Column: In Sharon, Monument to the Birth of a Gender Revolutionary

  • A line drawing of Charley Parkhurst, who was a well-known stagecoach driver in California, moved there from the Upper Valley after she was raised in an orphanage. (Courtesy Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History)

  • Photographed on May 10, 2016, Charley Parkhurst's mother, Mary Morehouse Parkhurst, is buried at the Broad Brook Cemetery in Sharon, Vt. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

For the Valley News
Saturday, October 13, 2018

In the Sharon area, there are monuments to important births on both sides of the White River.

On the Route 14 side, right on the Sharon-Royalton town line, the monument is a 50-foot-tall marble obelisk. It weighs 91 tons and is famous as marking the birthplace of Joseph Smith, who in 1830 founded The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, widely known as the Mormon church. The obelisk has stood there since 1905, the 100th anniversary of Smith’s birth, and hosts visitors from all over the world.

On the other side of the river, barely seven miles away in Broad Brook Cemetery, there is another monument. This one is only 3 feet tall and weighs about 200 pounds. Unlike Smith’s public obelisk it is a private memorial and marks the final resting place of a mother, “Mrs. Mary, wife of Ebenezer Parkhurst,” who died in 1812 at age 25.

Mary (Morehouse) Parkhurst had given birth that year to a daughter, Charlotte, and she may have died during childbirth. She would never learn of her daughter’s many exploits, which included becoming America’s most famous transgender citizen (long before that word entered the language), and also the first woman to vote in a presidential election, more than 50 years before the 19th Amendment gave women that right.

How do I know this?

I saw it on the TV program Death Valley Days in 1958.

Escape From Lebanon

After her mother’s death, some historians say, Charlotte was brought as an infant to an orphanage in Lebanon. Others say she lived with her father or an uncle. But there is no disagreement that, at age 12, Charlotte ran away. Some say she put on boy’s clothing to make her escape, and that she never wore a dress again.

When she died in California in 1879, at the age of 67, Charlotte was one of the most famous stagecoach drivers of the California Gold Rush era. According to an 1880 report in The New York Times soon after her death, she was able to handle teams of six horses through treacherous routes, murderous outlaws and unpredictable weather, gaining fame for her “nerve, courage, coolness and endurance ... and the romantic personal bravery that enables one to fight one’s way through the ambush of an enemy,” the Times reported.

And she was known, not as Charlotte, but as “Six-Horse Charley.”

She earned another nickname, “One-Eyed Charley,” after being kicked in the head by a horse.

And in 1958, when I was just 13, the television show Death Valley Days called her “Cockeyed Charlie Parkhurst” in an episode of the same name.

On that episode (which I watched again recently on Grit TV), I learned that Charlotte had lived her entire adult life as a man. It was only after she died and her body was being prepared for burial was it discovered that the courageous stagecoach driver, the famous “Six-Horse Charley,” was actually a woman.

Some claim there was anatomical evidence that Charley had at some point given birth to a child, according to an examining doctor at the time of her death, but no known document certifies this. Also uncertified is the story that a baby’s dress was found among her possessions.

Making History — Again

That a woman had been living for decades as a man and doing such dangerous work made headlines at the time, but Charley Parkhurst’s story eventually faded into history — with the exception of the Death Valley Days episode, of course, and her own headstone, in Pioneer Cemetery in Watsonville, Calif., which was erected in 1955 by the Pajaro Valley Historical Association.

Then came the liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s, in which marginalized citizens — women, people of color, gays and lesbians — began advocating and agitating for their rights. Today, as transgender and gender nonconforming citizens work in the same way to assert their rights, Charley Parkhurst’s life has become something of a beacon for those communities. It has also entered popular culture as the subject of a 2008 fictional memoir by Fern Hill, Charley’s Choice: The Life and Times of Charley Parkhurst, and a 2012 historical novel, The Whip, by Karen Kondazian.

And, in an interesting historical twist, Vermont, the state that gave America its first woman voter — Parkhurst’s headstone notes that she was “The First Woman to Vote in the U.S., Nov. 3, 1868” — has also given the country Christine Hallquist, the former Vermont Electric Cooperative CEO who is the first openly transgender nominee for governor of a major political party in the country’s history.

Parkhurst’s incognito vote was both pioneering and subversive, although it’s possible that she voted as a man not to “infiltrate and subvert” the male-dominated political process, but merely to be mischievous — or because she was just plain ornery.

Hallquist, who won the 2018 Democratic primary with more than 40 percent of the vote, has worked diligently to keep the focus in her race on the issues, not on her gender status. Charley Parkhurst worked just as hard to keep the focus on her stagecoach driving.

And while these two pioneers are separated in time, they have something important in common: a desire to be judged on what they can do, not what they look like.

That’s a pretty good reason to recognize the headstone in Broad Brook Cemetery as a monument to the birth of a gender revolutionary, someone who lived by the code, as true in Shakespeare’s time as it is today: To thine own self be true.

Paul Keane lives in Hartford.