Billy or Sammy Williams c. 1828-1908 United States
gouache on paper, 11 x 7 inches
2017
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 to eighty years old. Upon preparation for 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 remembered him from back in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, so he 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 1870’s, 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 recount his frequent donations to the poor and visits to the sick or elderly. He was “always willing to lend a hand.” Others recall 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 amongst his personal effects reveal that he had several love affairs with women over the years.

Speculation ran wild after Williams’ death as newspapers struggled for explanations. Was ‘she’ spurned by a lover at an early age and 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 garnered more attention than the others. It presented a story about a heartbroken young Norwegian girl named Ingeborge Weken who had been jilted by her fiancé and thus took up life in the lumber camps. This tale quickly spread throughout the country’s newspapers. According to scholars, Professor Peter Boag and Professor Emily Skidmore, 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.


Sources:



“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.

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

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.