The Uneasy Remembrance of Private Albert Cashier
Many of you will have heard the story of Pvt. Albert D. J. Cashier, Co. G, 95th Illinois Infantry. Private Cashier was born a woman, Jennie Hodgers (1843-1915). My colleague Damian Shiels, who blogs at Irish in the American Civil War, recently told Cashier’s story here.
Apart from the wartime masquerade, there are a couple of other remarkable things about Cashier’s life. (I use that name and the masculine pronoun, because that’s how Cashier chose to present himself for more than 50 years.) The first is that, whatever his reasons for adopting a male identity and entering the Union army, Cashier continued to present and live as a man, settling in the village of Saunemin, Illinois, about 90 miles southwest of Chicago. Cashier lived in Saunemin for more than 40 years, supporting himself with small jobs and living alone. As independent radio producer Linda Paul discovered two years ago, Albert Cashier was a strange, eccentric person:
For me though, probably the most fascinating part of this project was trying to unpeel the onion to find a more nuanced portrait of Jennie Hodgers. I found a person who could be kind to children, offering them a treat whenever they came to her home. But there was also a hot-headed, disingenuous, petty and unquestionably eccentric Jennie Hodgers. She had her foibles, just like the rest of us. . . .
A few years before the rest of the world found out about Cashier’s true gender, Cathy Lannon’s great grandmother made the discovery. She had heard that Albert was sick one day and so she asked a nurse to go over to help him out. In short order the nurse came running back and spluttered,“ Mrs. Lannon, he’s a full fledged woman!“ The nurse was so upset that she packed up and left town and Lannon’s great-grandmother in a great act of empathy, didn’t tell anyone about it, including her husband.
In Cashier’s final years (right, c. 1913), it seems, a series of injuries resulted in a handful of people discovering his secret, but they kept quiet, and it was not until a year or so before Cashier’s death that the story became public and Cashier was revealed publicly as being female. Cashier was eventually confined to a state asylum where he was forced to wear a dress, very much against his will. By that time, Cashier was somewhat famous, and in August 1915 the Rockford, Illinois Republic noted that he was “failing rapidly. . . mental state is rapidly deteriorating.” When Cashier died in October, he was buried with full military honors, in the uniform of the Grand Army of the Republic, with a standard veteran’s headstone. (Six decades later, in the 1970s, a larger stone was dedicated, with both Cashier’s names on it.)
Now one of my readers has passed along a news story from public radio WBEZ 91.5 in Chicago, telling the story of the restoration of the old soldier’s tiny house — and the unease that some locals still feel about discussing Cashier’s legacy. Returning in 2011 to Saunemin, Linda Paul resumes the story:
I’ve only just met the very affable Mayor Bob Bradford, but in no time flat, I’ve managed to get on his nerves.
See, the last time I was in town, a few years back, a couple of folks – a small number, really – weren’t so sure they wanted their town to celebrate the life of someone they considered a “cross-dresser.” So I may have gotten off on the wrong foot by asking Mayor Bradford if that’s still the case today.
“Well, I get a little perturbed when you use the word cross-dresser,” said Bradford.
Bradford said that anyone who uses that term just really doesn’t understand the story.
“And the story was, is, that Jennie Hodgers – Albert Cashier – was trying to make a living,” he notes. “And back in those days, a woman could not make a good dollar by being a housekeeper or doing laundry and so forth. But a woman could get three squares a day, and could make a good salary by serving in the army. So I think that was the reason. I don’t think it had to do with cross-dressers.”
I suppose if Mayor Bradford gets all squirmy at the mention of cross-dressing, maybe we shouldn’t even bring up the notion of transgender.
In any event, it’s great that Saunemin’s residents have finally gone to the trouble and expense of restoring this small reminder of a very unusual Civil War story. I suspect that, in the coming years, they will wonder why they didn’t do it sooner, and why they were so uncomfortable with Albert Cashier’s legacy for so long.
Image: Albert D. J. Cashier’s tiny house in Saunemin , Illinois, under restoration in 2010, via Pantagraph.com. Cashier photo via Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.