Friday , 18 January 2019

The Mystery of Marie alias John Campbell, Renfrew 1871

Auld Renfrew
Auld Renfrew

A fog had descended over Renfrew, swept in by the brisk November winds. Dr Allison turned his collars up against the chill and peered through the gloom, spying the address on Pinkerton Lane where a patient lay prone. The doctor rapped firmly on the front door. Mrs Early, a tidy, middle-aged woman, opened the door and ushered the doctor in.

“He’s no’ well at all!”

The doctor was led to a poorly lit backroom, where a figure lay still, illuminated by a single candle on a bed-side table, the dancing flame reflecting off his sickly pallor.

Dr Allison approached the patient. “Mr Campbell?” The man nodded, and weakly brushed fevered sweat from his brow.

“My back aches”, moaned Campbell, “and my head is fit to burst!”

Dr Allison noted the young man’s light voice, a weakness perhaps? Yet, as the doctor’s hand brushed the man’s cheek, he could not help but notice the smoothness of the skin. The doctor lit another candle and his patient recoiled, pulling the bedclothes further towards his chin. His hands gripped the woollen blanket; they were small hands, chubby with short fingers.

“I’m afraid you will need to come with me to the Infirmary,” said the doctor, placing a reassuring hand on Campbell’s shoulder. “This is a most grave fever.”

The young man shuddered, and shook his head violently. “I cannot.”

“Then I’m afraid,” began the doctor, “you may breathe your last in this room.” Despite such a stark warning, Campbell was resistant. The doctor brought his face to within inches of his patient’s.

“Is it because of your sex?”

When John Campbell had fallen ill with smallpox, he had been residing as a lodger with the Early family in Renfrew for some weeks, while he laboured at a local shipbuilder’s yard. Thomas Early had known John for a few years as they had worked farms in West Lothian together before he and his wife settled in Renfrew and John had begun married life in East Calder and then Kirknewton. When John had arrived in Renfrew in search of work, Thomas had invited John to lodge with his family. Mrs Early later reflected on just how amiable, agreeable and helpful John had been since his arrival, often helping her in the kitchen and fellow lodgers with darning and sewing. So attentive had John been when Mrs Early fell ill with influenza that her husband had become quite jealous of their intimacy. Yet, John was much more interested in local lass Kate Martin whom he treated to a trip to Edinburgh, and spent much of his evenings entertaining. John, throughout his time since leaving Kirknewton ‘adhered to the old habit of loving and associating with the lassies’. But what Kate and the Earlys did not know was that John had deserted a wife and child in Kirknewton to start his life afresh on the west coast.

In Kirknewton, John’s wife Mary Ann had been hauled before parish authorities who demanded to know where her husband was, and why he was no longer financially supporting his family. Mary Ann, fearful that her relief would be stopped made a quite extraordinary claim.

“He’s no’ ma husband!”

That was impossible stated the poor board; they had a copy of the marriage lines.

“Oh, I’m no’ denying that we stood before God and made oor commitment. But it was a fraud! For John is no’ John, she’s Marie!”

The parish board dismissed Mary Ann’s outrageous claim. She had also admitted that her recently born child was not her husband’s, so what was it to be? Was her husband a woman, or, had Mary Ann deceived him and filled with betrayal and torment he deserted her? The latter explanation was much more palatable to the authorities; Mary Ann had already bore two illegitimate children. Yet, when news reached Kirknewton of an extraordinary case of fraud from Renfrew involving a woman posing as a man named John Campbell, the truth was soon to be revealed.

Mary Ann accompanied the Kirknewton Inspector of the Poor, and Will Waddell, a witness at the wedding, to Paisley infirmary, where Mary Ann made a positive identification of her erstwhile husband. John, or rather, Marie, who was now attired in a nightdress, exclaimed, “Is that you Will Waddell? How’s the wife an’ bairns?”

When questioned, Marie claimed that Mary Ann had known full well about her sex and that her disguise as a woman was to prevent gossip about their relationship. Mary Ann however, claimed that she had married ‘John’ in good faith, and that the revelation had only occurred after the wedding. Whatever the truth, Marie Campbell, alias John Campbell, had embarked on an extraordinary career from an early age. Her older brother, on his deathbed, had advised his sister to make her way in life as a man, for a woman’s lot was not a happy one. An alternative reason was given by Marie that she had been subject to ‘bad usage’ at a young age and for her own state of mind and security she attired and lived as a man.

Despite the shock that the revelations brought to those who knew ‘John’ Campbell, few had scornful words. Her former colleagues in Renfrew started a subscription to support her stating that “a more kindly and obliging worker never was engaged in the yard”. The Earlys, particularly Mrs Early, thought of ‘John’ with such fondness that she could not condemn her. Marie faced charges under the Registration Act for fraudulently contracting a marriage; Mary Ann returned to West Lothian; and life in Pinkerton Lane returned to normal. Yet, everyone who knew Marie, alias John, Campbell continued to remember fondly, the young man who had touched their lives.

About Jeff Meek

Jeff Meek
Jeff is a social scientist and social and cultural historian at Glasgow University. His research to date has examined the experiences of gay and bisexual men in post-war Scotland, as well as tracing the history of same-sex desire from the 17th century to the late 20th century in Scotland.

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