Who was Lucy Ann Lobdell? Bill Klaber struggled with that question for years, and now he’s answered it in a richly imagined historical novel, “The Rebellion of Lucy Ann Lobdell.” It’s his take on a larger-than-life local character, who perplexed, scandalized and sometimes amused 19th century America. Lobdell’s rebellion, according to Klaber, “was taking off women’s clothes and putting on men’s clothes”—a simple act, but one with far-reaching and ultimately tragic consequences.
Lucy Ann was born and raised on Basket Creek in Fremont Center. While in her early 20s, she slipped out of her parent’s house and set off for Honesdale wearing clothes belonging to her brother. She was determined to live life as a man.
Basket Creek is also Klaber’s home, and it’s not a stretch to say that he never would have written this book had he lived anywhere else. He first heard about Lucy Ann from Jack Niflot, a local historian who had been gathering material about her for years. Niflot hoped to unearth a rumored autobiography, or perhaps write a history of her life, but the firsthand account couldn’t be found and the factual record was sketchy. Stymied, he turned to Bill Klaber. Niflot first teased Klaber with the story, then handed him two satchels stuffed with all the documents he’d collected. Lucy Ann’s legend was now in Bill Klaber’s hands.
Like Niflot before him, Klaber set out to write a non-fiction account, but abandoned the effort. There was enough material for a “dull book” he says, but he couldn’t hope to do justice to his subject if he was bound by the known facts. Lucy Ann had re-invented herself; now it seemed Klaber would have to reinvent her as well. It was a daunting task for a writer who had never tackled fiction.
While researching his subject, Klaber relied on the Wayne County Historical Society. There he plowed through old editions of The Wayne Independent and the Hancock Herald. As he pursued his subject, he learned more about Lucy Ann, but he also discovered a vanished world—one where young women were encouraged to use beauty aids called “lady plumpers”—devices inserted in the mouth to fill out the cheeks. Lucy Ann was expert with a rifle; she could down a panther with a single shot and live alone in the woods for months on end. She would never wear lady plumpers to please a man.
When Lucy Ann, who now called herself Joseph Lobdell, arrived in Honesdale in the early 1850s, it was still a rough-and-ready canal town. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter” had recently been published and was creating a stir. Details like this give the book the feel of a contemporary account; it’s easy to forget you’re reading a 21st century novel.
There’s another way in which Klaber’s book is true to its time—the author doesn’t superimpose contemporary psychosexual terms on his subject. Although Lucy Ann lived as a man and even took a wife, Klaber doesn’t label her transgender. He only uses the term lesbian when it was applied to Lobdell by a doctor, in 1883. (This may be the first time the word was ever used to describe a woman who was sexually attracted to women.)
Klaber spent 14 years writing his book; he’s had a lot of time to consider his one-of-a-kind subject. In the end, he concluded that Lucy Ann’s rebellion was essentially political, not sexual. In 1882, when she was incarcerated in an insane asylum, her wife, Marie Louise Perry wrote: “The abuse and injustice which she often has to endure, and which has such a crushing influence upon her existence, seems to be a wrong on the part of the administrators of the law and the [exclusively male] voters who create them.” The words may have been Perry’s, but they were also the sentiments of the very rebellious Lucy Ann Lobdell.
[Editor’s note: On Friday, July 26 at 7 p.m., the author will give a reading from “The Rebellion of Lucy Ann Lobdell” at the Tusten-Cochecton Library in Narrowsburg, NY on Bridge Street.]