Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Extraordinary Lives - Princess Seraphina

To mark this year’s Transgender Day of Remembrance today I want to bring to you the story of a cross-dresser who stood up for herself when threatened with exposure.

This is the story of Princess Seraphina, an 18th century “molly” (a name given to cross-dressers and gay men at the time) who was extraordinary in that she appeared at the Old Bailey – not as a criminal but as a victim. In the 18th century cross-dressers were seen as anti-social and often arrested just for wearing the clothes of another gender. In his years on the scene Princess Seraphina was never arrested.

Princess Seraphina was the alter-ego of John Cooper. No-one knows when he was born - it was probably before 1710, and his home town may well have been London.

The first record of Princess Seraphina comes in 1728. A notorious thief, highwayman and bigamist called James Dalton recalled the princess in his confessions published just before he was hanged. Dalton was told of a “wedding” between two mollies and mentions Seraphina as a “bridesmaid”. This was before October 1727 when Dalton was tried and convicted.

Dalton referred to Seraphina as a butcher. Cooper described himself in 1732 as a gentleman’s servant. This may have been his position with a retired Royal Navy captain called George Breholt. After a long and distinguished career Capt. Breholt entered the naval hospital at Greenwich. Cooper says he lived with Breholt at the hospital.

By the summer of 1732 Cooper was living with a Mr and Mrs Tull in Eagle Court off the Strand. He was a friend of Mr Tull and when he and his wife became ill with a fever, what was called a “salivation” in those days, Copper acted as nursemaid to them. He was lodging with them at the time of the trial.

One public event we know Cooper attended as Princess Seraphina was the grand re-opening in 1732 of the Vauxhall Gardens. A magnificent Ridotto al Fresco was staged – an extravagant open-air entertainment. It attracted many visitors, including the Prince of Wales, who could walk through the ornamental gardens, past statues, temples and arches. And it wasn’t only the fashionable ladies and dandies who dressed in their finest clothes. Princess Seraphina met several of his fellow mollies there all dragged up for the occasion. Seraphina herself wore a calamanco gown, a fine checked gown with a silky sheen through which was woven satin thread. He hoped this would help attract a gentleman or two who would dance with her (and no doubt a bit more as well). But all Seraphina ended up with was a couple of men who had no money (presumably they’d spent their last sixpence on the boat ride across the river, which was the only way to get to the gardens).

So what about the trial? Well, on the Whit Monday holiday, 29th May 1732, the week before the Ridotto, John Cooper went out drinking – not as Princess Seraphina but as himself. In the early hours of Tuesday he was approached by one Thomas Gordon who struck up a conversation. After several pints Cooper and Gordon left. As Cooper described at the trial, as they passed an area in Chelsea Fields protected from view, Gordon threatened him with a knife and demanded he hand over his ring and that they swap clothes. Gordon threatened to accuse Cooper of trying to rape him if he went to the police.

Thomas Gordon’s version of events was slightly different. He claimed Copper approached him in the inn, and that he tried to kiss and grope him in Chelsea. It was Cooper, he claimed, who had demanded they change clothes.

Cooper went to the police and Gordon was put on trial for robbery in July 1732. Cooper appeared as himself throughout, though several witnesses did refer to him as Princess Seraphina, which caused some confusion among the judges.

Gordon’s witnesses included Mrs Margaret Holder, the keeper of the inn where the men had met. Her version of their meeting supported Gordon’s. It was also Mrs Holder who was the first to bring up the subject of Cooper being a molly.

Thomas Gordon was found not guilty.

And that seems to be the last we hear of Princess Seraphina. What do we make of the trial? Was Princess Seraphina telling the truth? Did Gordon rob him of his clothes and ring? A witness called by Gordon to them crossing Chelsea Fields said neither men looked like they were having a disagreement. Cooper had no supporting eye witness, only Mrs Holder, and her obvious disapproval of his lifestyle turned the emphasis away from the robbery and onto Cooper’s sexuality. Obviously, she had other motives – protecting the reputation of her inn.

One witness for Seraphina said the clothes he was seen wearing earlier that evening were a great deal smarter that the grubby clothes he swapped with Gordon. What would be the point of that? Only Gordon would have benefited. And why would Seraphina risk being charged with sodomy, a crime punishable by death if guilty, just for some clothes and a ring?

If you want to decide for yourself you can read a full transcript of the trial here.

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