This Was Then: A story of three Vineyard men

How Rebecca, Mary, and Mary became William, Luther, and David.

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Brothers William and Luther West of Chilmark were of solid Island stock. Their parents and grandparents were all Island natives, as they were. Their family tree was a constellation of Island names including Tilton, Mayhew, Daggett, Athearn, Hillman, and Lambert. Their father, Capt. Leonard West, commanded a half-dozen whaling voyages spanning the globe from the 1820s until the 1850s.

The third of eight children growing up on their family farm on South Road, William West (1834–1918) left the Island in the early 1860s. He got married, made a good living as a tin dealer and farmer, and eventually settled in Quincy, where he spent his later years comfortably as a real estate agent and self-described “capitalist.”

His younger brother Luther West (1841-–1924) founded the L.B. West & Co. firm and store in Taunton, selling stoves and crockery. His extremely successful business was renamed the New England Stove Co., and as its president, Luther soon earned enough money to be listed in the 1888 book “Twenty Thousand Rich New Englanders.”

But these two successful businessmen brothers shared something unusual in common: They were transgender men. They had spent the first part of their lives female. For most of their years in Chilmark, they had been sisters Rebecca and Mary West.

The paper trail begins in January 1850, when a petition was presented to the Massachusetts legislature on behalf of Captain West, requesting that the name of his teenage child Rebecca West of Chilmark be legally changed to William Valentine Worth (sic; the new surname is evidently a typo in the record). His petition was one of 118 name change requests from across the commonwealth that year, and no special remarks appear in the record to suggest any unusual nature about this one. William’s name change was soon granted and approved by Gov. George Briggs, along with the others, without debate or delay.

But the Boston Courier newspaper got wind of the story, and newspapers from Buffalo, N.Y., to Port Gibson, Miss., soon picked up the Courier’s report. Comparing it to the Roman fable of Iphis and Ianthe (a tale from Ovid’s “Metamorphoses”), and floundering for appropriate pronouns, the story reported that Captain West “has a child 15 years old which was born a female (apparently) and christened Rebecca, but that recently it has manifested itself to be of the male sex.” The story continues, “He therefore petitions that the name of this androgynous offspring may be changed to William. We are informed that this account is perfectly correct, and that the instance presents one of the most curious cases in physiology. Truth is stranger than fiction.”

And so the 1855 state census of Chilmark recorded William V. West, male 20-year-old farmer, living with his parents and siblings, including his 13-year-old sister Mary, at their home near Nabs Corner (still standing today).

A few years later, Mary similarly transitioned, and changed his name to Luther. This time, no legal petition for a name change was apparently made. But in a 1939 affidavit recorded at the Registry of Deeds in Edgartown, Malvina Norton of Chilmark testified that she “well and truly knows that the said Luther B. West, as a child, was known as Mary A. West … Luther B. West went to school with her older sisters, and was thought to be a girl and was named and called Mary A. West. When Mary A. West was in her teens, her name was changed to Luther B. West, and she was thereafter known as a male. Mary A. West and Luther B. West were one and the same person.”

The 1860 federal census of Chilmark recorded Luther as a 17-year-old male farmer, living at home with his then widowed mother and siblings, including his brother William, 24, who was employed as a local schoolteacher. William (formerly Rebecca) presumably taught at Chilmark’s Southeast District School, next door to their family farm on South Road, one of the three public schools in the town at that time.

When the Civil War broke out, the brothers found themselves on the list of Class I eligible draftees — the first tier of young and unmarried men subject to the draft. But although more than 69 Class I men from Chilmark were identified as eligible for military duty, the town only sent about two dozen to war, and many of those were foreigners and transients recruited in Boston and paid a bounty by the town to fill their required quota. So William and Luther, like most young Chilmark men, did not need to serve.

William left the Island during the war and became a Methodist seminary student at the New Hampshire Conference Seminary (today known as the Tilton School, in Tilton, N.H.). He didn’t stay more than a couple of years, and soon returned to his Island farm.

Luther left the Island next — for Taunton, where he began a career as a tinsmith and tin peddler, then storekeeper and employer, then foundry president. He married Augusta (“Gusty”) Merrill of Taunton, and in 1882 they they came back to the Island to erect a cottage on Commonwealth Ave. in the Campgrounds of Cottage City.

William joined his younger brother briefly in Taunton before moving to East Bridgewater. He married, started a farm and a wood supply business, and eventually relocated with his wife to Wollaston Park, Quincy, where he became a successful real estate broker.

Luther, like his brother, had long been involved in the Methodist Episcopal Church. He became associated with the leadership of the Camp Meeting Association in Oak Bluffs, summering there, enlarging his cottage, and sitting on the MVMCA board of directors for most of the 1890s and into the 20th century. His stove manufacturing business prospered — he employed as many as 50 craftsmen in Taunton to produce ranges and furnaces — and he then acquired the F.B. Rogers silver company. Renamed the West Silver Co., his new business cast and sold tea sets, knives, silverware, and other silver household items to buyers across the globe. (You can still find his company’s silver-plated wares, stamped West Silver Co., on eBay.)

Luther’s businesses ended in bankruptcy — the stove business in 1898, and the silver company in 1905. His Campground cottage was acquired by his former business partner for a few years before being reacquired by his wife. Luther found a new, more modest career in Taunton, dealing in secondhand furniture and serving as the local water inspector. But his Oak Bluffs cottage remains in his wife’s family today, and the current owners — grandchildren of Gusty’s cousin — still use some of the cottage’s original antique furniture, which may well have come from Luther’s final business venture.

William and Luther West were certainly not the only transgender Islanders in Vineyard history. Just a few years after Luther died in Taunton, another Taunton resident — Mary Swadey (the name has been changed at the request of the family), a well-to-do architect’s daughter and Edgartown summer resident — made a surprise announcement in 1928, while at home from the fashionable girls’ finishing school she attended.

The Boston Globe quoted Mary’s startling statement: “I’m a man. I shall be 21 soon, and I want to live like a man.” Mary was well-known in Edgartown as a prizewinning swimmer and “ardent boating fan.” (“Many remarked that she handled a skiff as well as a man at the motor boat races staged at the summer resort,” remarked the Globe reporter.) Now Mary chose a new name: David. The newspaper described his parents’ reaction as “dumbfounded.” Nevertheless, they moved quickly to support their new son.

With the help of the family physician and a prominent Boston doctor whose name the family kept secret from the public, a court petition was filed for the name change, declaring that David wished to change his name “to correct an error in his birth certificate.” It was filed in probate court in Taunton, and signed by the judge three weeks later, in December 1928, just before his 21st birthday. “Boy Lived 20 Years as a Girl,” ran the Globe headline. He immediately withdrew from his all-girls school and got a man’s haircut.

Swadey re-enrolled at Bristol Academy as a painting student, and went on to become a nationally known portrait artist. A wide variety of notable personalities — from Babe Ruth to Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan — sat for him. His work hangs today in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., and has been exhibited around the world.

Chris Baer teaches photography and graphics at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. His book, “Martha’s Vineyard Tales,” containing many “This Was Then” columns, was released in 2018.

 

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