this topic, by its nature, runs counter to that. 

Shortly after Doctor James Barry died of a long and difficult illness his body was stripped naked and examined, most likely by the owner of the boarding house where he had been living and her maid. This examination was conducted against the express wishes Barry had made known during his life. Certain details about his body were then made publicly known, namely that he had been assigned female at birth. 

For someone who had lived over fifty years as a man, this was quite the claim to make so the argument for his "womanhood" was backed up with certain details including stretchmarks, claimed to be from a pregnancy, that had been observed on Barry's stomach after his death.

These marks on Barry's body may or may not have been there, to begin with. They may or may not have been stretch marks and if they were we have no idea what caused them. According to the American Academy of Dermatology stretch marks can be caused by sudden growth, suddenly gaining or losing weight, gaining muscle mass, and certain genetic conditions, as well as pregnancy. So the existence of stretch marks alone is not particularly conclusive proof of pregnancy.   

The idea that Barry might have given birth also did not play a large role in the 19th-century myth-making around Barry's life. "The Reputed Female Army Surgeon" by Edward Bradford published as a letter to the editor in the Medical Times and Gazette in 1865 includes no mention of Barry having a child and neither does the "A Female Member of the Army Medical Staff" published in 1895 in The Lancet.   

Yet now the idea that Barry gave birth is not only taken as fact but considered an integral part of his story.

June Rose in her 1977 biography of Dr. James Barry not only gave credence to the idea he gave birth but hypothesized that he did so in 1819 before his 1820 arrival in Cape Town. Although he would have, at that point, been a young, active duty officer without much privacy so the idea that he would have been able to conceal a pregnancy and childbirth seems unlikely. In her book Rose also did not point to any historical documentation to support this claim.

The 1984 play, Barry: a Personal Statement, written by Fredrick Mohr, includes a scene where the young James Barry prepares to give birth. As Heilmann points out, Mohr uses young Barry's impending birth as a symbol of not only his 'feminine' identity but also his personal openness as he invites the audience to view him as he truly is; a woman, rather than his male identity which ultimately, in the play, only leads him to loneliness, toxicity and bitterness.  

Similarly, the 1988 play Colours by Jean Binnie uses the image of Barry as a pregnant young woman to not only enforce Barry's 'true' gender but also Barry's heterosexuality. In the play, Barry's pregnancy comes after he has carried out sexual relationships with three of his (much older) mentors David Erskine, General Miranda, and Arthur Wellesley. Barry's embracing of his pregnant body is meant to show us Barry's 'real nature'; that of a cisgender, heterosexual woman. In their novel The Secret Life of James Miranda Barry (2000) Anne and Ivan Ktonenfeld depict Barry becoming pregnant by General Miranda's son when Barry's 'natural womanly instinct' to rear children becomes too much for him to suppress any longer. 

The artist Rowena Hall also imagined Barry as a heavily pregnant cisgender woman, belly protruding from 'her' military jacket in order to "readjust the way the female body was historically represented" in her 2009 art series “History Bearing.” While the medical history podcast Sawbones claimed in 2017 that there was significant historical evidence that Barry had given birth and cited that fact as part of their argument for why they were unwilling to represent Barry as unequivocally a man as if the act of giving birth somehow counteracted his male identity.

Barry's Wikipedia page also includes this passage as part of their early history of Barry's life "A third child appeared in the Bulkley family and was named Juliana. Although presented as being Barry's sister, it is likely that she was Barry's daughter as a result of childhood sexual assault, as the charwoman who discovered Barry's sex when laying out the body stated that pregnancy stretch marks were present."  

Wikipedia's claim, and mostly likely Sawbones's, are taken directly from the book Dr. James Barry: A Woman Ahead of Her Time in which Jeremy Dronfield and Michael du Preez argue that Barry did give birth to a child after being sexually assaulted by his uncle, Raymond Barry, at about thirteen years old. 

The child that was eventually born, Dronfield and du Preez claim, was passed off by Barry's parents as his sister, Julianna, in order to hide the fact that the birth and sexual assault had happened at all. Dronfield and du Preez use two footnotes for this passage neither one lead to a historical document backing up their theory. In fact, Dronfield and Du Preez cite no historical sources to support this argument. 

(the only two footnotes Dronfield and du Preez provide for their argument that Barry was gave birth to a child after being sexually assaulted. Note neither footnote reference any historical source material) 

The remaining documentation from Barry's family during this period actively contradict this argument though. For instance, Barry and his mother were thrown out of the house by Barry's father at the exact time that Barry would have been pregnant, and forced to live with various relatives. This would have been an unusual reaction for parents trying to cover up the fact that their extremely young daughter had been sexually assaulted. There is also no mention in the historical record of Barry being ill, sent away or confined during this period, which would have been more typical actions for the Bulkley family to have taken in order to cover up an out of wedlock pregnancy. Later that same year Mary Anne Bulkley, Barry's mother, wrote her brother to tell him and she and Barry had been allowed to come back home when her husband had 'made up his mind forgive her' although she did not include what she had done in the first place. Given this documentation it is, I think more likely that Julianna was, as she is referred to in all existing primary source material, Barry's sister, not his daughter. As Anne Heilmann writes in her book, if there was sexual misconduct involved in the estrangement of Barry's parents it was likely that Mary Anne, Barry's mother, had an affair, rather then Barry being sexually assaulted as a child. 

Dronfield and du Preez use the story of Barry's sexual assault and pregnancy in order to play into the modern, homophobic and transphobic, theory that people assigned female at birth identity as male or masculine presenting because of childhood sexual trauma. This particularly evident in how they are careful to point out that Barry's supposed pregnancy and sexual assault left marks on his minds as well as his body. As well as Dronfield and du Preez portrayal of Barry as mentally and emotionally unstable throughout the book, due to Barry's resistance to conform to his 'true' feminine nature.   

While the idea that Barry gave birth at some point in his life was not invented by 20th-century writers it seems evident that the importance currently placed on this detail is in fact modern. Unlike 19th century writers, 20th and 21st authors have to reckon directly with a society that has language and a systematic structure for recognizing gender variance and transgender identity. Barry through is actions, life and words clearly place himself within a (trans) male identity but 20th and 21st-century authors have been largely concerned with identifying him as purely a cisgender woman. In order to do this, they have most often focused on feminizing him and his actions, such as giving him the name Miranda and placing a greater emphasis on the details of his physical body. The idea that Barry was at one point pregnant has been used by authors of both fiction and nonfiction to more securely assign him a female identity. On top of this authors like Dronfield, du Preez, and Mohr have created narratives that portrays a feminized version of Barry as being natural and normal while portraying Barry's male identity as unhealthy, self-destructive, deceitful and a symptom of mental trauma. Using the image of Barry's pregnant body, along with other feminizing gestures, these authors seek to rewrite Barry's life and the narrative of historical gender to conform to purely modern ideas of correctly gendered bodies. 


Sources used: 

Who was "James Miranda Steuart Barry"?

questions on a name and the agenda of myth making

Warning: this article includes in-depth analysis of some of the language used after Barry's death to feminize him and depict him as a cisgender woman. I have tried to discuss these topics while also adhering to the name and pronouns Barry chose and used for himself as best I can but this topic, by its nature, runs counter to that.

Generally, according to most modern secondary sources, Dr. James Barry is credited as having the full name of James Miranda Barry or sometimes James Miranda Steuart Barry. These two middle names were taken from his two benefactors who supported him financially as a young man and to who Barry dedicated his medical thesis; Francisco de Miranda, and David Steuart Erskine, 11th Earl of Buchan.

The issue was that after a while of reading Barry's original writing I began to notice that Barry never signed his letters as James Miranda Steuart Barry or James Miranda Barry or James M. Barry or any other combination I could think of. He only ever signed his name James Barry, Dr. James Barry or James Barry, MD.

So I began to systematically search for any mention of a middle name in the primary source record. He did not use the middle name Miranda or any other middle name on his medical thesis. James Barry was the only name used on his official military commission. All of his letters from his time in the Cape Colony are signed James Barry or Dr. James Barry.

His personal correspondence is signed by James Barry, it is also addressed to James Barry, with no middle name used. All of his court testimony labels him only as Dr. James Barry. The articles and other writings he penned later in his life were all written under the name Dr. James Barry. Even his gravestone lists his name as Dr. James Barry.

No use of the name Miranda in sight.

At this point, I had exhausted every source I had access to written either by Barry or during his lifetime and none of them used the middle name, Miranda or Steuart. This, of course, brought up the question if Barry never used either the name Miranda or Steuart then where did they come from?   

Crediting Barry as having the middle name 'Miranda' in particular is very common. It turns up in all sorts of articles about him, in people's tweets, in many of the books, both fictional and otherwise, that have been written about him. Some people credit Miranda as being his deadname or use it as such even though it is not the name Barry was given at birth.

Modern writers like using Miranda for Barry because a modern audience is unlikely to connect it to the surname de Miranda and more likely to read it as a feminine given name. Using it for Barry, especially directly after James, emphasizes these authors's and their audience's assumption that Barry was a cisgender woman who's 'cross-dressing' or 'male persona' was only ever the flimsiest of disguises over Barry's true self. How could it not be if the proof of his 'true gender' was right there in his name all along?

Barry’s middle name being a feminine sounding one gives credence to second wave feminist argument many modern author’s still endorse that Barry was a cisgender woman forced by the patriarchy into a male role he did not identify with. Thus crediting him with having taken the name Miranda becomes proof that Barry was desperately trying to cling to some form of the femininity that had been denied him. It becomes an is an easy way of misgendering and deadnaming him without actually having to do either.    

Wikipedia, like many sources, gives Barry's official names as being James Miranda Steuart Barry and cites James Barry: A Woman Ahead of Her Time by Michael du Preez and Jeremy Dronfield as their source. Going to the cited page (pg 218) in du Preez and Dronfield's book however leads to the following line: "He began to elaborate his name, calling himself James Miranda Steuart Barry, discreetly acknowledging his debt to his two early patrons, and allowing those who knew the family names of the Earl of Buchan infer some connection." Dronfield and du Preez do not discuss a historical source in this passage nor do they cite any source at all for this line.

Because of this lack of citation I can only assume they creatively inferred this statement or perhaps lifted it from an earlier biography without citing or fact-checking it in order to fit their casting of Barry as unpredictable and often duplicitous. Portraying Barry like this is important to du Preez and Dronfield because it plays into two gendered assumptions; that women are biologically inclined to be too emotionally unruly and that gender non-conforming and trans people are by nature duplicitous, which underpins the book and du Preez and Dronfield's entire narrative argument.      

If I wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt I could assume it was taken from the source cited in the paragraph above and below this passage, which is "The Reputed Female Army Surgeon" by Edward Bradford published as a letter to the editor in the Medical Times and Gazette in 1865 only a few months after Barry's death.

Tracking down a copy of "The Reputed Female Army Surgeon" by Edward Bradford reveals that while Bradford makes many other false claims about Barry's life he does not use the name James Miranda Steuart Barry or James Miranda Barry even once.

Edward Bradford's letter in the Medical Times and Gazette was one of many articles and letters that were written directly following Barry's death and his outing to the papers and public at large. Most were written by people who had known Barry at various points in his life with the very obvious intention of saving face by claiming that they had "always known" about Barry's 'true identity' mostly by feminizing and infantilizing him as much as possible. It is in these letters that we can see Barry as the dedicated and brilliant, if often deeply polarizing, soldier and medical reformer stripped away and the myth of Barry as the cross-dressing oddity who could never truly pass as a man being created in its place. Barry as Miranda, however, was not yet part of the mythology.    

Looking at another source about Barry written in the 19th century, "A Female Member of the Army Medical Staff" published in 1895 in The Lancet, gives us, once again, a highly inaccurate account of Barry's life published thirty years after his death but it also lists his name as James Barry without the use of Miranda.

Originally I had hypothesized that the name Miranda came out of late 19th century and the myth building and (forced) feminization of Barry that had started directly after his death. The more late 19th century accounts of Barry's life I read though the more I began to think that wasn't true. I began to suspect that this particular piece of misinformation about Barry had come from 20th-century writers.

I reached out to Ann Heilmann who literally wrote the book (Neo-/Victorian Biographilia and James Miranda Barry: A Study in Transgender and Transgenre) on the myth building around Barry's life. She confirmed that the earliest use of the name 'Miranda' as a middle name for Dr. James Barry that she'd come across was in the biography of Barry; The Perfect Gentleman: the remarkable life of Dr. James Miranda Barry, the woman who served as an officer in the British Army from 1813-1859 by June Rose published in 1977.

Heilmann reads the use of the name 'Miranda' by Rose (who collected a great deal of James Barry's correspondence and no doubt knew he never used the name himself) as a wink at a modern cisgender audience. As Heilmann pointed out to me 'Miranda' is not just a name taken from Francisco de Miranda it is also a literary allusion to Shakespeare's The Tempest with its narrative of illusions and transformations.

If the use of Miranda for Barry did come out of this time period though it would also be very much tied with the second wave feminist project of linking Barry to woman's history and the process of claiming him as a 'feminist heroine' a path many of the writers that came after 1977 followed. If this is true then it would seem that the use of Miranda for Barry has always functioned in Rose's work, as it functions today, as a way for modern readers and writers to link Barry to a womanhood he never linked himself to and view the name he actually used 'James Barry' as a lie they have given themselves permission to disregard.  

But, at the end of the day, it is the fiction where Dr. James Barry, the name Barry actually chose for himself and used his entire adult life, is not.      


Sources used:

"Your Personal Feelings About Doctor Barry"

Dr. James Barry, Sir Richard Plasket, and the meaning of correct civil service in Cape Town

During his life Dr. James Barry was legendary for his temper and for the long and often ugly feuds he carried out with other doctors and civil servants including with Somerset's aide de camp, Captain Abraham Josias Cloete, that ended with the two fighting a pistol duel.

Yet none were quite as heated or as disastrous for Barry's career as his full-on, no holds barred, feud with Sir Richard Plasket.

From the records, it's hard to tell what the root of the Very Strong Feelings between Barry and Plasket actually were. I suspect they just never liked each other because they seemed to have clashed almost as soon as Plasket arrived in Cape Town and was appointed Secretary to Government for the Cape Colony. Plasket was higher ranked in the civil service than Barry and he was also a member of the gentry while Barry most definitely wasn't.

Plasket also entered the Cape Colony's civil service during a point of crisis. Only a few months earlier the first sodomy accusations against Somerset and Barry had been made making each's political position within the colony much more tenuous than it had previously been. It was the exact wrong time for Barry to be causing trouble within the colony. Unfortunately, Barry seemed pretty much incapable of not causing trouble.    

Earlier that year, before the sodomy scandal had broken, Barry had been approached by C. F. Liesching to be licensed as a practicing apothecary in the colony. The year before, in 1823, Somerset, at Barry's strong urging,  had reformed the medical laws governing the licensing of doctors, surgeons, and apothecaries within the Cape Colony. The new regulations now required them to show proof of having previously obtained a license or degree from a European school. This measure was important for Barry, as Colonial Medical Inspector, in his fight quack doctors and apothecaries who would charge exorbitant fees for ineffective or even dangerous medications and treatments. Under this new law practicing medical professions had to show proof of medical degrees and licenses to the Colonial Medical Inspector in order to be cleared to work in the Cape Colony.

C. F. Liesching was the son of Dr. F. L. Liesching one of the richest, more powerful and well-established doctors in the colony. His apothecary shop was run by not one two trained apothecaries with European licenses with whom C. F. Liesching had worked.  Unfortunately, C. F. Liesching himself did not have a medical license from a European school. When he met with Barry he only had a document from his father stating that C. F. Liesching had apprenticed under him as an apothecary. Liesching expected that his father's good name and formidable reputation would be enough to secure him official licensing. It was not. When C. F. Liesching could not producing proper licensing Barry turned him down.

Liesching then went over Barry's head and petitioned Somerset directly. Liesching's argument was a good one, he argued that for medical practitioners born in the Cape Colony being expected to travel to Europe in order to be properly licensed was too great a burden. It was all well and good now, when the colony was new, to expect doctors and apothecaries to have been trained in Europe but the number of young professionals who, like Liesching, had been born in the Cape would only continue to grow. He argued that while he had not been trained in Europe he had worked with his father and his father's apothecaries all of whom had.

Somerset appointed Chief Justice Sir John Truter to review his case. Chief Justice Truter agreed with Liesching, ruling that Liesching’s years of apprenticeship under his father was equal to a European license and overturning Barry's initial ruling. He then sent the case back to Barry presumably so Barry could license Liesching to practice in the Cape Colony. Barry did not take this well. Although he met with Liesching again he refused to license him causing Liesching, now irate and feeling humiliated to write to Somerset directly again. He accused Barry of mocking him and of judging Liesching without all the facts and stated, dramatically at the end, that Barry wanted to see Liesching's wife and children doomed to a life of poverty.

Meanwhile Barry assembled a board of doctor's to back up his own position on the Liesching case while also writing a letter to Colonial Secretary stating that Chief Justice Truter did not have the authority to dictate medical law to medical professionals (most specifically to Barry.) It was the in the midst of this situation that Plasket was appointed Secretary to Government at which point Somerset turned the whole Liesching mess over to him.

Plasket was appalled by Barry's behavior.

To Plasket Chief Justice Sir John Truter was not only a superior government official but also Barry's better. Barry's bluntness in his letters also rubbed Plasket the wrong way. Plasket believed Barry's actions trying to go over Chief Justice Truter's head to be "most impertinent and disrespectful." Plasket wrote Barry himself, under Somerset's request, telling Barry that he had to license Liesching. It took two letters for Plasket to get an answer from Barry and when he did, as Plasket described it "it was couched in such disrespectful language that I was obliged to remonstrate against it." Plasket also took the letter to Somerset who spoke with Barry personally persuading him to eventually retract his statements against Plasket but unfortunately the damaged between Barry and Plasket had already been done.

In April 1824 Barry wrote a detailed reports of the conditions at the government run prison detailing severe abuse of prisoners by the prison guards that left broken bones, regular floggings, prisoners left shackled in empty cells,and prisoners denied proper bedding, medical attention and even water. True to Barry's style he didn't mince words. Abuse on the scale Barry was reporting was not the work of a few bad prison guards but of mismanagement that went all the way to the top of the Prison Department run by His Majesty's Fiscal. He also wrote an angry letter to Lord Somerset detailing Barry's personal outrage at the scale of the abuse. He urged Somerset, and anyone who doubted him to come and take a tour of the prison themselves.

Plasket took strong offense to Barry's implications of corruption on the part of the government officials tasked with overseeing the prison and the strong language Barry used to talk about it.

Barry's accusation of colonial government officials abusing their power and conspiring against defenseless people clearly struck at the heart of what Plasket believed the British colonial project to be. To Plasket, Barry was a constant disruption to societal order within the Cape Colony and the smooth workings of its government.

It didn't seem to help that Barry and Plasket disliked each other personally. Plasket strongly disliked Barry's tendency to speak his mind regardless of the company and found his, often biting, humor unpleasant. To Barry, Plasket was an outsider, someone who constantly tried to interfere in Barry's professional dealings and chided him on the correct way to interact with people Barry had known for years.

Late in 1825, an official inquiry began into the position of Colonial Medical Inspector. Although most involved were not questioning Barry's skill at practicing medicine he had amassed an ever-increasing number of political enemies. After the sodomy scandal, Somerset had faced increasing pressure to distance himself from Barry politically and with Barry continuing to rock the boat his position in the Cape Colony was increasingly tenuous.

The proposal to abolish the position of Colonial Medical Inspector and form a Medical Inspection Committee in its place. This would spread the duties Barry had been carrying out single-handedly for almost a decade among a group of government-appointed physicians.

Plasket wrote a very lengthy report (about ten pages fully transcribed. It mostly likely would have been considerably longer in its original handwritten form.) detailing all of his issues with Barry both professionally and personally. At that point, Plasket had only been serving in the Cape Colony for a year and had spent most of that time fighting with Barry.

Plasket argued that Barry was unfit to serve as Colonial Medical Inspector and laid out his case evoking both the Liesching episode as well as Barry's prison report. In both cases, Plasket's stressed that Barry had not shown the proper respect for authority and that he had failed to be a good cog in the colonial machine. He also detailed all of the personal slights he felt Barry had dealt both him and other civil servants and all of the ways Plasket thought Barry did not act as he was supposed to.

Although Plasket was careful to never criticize Somerset's decisions directly in his official report there was still a great deal of disapproval when he spoke of Somerset's relationship with Barry. Somerset had personally intervened on Barry's behalf when Barry had been called upon to defend his prison report before a Court Commissioner. Instead, Somerset personally mediated between all parties involved smoothing over the situation while still protecting Barry from the consequences of accusing multiple high-level civil servants of abuse.

That Barry did not suffer the full consequences of his actions so upset Plasket that he evidently spoke with Somerset directly about it only to be rebuffed.

There is a strong thread of jealousy in Plasket's accusations against Barry particularly when he talks about Somerset. Reading between the lines Plasket may well have felt that he should be Lord Charles Somerset's, right-hand man. He, after all, had both the political and social positioning for it. Plasket was slightly older than Barry, of significantly higher social rank, and was a much more seasoned civil servant in the British Colonies. Like Barry he had risen through the ranks of civil service unusually quickly but was also politically aware with a far gentler touch than Barry.

Like for Cleote before him though there was no hope that Plasket would become Somerset's close political adviser and confidant with Barry in the way. Early in his report on Barry, he notes, rather petulantly, that Somerset had never asked Plasket's advice for how to handle Barry not seeming to realize that to Somerset Barry was not just an unruly subordinate who didn't know his place. Somerset and Barry had worked together and been one another's personal companions for close to a decade by the time Plasket was appointed to the Cape Colony.

As the investigation into the Colonial Medical Inspector position and Barry, in particular, progressed the fighting between him and Plasket turned particular petty. Both of them using the investigation to air how much they personally didn't like each other. Namely Barry claimed that Plasket, in a moment of anger, had threatened his position in the Cape Colony. A threat Plasket denied having made in multiple letters, while implying that Barry often exaggerated to the point of lying. There was enough evidence though, combined with Plasket's obvious wish to see Barry gone, that the committee ended up siding with Barry about the threat but also issued a strong warning to both parties to keep their personal feelings out of the remainder of the investigation.

Eventually, the investigative committee ruled in favor of reestablishing the Medical Inspection Committee. Barry was offered a seat on the committee but he would come forth on the board subordinate to multiple wealthy and politically powerful physicians, not president of the committee as he had hoped. He refused a place on the committee completely and resigned all of his civil posts at the Cape Colony.

Shortly after Somerset would leave the Cape Colony to face an investigation of his own in England. Not long after that Barry himself would leave the Cape Colony to start a new chapter of his life and medical career.

Plasket would remain in his position at Cape Town, dying in 1847 while Barry would go on to live very nearly another twenty years, most of which as an active medical administrator.

Plasket and Barry's relationship highlights the type of passionate enemies Barry made his entire life. During the course of the investigation into Barry Plasket wrote dozens and dozens of pages complaining about Barry's actions and attitudes and by doing so gave us a window into how Barry acted and thought. In particular, it illustrates the ways in which Barry came up against the social and political colonial structures of his time. Over and over again Plasket's complaints about Barry focused on Barry's refusal to operate within the social and governmental role he'd been assigned. It wasn't just that Barry had a temper but that he didn't attempt to hide his displeasure behind social niceties and was just as willing to lecture his social superiors as those below him. It wasn't merely that Plasket found Barry's biting wit and jokes at others expense distasteful but that he was more likely to punch up than down. Barry's position in the Cape Colony was deeply political but Barry, by and large, didn't play politics in ways that Plasket approved of. During his entire career at Cape Town Barry didn't accomplish his goals by being a diligent civil servant who respected the established order. Instead he went above people's heads and behind their backs, openly flaunted Somerset's support and exploited every loophole the system could provide.

It's important to note that Plasket was far from the only person to take issue with Barry for these exact reasons. As Kirsten McKenzie points out in her book Scandal in the Colonies: Sydney and Cape Town, 1820-1850 white, British, high society in the colonies was, if anything, even more rigid than back in England. Those who rocked the boat and refused to conform to the societal norms of Cape Town's elite would face gossip that could turn into scandal and scandal could than very easily become legal action. Barry and Somerset had in fact faced exactly this in the form of accusations of sodomy and were still facing the ramifications of this when the investigation into the Colonial Medical Inspector position took place. People's willingness to believe the accusations and how quickly they spread throughout Cape Town was most likely a reaction to Barry's inability, or unwillingness, to play by the rules of Cape Town society. Certainly the concerns brought, not just by Plasket but many others, that led to the Colonial Medical Inspectorship being abolished were.  

While a great deal of Plasket's issues with Barry boiled down to a clash of personalities and Plasket's firm belief in the British colonial status quo there was also a touch of practicality to his complained about Barry. Plasket was a career civil servant and politician and he pointed out at one point to the investigative committee that he actually believed governmental reform just as much as Barry did. But Barry needed to learn to work within the system Plasket wrote. Although even then Plasket seemed to realize what we, with hindsight know; that Barry never would.  


All quotes and primary source research taken from Records of the Cape Colony 1823-1825 https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/001260161

Also Alix memeing Somerset's totally unbiased approach to the Plasket vs Barry situation https://twitter.com/transaziraphale/status/1125613284923727872

What indeed of the "trans take"

some recommended resources on understanding Dr. James Barry as a trans man

To start us off I decided to put together a short list of good posts and a podcast that discusses Dr. James Barry as a trans man. Even now people actually taking a trans reading of Barry seriously are few and far between but this is a good place to start.

Dr. James Barry and the specter of trans and queer history by David Obermayer (EE Ottoman)This is the article I wrote on interpreting Barry as a trans in 2015. It looks at Barry's life and goes into why I think Barry had largely not been talked about as trans up until now.

“The Trans Take”: Towards a Transgender Public History by Jack Doyle This article is, in part,  about E.J. Levy who, while announcing on social media that she was writing a book about Barry, misgendered him multiple times, insisted he was a woman and refused to interact seriously with any of the trans scholars who tried to engage with her. Jack Doyle however also lays out why Barry is important to trans history and how his life shines a spotlight on the limitations of our current historical methodologies.

Down With These So-Called “Gender Categories”! by Grace Lavery Lavery looks at the way that Levy, along with other writers, has talked about Barry and his gender and what that tells us about the ways we think about trans people in the past. Overall I think she makes a good argument that the language of 'resisting gender categories', which are often used by cis scholars when talking about Barry (and other historical figures like him) actually plays strongly into modern gender categories instead of resisting anything at all.

Dr James Barry and the Erasure of LGBTQ+ History by Sara Westrop This is a solid basic look at Barry from a trans perspective but it's really on this list because Jeremy Dronfield, who co-wrote an incredibly transphobic biography of Barry and often deadnames him, actually tweeted about how much he hated this article in particular.

Lady Science Podcast Episode 9: Trans and Queer Histories of Science by Anna Reser, Leila McNeill, and Rebecca Ortenberg This is a really good podcast episode on Dr. James Barry. Reser, McNeill and Ortenberg are very careful to be respectful of him as a queer trans man. They also use his story as a jumping off point to have a very thoughtful conversation about doing queer and trans history, the history of medicine and how to respect historical figures privacy and agency as we do it.  

Monstrous regiment: how should we talk about those who dressed as men and went to war? By Catherine Baker While not only about Dr. James Barry Baker does mention him specifically as someone who should not, necessarily, be read as a cis woman. Mostly though this article is worth reading because Baker makes a strong argument for why trans history is NOT a threat to women's history and why these two branches of history should be working together to create more complex and nuanced historical methodologies.

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