Statue of Casimir Pulaski, Washington, D.C. Photo by Thad Zajdowicz.
One of the most famous men of the American Revolution was Gen. Casimir Pulaski, despite the fact Pulaski was not even an American – at least not until 2009, when President Barack Obama signed legislation conferring posthumous honorary citizenship on the Polish military hero.
Now researchers have determined that Pulaski probably was not a man, either, depending on how one defines the term.
Unless you are a Revolutionary War buff or happen to be from Illinois, which honors Pulaski with a holiday in March (or unless you happen to be a fan of mid-2000s indie music made by songwriters with Chicago connections), you may not be familiar with Pulaski. Pulaski was a Polish nobleman who fled his home country after participating in an effort to dislodge Russian control there. Pulaski wound up in Paris, where Benjamin Franklin and the Marquis de Lafayette recruited him to serve in the American Revolution. Pulaski served with distinction; he was influential in the development of the American forces’ cavalry and is believed to have saved George Washington’s life at the Battle of Brandywine in 1777. Both Americans and Poles consider him a war hero, and Chicago’s significant Polish population largely explains Illinois’ decision to make Pulaski’s birthday a holiday.
Pulaski received a fatal wound during the Battle of Savannah and was buried in Georgia. Scientists examined the skeleton in the late 1990s when the monument marking Pulaski’s grave in Savannah was temporarily removed, and they were puzzled to find that the remains appeared to have distinctively female characteristics. This created three possibilities: the remains were not Pulaski’s after all; Pulaski was biologically female but lived as a man, either for the increased freedom it afforded or because he was what we would today recognize as transgender; or Pulaski was intersex, a person born with physical characteristics that do not fit typical definitions of male or female.
Recently, DNA testing eliminated the first possibility, leading us to view Pulaski in a new, more complex light, as a recent documentary describes. “The General Was Female?” premiered last night on the Smithsonian Channel as part of the “America’s Hidden Stories” series and will re-air today (April 9th) at 1 p.m. EDT.
After forensic anthropologist Charles Merbs and forensic scientist Karen Burns noted clear indications that the skeleton was female in the ‘90s, they looked for damage to the skeleton consistent with Pulaski’s history as an equestrian and with injuries he was known to have suffered, including the wound that reportedly killed him. That examination confirmed that the injuries to the skeleton were consistent with Pulaski’s known biography. Merbs and Burns then located the remains of Pulaski’s grandniece, hoping to see if they could establish a DNA match. However, at the time, such testing was not yet advanced enough to offer conclusive results.
In 2015 three other researchers decided to test Merbs and Burns’ findings, which had been classified as opinion in the intervening years. They tested the bones and found a positive match with Pulaski’s relation (whose grave was excavated), confirming that the skeleton was almost certainly Pulaski.
The first of the three possibilities has been eliminated, but what about the idea that Pulaski had female sex characteristics but lived as a man? There are plenty of records of women living as men in history, allowing them to fight in wars, practice medicine or access other work and experiences not otherwise open to them. Some portion of these historical examples were probably transgender men, though historians caution that it is difficult to determine a particular individual’s gender experience from our modern vantage point. For instance, pioneering 19th-century surgeon James Barry was born Margaret Ann Bulkley, a discovery made only after Barry’s death. Based on Barry’s papers and contemporary accounts, it is impossible to know whether Barry was a transgender man or a cisgender woman who was committed to excelling in a field that would have been otherwise out of reach. (This has not stopped authors of both fiction and nonfiction about Barry from drawing their own conclusions, and inevitably creating pushback in doing so.) Either way, unlike Pulaski, we know that Barry was understood to be a girl as a child and later took active steps to be perceived as a man.
Pulaski, on the other hand, was raised as a boy, and historical documents support the idea that those around him treated him as a man throughout his life. The Smithsonian documentary, its title aside, makes the argument that based on what we know, Pulaski being intersex seems the most likely explanation for the information we have. Merbs told the BBC that he found it unlikely Pulaski understood himself to be in any way female or intersex in an era when gender variation was much less understood than it is today. “Back in those days, they just didn’t know,” Merbs said.
Virginia Hutton Estabrook, an assistant professor of anthropology at Georgia Southern University and one of the more recent group of researchers, agrees that Pulaski being intersex is the most logical assumption based on the existing evidence. Pulaski as an intersex individual is “pretty much the only way to explain the combination of features that we see,” Hutton Estabrook told the Chicago Tribune. In the documentary, researchers theorize that Pulaski may have had a condition called congenital adrenal hyperplasia, in which an individual with XX chromosomes receives high doses of testosterone in utero, which can result in genitals that appear masculine at birth. Potential ambiguity about Pulaski’s sex could also explain why his parents opted to baptize him at home, rather than publicly.
An estimated 1 in 1,500 people are born intersex, an umbrella term that can encompass various sorts of gender variation. Intersex characteristics may be noticeable at birth, or they may not be obvious until puberty; occasionally, the individual may not know until he or she is seeking treatment for infertility or undergoing other medical procedures. Even today, some people may go their entire lives without knowing they are intersex, and the reality is discovered during an autopsy or not at all. The matter is further complicated by the fact that humans, usually doctors, must decide where to draw the lines between “male,” “female” and “intersex” based on varying criteria. Given all of this variation, it is unsurprising that some intersex people find their biology central to their gender identity, while others do not; being intersex and being transgender are two distinct experiences, though some individuals are both.
The discovery that Pulaski’s biology was more complicated than historians expected is a timely reminder that biological variation has always been a part of the human experience. This discovery may make Pulaski more interesting to people who now can see themselves reflected in this 18th century hero, while of course doing nothing at all to diminish Pulaski’s heroism or his place in history.