Before the twenty-first century, being attracted sexually to someone of the same gender was far less acceptable in Western society than it is today. There was a time when the subject of homosexuality was taboo in public. Today’s familiar topic of equal marriage rights for LGBT people would have been a concept inconceivable to many in bygone days. Of course, prejudice against homosexuals is still around, but it used to be greater. Most lesbians, gay men, and bisexual people of yesteryear tended to hide their sexual preferences. They would “stay in the closet”—consciously or unconsciously—to avoid negative repercussions from society, from family, from the workplace, from organized religion, even from self.
So it’s difficult to identify gay relatives when most traces of their homosexuality never made it out of the closet, much less into the historical record. How can one draw conclusions about any aspect of people’s lives when all that’s left are names, some dates, and family relationships?
Marital status can be a clue. Homosexuality is one obvious reason an adult might remain single. But a lack of marriage is hardly conclusive—there are any number of reasons people don’t marry. And in a culture of repression, gay people do marry those of the other sex. Married or unmarried, a specifically gay person is virtually impossible to recognize from such scanty remains.
More information is necessary. Most times there isn’t more information—not information that contains clues to sexual preference, anyway. But once in a while there is. Case in point: Jacob Huss.
|Grave of Jacob "Jake" Huss (1830-1911), Clyde, Ohio|
The information that I have about Uncle Jake comes primarily from his 1911 obituary in an unidentified Sandusky County newspaper. He was born and died in Green Creek, Sandusky County, Ohio, but what he did in between is fascinating.
Uncle Jake lived with his parents on the family farm until he was twenty years old. In 1850 the California gold fields called to him. He followed the footsteps of the previous year’s Forty-Niners to northern California and became a placer miner. Placer mining is the mining of gold or other minerals from alluvial deposits found in stream beds. So far, so good. Nothing to exclude that Jacob Huss was gay, but then, nothing to confirm it, either.
Uncle Jake never married. His obituary calls him a “bachelor,” a word that, if spoken aloud with a certain emphasis, has long been a code word for “gay.” I can’t honestly claim that the person who wrote the obituary definitely intended this understanding, but it’s a possibility—especially when considered in the light of what follows.
|Grave of James Carson (1822-1906), Weaverville, California.|
Eventually paralysis struck James Carson, who was Uncle Jake’s senior by eight years. Jake “cared for him as a brother until the end, then gave him a Christian burial” in Weaverville Cemetery. Clearly Uncle Jake was devoted to the man the obituary calls his “partner.” Now, the word partner has many aspects. In 1911 could it have implied a member of a gay relationship, however that was conceived of? Possibly not—but the obituary certainly doesn’t say that Uncle Jake and James were business partners.
Now comes an interesting twist. After James died, we learn that “kind friends at Weaverville, especially Miss Lizzie Fox and her family, did what they could” to comfort Uncle Jake. Who’s this Lizzie Fox? Should I throw out the window my assumption of Uncle Jake being gay?
Not necessarily. Elizabeth “Lizzie” Fox (1833-1908) seems to have been part of a crowd. She was the foremost of Uncle Jake’s “kind friends” along with unnamed members of her family. Lizzie was evidently important in Jake’s life, but who knows if there was more than friendship between them? They were close in age. He would have been in his mid-seventies and she was three years younger.
Perhaps there was a romantic relationship between them, and because no marriage resulted, the writer of the obituary, for propriety’s sake, calls them friends and doesn’t mention romance. Or perhaps Lizzie had romantic intentions that weren’t reciprocated. Or perhaps there was no romance because Jake was known to be gay and the obituary writer hoped to obscure this by throwing in a woman’s name. Or perhaps there was never any thought of romance on either Lizzie’s or Jake’s part because Lizzie was gay, too. I find no indication she ever married.
[UPDATE 11/27/2012: In nineteenth century Weaverville, California, there was an Elizabeth Johnson born in Ireland in the 1830s, who immigrated to the USA in 1847. Elizabeth married William Orson Fox—called Orson—on August 15, 1861, and gave birth to five children. Orson Fox was born in Suffield, Connecticut, on October 31, 1824, and died in 1897 in Weaverville, leaving his wife Elizabeth a widow. It's possible that she is the Lizzie Fox mentioned in Jacob Huss's obituary, although I don't know why she'd be called "Miss."
Also in the Orson and Elizabeth Fox household were five nephews and nieces, children of Elizabeth's brother-in-law William I. Hupp and apparently left with Elizabeth and Orson after their mother Isabella Johnson Hupp, Elizabeth's sister, died in the 1870s. One of these nieces was also named Elizabeth and called Lizzie. So it's also possible that Miss Lizzie Fox of the obituary instead refers to Elizabeth Fox's niece Elizabeth Hupp, who perhaps was called Fox instead of Hupp because she'd been raised in her aunt and uncle's Fox household.]
Extremists may question my conclusion that Jacob Huss was gay. I would argue that the evidence weighs more on the side of his being gay than not. It’s unusual for two unrelated straight men to live together for forty years and care for each other like family, particularly with no indication of one employing the other. The obituary provides subtext—as well as not-so-subtext. Remember that “boon companion” bit?
In addition to the obituary’s wording, which can’t help but be subjective, I believe that the context of Uncle Jake’s traveling to the California gold rush is also telling.
The frontier has always been a place where non-normative activity is tolerated. The California gold rush was overwhelmingly male. Many of the miners were unmarried. I’m not saying that all or even most of the men who went to the gold rush were gay. I am saying that gay men in the gold rush had fewer societal pressures to conform to heterosexual norms than gay men had in the east. The attraction of such an environment to a twenty-year-old young man who felt different from those around him is easy to understand. The opportunity to explore one’s homosexuality without negative consequence was greater in the west—and so was the opportunity to strike it rich.
But I don’t think Uncle Jake and James Carson made fortunes in the gold rush. In January 1909, less than a year after Lizzie Fox died, seventy-eight-year-old Uncle Jake returned to Green Creek, Ohio, to live with relatives. He died two years later, February 13, 1911, at the home of his nephew, Chaplin Lorenzo Rathbun (1845-1921), who’s my first cousin, five times removed. Jacob Huss was buried in Bakertown Cemetery, in Clyde, Sandusky County, Ohio. A few months ago I was happy to visit my gay great-great-great-great-great-uncle’s grave.
|Uncle Jake and me.|