The curious case of Johnnie Campbell

An account of a 19th century Scots married transgender man.

On 29th November 1871 one Doctor Allison was called to the home of Thomas Early in Pinkerton Lane, in the town of Renfrew, Scotland, where their lodger, Johnnie Campbell, had become seriously ill.  Dr Allison lost no time in diagnosing smallpox and intimated that Mr Campbell must at once be transferred to the infirmary.  Johnnie Campbell was steadfastly against this but Dr Allison was adamant that no person in his condition could be permitted to stay in shared dwellings, and that he needed immediate hospital treatment.  Upon this, Johnnie Campbell asked that he could dress first.  It was at this juncture that Dr Allison asked “Is it because of sex?”, to which John Campbell admitted yes, it was.  Dr Allison spoke with Mrs Early, asking if she had any clothes the patient could dress in for transfer to hospital, as it turned out that her lodger was in fact a woman.  The said clothes were borrowed in which the patient was dressed and admitted to Paisley Infirmary as Marie Campbell.

‘Marie’ Campbell was born in 1850.  The location is unknown but from the age of 13 had been dressing in male attire to keep “clear o’ thae blackguard men”, because of being “misused” in her youth, and using the name John, or more commonly the Scots form, Johnnie.  In 1869 Johnnie Campbell was living in East Calder, West Lothian, and married one Mary Ann McKennan, the two then settling in the nearby town of Kirknewton.  They were apparently happy for a few months until Campbell deserted the then-pregnant Mary and her two illegitimate children.  He travelled first to Howden-o’-the-Brig (now Howden), near Tranent, East Lothian, where he was employed as a surfaceman between Ormiston and Dalkeith, Midlothian, on the Newbattle Coal Company’s railway.  Thomas Early had worked alongside John on farms in West Lothian, and when the latter and his wife decided to move to Renfrew to work the shipyards, he invited John to go with him.  Here Johnnie Campbell gained employment in the shipyard of Henderson, Coulborn & Co, where he was put to work on the forge.  His three teammates and his foreman soon held him in high esteem, remarking upon his intelligence and ability to turn his hand to any task alloted him.

Mrs Early later stated that in the five years she had known Campbell, it was only ever as a man.  However, she claimed that her suspicions were aroused with how ‘handy’ he was around the house, particularly in sewing and mending the clothes of other lodgers.  Johnnie however apparently behaved like any other man, and even had a short affair with a highland girl called Kate Martin, whom he would take on trips to Edinburgh and who stayed at the Early’s home some nights, with Kate sharing her bed, and Thomas Early sleeping in the same bed as Johnnie Campbell.

It was when Johnnie, alias Marie, Campbell was admitted to Paisley Infirmary that it all came crashing down.  While ‘Marie’ was still in hospital, the resident Medical Officer, Doctor Lewis, received a letter from the Inspector of the Poor of Kirknewton, stating he had received information about the patient Marie Campbell, and that he believed her to be one Johnnie Campbell who had been wanted by the parish authorities of Kirknewton since 1869.  At the request of Dr Lewis, the Inspector visited Marie in hospital, with Mary Ann McKennan.  The latter then positively identified Marie Campbell as the “Johnnie Campbell” she had married in 1869 and who had subsequently deserted her.

Marie / Johnnie stated that Mary Ann McKennan had known full well of her biological gender when they married, but there was a “mutual understanding”.  Mary Ann denied this, claiming that she only discovered Johnnie’s gender a few days after the ceremony.  She stated that when Johnnie had deserted her, she had told the authorities that her husband was a woman, but having two illegitimate children, the Poor Board considered her a ‘woman of ill repute’ and thereby nobody believed her.  Mary Ann subsequently gave birth to her third child (obviously also illegitimate) and had experienced difficulties registering the birth.  KIrknewton Poor Board, being all heart as they were, refused to give aid to Mary Ann on the basis that her child was not that of the man she married.

Johnnie, now being forced to go under his birth name of Marie, Campbell was arrested by Paisley Police on 24 January 1872 and, having recovered from smallpox, was transferred to the Edinburgh County Constabulary, who charged him with contravening the Registration Act by making a false entry by using the name John Campbell in marrying Mary Ann McKennan.  The subsequent fine was paid by a subscription from Johnnie’s former workmates who stated that while disappointed at the deception, “a more kindly and obliging worker never was engaged in the yard”.

One newspaper stated that it was an “Unhappy termination of an extraordinary career”.

So, what make you of that dears?   Personally I am not believing for one moment that Mary Ann McKennan did not know of Johnnie Campbell’s birth gender when she married him.  I hate to judge dears, but this is a woman who already had two children out of wedlock and we are expected to believe that she never questioned her husband not getting his tackle out on their wedding night?  Please dears, that is stretching credulity to the limit.  Seems far more likely that Mary Ann, who obviously liked sex, was fully aware and liked her muffin buttered on both sides.

I’ve no doubt that some will say that Johnnie Campbell was a typical man for the fact that he walked out on his wife and family.  Wait a minute, however.  The fact that Mary Ann fell pregnant proves that she must have been sleeping with another man while married to Johnnie, and that may have been what prompted him to desert her.

I’m also not entirely convinced that Thomas and Mrs Early were not aware.  They had known Johnnie for five years, even lived with him, and he carried out traditionally feminine roles.  Meanwhile, in a shared lodging house (where apparently it was not uncommon for Johnnie to sleep in the same bed with another man), nobody saw him undressed, or noticed that he never shaved?  Who is kidding who here?

The case is as fascinating as it is tragic, however.   Not least because when one reads of historical newspaper reports of trans people, the one thing which is striking is the lack of prejudice.   Look at how one newspaper merely referred to the sad loss of Johnnie’s career.   Compared to the modern age, it appears that the people of the 19th century were actually quite tolerant of trans people.  Consider how Johnnie’s workmates even paid his fine – an act of charity towards a trans person one would be hard to find today.   The people of the 19th century may have considered them a curiosity, but otherwise there is a distinct lack of the hate and venom which trans people experience today.   Consider that Johnnie Campbell was fined for breaching the Registration Act, nothing more.  It was only when some people behaved in outrageous sexually immoral behaviour – such as in the case of the music hall entertainers Fanny Park and Stella Clinton, who actually prostituted themselves – that Victorian society came down hard on them.  But even then, while Fanny Park stayed in Edinburgh for a short while, she was largely accepted for who she was.  One is given to wonder then if this apparent acceptance was a Scots phenomenon?  Which would be rather unusual for what was and remains the most Presbyterian nation in the world.

It seems obvious to me that Johnnie Campbell was indeed a transgender man.  I’m not saying women can’t do it, but working in heavy industry such as railways and in dockyards is bloody hard – even my male alter ego couldn’t do it (but then, he’s, to use a guid auld Scots phrase, “a big Jessie” anyway) and any woman even considering it in the 19th century would have been thought to be insane, not that many would.  We can only assume then that Johnnie was indeed a man.  He knew it, but he also knew if the world knew the truth, he would never be accepted as one.

And cases like that of Johnnie Campbell deserve and need to be highlighted.  For by pointing to historical instances, the LGBTQI community can further assert that all forms of gender and sexuality are perfectly normal, as instances throughout history clearly illustrate.

Footnote:  In researching this article I only found one instance of Johnnie Campbell being miscalled, and it is a terrible one.  The Morning Chronicle for 29 January 1872 refers to him as an “Englishwoman”.   Puir Johnnie.  There’s nae need tae misca’ him like thon.