By D.J. Richardson
Just as written history has overwhelmingly focused on the stories of men, rather than women, it has also focused almost exclusively on the relationships of straight men and their women (wives, mistresses, etc.). Finding evidence and detail about LGBTQ relationships in the historical record can be a difficult search, and often requires reading between the lines. The region and era in which Flora Ross lived—the colonial west in the mid-19th Century—provides an insight into the difficulty in locating such people and relationships, with one clear exception.
The exception is the relatively well-documented life of John Butts, an Australian immigrant who arrived in Victoria in 1858, at the age of twenty-one, after having lived in San Francisco for several years. His sexuality in San Francisco had been widely acknowledged. He was routinely referred to in newspapers as the “boy Butts”—a name that continued to be used in references to him in Victoria’s Daily Colonist newspaper after his arrival in Victoria. Newspapers in San Francisco also gave him a brief second nickname—the “notorious John Butts”—after a string of petty thefts received extensive coverage, but the name appears to have been issued for the purpose of mocking the young man rather than suggesting any reason to fear him.
In Victoria, Butts found employment as the city’s bell ringer and town crier, though his continuing inability to refrain from petty theft and other minor crimes eventually robbed him of his employment. The crime that received the most attention was his arrest in January 1860 on charges of sodomy, against the “rather good-looking” sixteen year-old William Williams, as he was described by the British Colonist newspaper in an article that seemed to both condemn the crime and acknowledge that it was understandable given the young man’s appearance. Butts was acquitted of the charges by a second jury, after the first could not come to agreement, partly due to witnesses who contradicted some of Williams’ testimony, and to Butts’ own spirited defense, which didn’t firmly deny that the act had taken place, but asserted that it was part of a conspiracy to deprive him of his property. But while Butts was acquitted, his ongoing life of petty crime eventually led to his banishment from the colony in 1866, on the Rodoma headed to China.
Victoria newspapers documented the life of John Butts, in part because of his recurrent court appearances, and in part because his oversized personality ensured that he stood out in a town of about six thousand residents (by the time of his banishment). But other LGBTQ residents, their relationships, and the lives they led, rarely received attention. Or when they did, they were described in terms that are difficult to recognize by today’s standards. Derogatory terms such as “molly” and “boy” recognized the existence of LGBTQ citizens in that era, but modern constructs of LGBTQ relationships and the entire concept of “pride” were simply nonexistent at the time, and as a result any queer identity tended to be disclosed in veiled terms.
An example of such a potential LGBTQ relationship is the tragic relationship of Thomas Searle and Charles Henry Blenkinsop. Whether the relationship was merely a deep friendship or a true romance is subject to how the reader interprets the little evidence that survives. But it is described here as an example of the efforts that are required to locate and confirm LGBTQ relationships before the post-Stonewall era, and absent court proceedings for sodomy charges.
The Hudson’s Bay Company bark Princess Royal arrived in Victoria on February 27, 1864, on a voyage from London. Among the Royal Navy seamen onboard was “young apprentice” Thomas Searle. And among the passengers was sixteen year-old Charles Henry Blenkinsop, who was the son of a Hudson’s Bay Company family then resident in Victoria, and who was returning home after six years of education in London. Blenkinsop and Searle had developed a close bond on the ship. The British Colonist explained in an entry published a few days later that, during the voyage, Blenkinsop “became warmly attached to the young man Searle … who had attended [Blenkinsop] with brotherly solicitude during the voyage.” [Colonist, March 5, 1864, p. 3]. Of course, such words might mean nothing more than a close friendship. But the circumstances raise substantial questions.
The Princess Royal departed Victoria the following morning, and given the small size of Victoria’s harbor, it was towed into the strait by the Hudson’s Bay Company’s longtime coastal steamer, the Otter. As it was being towed, Searle was sent up the rigging to “loose the main-top gallant sail.” While aloft, Searle slipped from the main top-gallant yard and fell to the deck below. The scene that followed is described in gruesome detail in a brief article published in the BritishColonist newspaper, as crewmates had difficulty quickly transporting Searle to the local Royal Hospital on the Otterbecause some of his broken leg bones had been driven into the wooden deck of the Princess Royal by the force of his fall. Dr. Dickson of the Royal Hospital described Searle’s injuries to the British Colonist as “one of the worst cases he has yet experienced in Victoria.” [British Colonist, February 29, 1864, p. 3]. Searle died that night, in hospital, and was buried at sea two days later, on March 1, 1864.
Blenkinsop died on March 2, 1864, the day after Searle’s burial at sea. His brief death notice was published in the British Colonist two days later, and says nothing direct about the cause of his death. But it is in Blenkinsop’s death notice that the description of his relationship with Searle was mentioned, and was described with the terms “warmly attached” and “brotherly solicitude” as partial explanation for the otherwise unexplained death of this “promising youth.”
Had Blenkinsop died of a fever that had been caught onboard the vessel, or arrived already fatally ill, it is likely that the brief death notice would have indicated something to that effect, rather than describe the nature of his relationship with Searle as a relevant fact in such a brief notice. If Blenkinsop had taken his own life, it is to be expected that it wouldn’t have been mentioned in the death notice.
It is certainly possible that the story of Thomas Searle and Charles Henry Blenkinsop is simply a story of two close friends who died in a bizarre coincidence of timing. Or it may be a tragic love story of two young men, whose relationship only received as much attention as it did in any historical record because of its ending. But like so many LGBTQ relationships from past centuries that might be revealed implicitly in the historical record, we are unlikely to ever know with certainty.
In Her Own Footsteps: Flora Ross and Her Struggle for Identity and Independence in the Colonial West, by D.J. Richardson, will be published on September 15, 2020. Richardson is currently at work on a book about the life of John Butts in San Francisco.