Billy or Sammy Williams c. 1828-1908 United States
gouache on paper, 11 x 7 inches
In the collection of the Minnesota Museum of American Art

Sammy Williams died of apoplexy in Manhattan, Montana, on December 10, 1908. He was reportedly between sixty-eight and eighty years old. Upon preparation for Williams’s burial, a “deathbed discovery” was made: the body was female.

Williams had worked as a lumberjack and a camp cook throughout Montana, the Dakotas, Iowa, and Wisconsin. He had lived in Gallatin County, Montana, for eighteen years. By the time of his death, he had accumulated an estate that included over three hundred acres of land. Apart from the occasional joke about his lack of facial hair, no one had suspected anything, so his death prompted a number of questions. A local resident who remembered seeing him many years earlier in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, wrote to the Chief of Police in Eau Claire in an attempt to gather more information. He received prompt confirmation that Sammy had lived in Wisconsin in the 1870s, but had gone by the name Billy.

Williams was described as short and stout, with black hair, a soft voice, and a slight hunchback. He was “strong as an ox,” and drank, smoked, chewed, and cursed like the rest of his friends. Though his friends admitted to not knowing much about his past, their recollections of Sammy/Billy were positive. He was very popular, respected, and charitable. Many recounted his frequent donations to the poor and visits to the sick or elderly. He was “always willing to lend a hand.” Others recalled that “he never hesitated to go out with the lumberjacks and spend money in the saloons.” He was “a great ladies man” who liked to take the girls out dancing. Letters found among his personal effects revealed that he had several love affairs with women over the years.

Speculation ran wild after Williams’s death as newspapers struggled for explanations. Was “she” spurned by a lover at an early age and thus decided to live as a man? Was it a prank, or the result of a quarrel with “her” parents? Did “she” do it to survive financially? Or, perhaps “she” was just a “strange character”? One version of the story garnered more attention than the others. It suggested that Williams had been a heartbroken Norwegian named Ingeborge Weken who had been jilted as a young girl by her fiancé and thus took up life in the lumber camps. Although this tale quickly spread throughout the country’s newspapers, scholars Peter Boag and Emily Skidmore say it was likely a fanciful tale, a way of “rendering him understandable to mainstream readers.”

On December 12, 1908, Williams was laid to rest. His friends organized the funeral service and collected money for a granite headstone that still stands in Manhattan’s Meadowbrook Cemetery today.


Boag, Peter. Re-Dressing America's Frontier Past. University of California Press, 2011. 

“Death Reveals the Secret.” Yellowstone Monitor 17 Dec. 1908: 8.

““Ingeborge” is Name of “Sammy.”” The Daily Missoulian Morning Edition 1 Jan. 1909: 7.

“Masqueraded as a Man.” The River Press 16 Dec. 1908: 1.

““Sammy Williams,” Nervy Hunchback, Was Woman.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch 20 Dec. 1908: 18.

Brodell, Ria. "Re: Research Question: Sammy Williams." Received by Emily Skidmore, 12 Apr. 2017. Email.

Skidmore, Emily Elizabeth. Exceptional Queerness: Defining the Boundaries of Normative U.S. Citizenship, 1876-1936. Diss. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2011.