Ellen Tremaye was not like most of the other passengers aboard the Ocean Monarch, a ship sailing from Ireland to Victoria, Australia in 1856. Though the 26-year-old, Irish domestic servant was traveling alone, she brought along a trunk full of men’s clothes labeled “Edward de Lacy Evans,” fueling speculation that she had been abandoned by a suitor after being tricked into bringing his belongings aboard. Then there was her unusual behavior: She wore the same green dress every day, but with trousers and a man’s shirt underneath. She told her fellow passengers that she was going to marry her ship-mate, Mary Delahunty, as soon as they reached Australia, and she reportedly had “intimate friendships” with two other women who shared her bunk at various points in the voyage.
In the late 1800s, Australia was a collection of untamed colonies. Like the American West, it was in the throes of a gold rush, overrun by outlaws, and gradually being settled by increasing numbers of white people. At the same time, it was still governed by Christian and Anglo-Saxon social mores, with male public officials claiming that the declining birth rate could be attributed to “selfish women” who suffered from an overabundance of “love of luxury and social pleasures.”
When Tremaye arrived, she found a job as a maid for a married couple in Bacchus Marsh, northwest of Melbourne. One day when the man of the house was out of town, Tremaye spent the night with his wife, and the husband horsewhipped her when he returned, according to research by Lucy Chesser in the Journal of Women’s History.
Tremaye soon left the job and traveled to Melbourne. We don’t know precisely what drove what happened next, but at this point Tremaye transformed forever. He began using the name Edward De Lacy Evans, started dressing in men’s clothes, and married Delahunty. (In line with Evans’ apparent wish to live as a man, I’ll use male pronouns from this point forward.)
According to accounts from the time, the couple “did not live comfortably together,” and they separated in 1862.
Over the next two decades, Evans went on to remarry twice, all while working as a miner and blacksmith around Australia’s southeast, according to a history of Evans by the historian Mimi Colligan.
It seemed that Evans’ maleness was accepted by both his wives and neighbors, though his fellow miners occasionally referred to him as “old woman,” Colligan points out, suggesting that his physical womanhood might have been an open secret.
Evans’ third wife, Julia Marquand, eventually had a child by her brother-in-law, sparking bitterness between the couple. He began lashing out at Marquand and her daughter, and he gradually descended into a deep depression.
In 1879, Evans was committed to the Lunacy Ward of the Bendigo Hospital and diagnosed with “amentia,” a general, anachronistic term for mental illness. To avoid being discovered, Evans simply refused to bathe.
After six weeks, however, he was moved to the Kew Asylum, a psychiatric hospital in the Melbourne suburbs. There, he was stripped, and his gender discovered.
“The fellers there took hold o’ me to give me a bath, an’ they stripped me to put me in the water, an’ then they saw the mistake. One feller ran off as if he was frightened; the others looked thunderstruck an’ couldn't speak. I was handed over to the women, and they dressed me up in frocks and petticoats,” Evans later said of the experience.
Doctors diagnosed him with “cerebral mania” and “mental weakness,” and offered him only female attire to wear. He refused to wear it, or to eat, for days at a time. Over the course of Evans’ three-month treatment, physicians subjected him to extensive vaginal and rectal probing, during which he reportedly “sobbed and wept.”
Marquand later claimed she had no knowledge of Evans’ biological sex—he never let her see him changing, she would later attest. Colligan points out that this is not as far-fetched as it sounds: A few other documented cases of women posing as men at the time involved stories of strap-on dildos used for sex. For Marquand, though, this might also have been a face-saving excuse. She also later claimed that she did not know how she got pregnant, and that she must have mistaken an intruding “real man” for Evans when he snuck into her house.