In 1845, something happened in Clarksville, Tennessee, that resulted in a piece in the Clarksville Chronicle that was reprinted in periodicals across the United States, often under titles containing variations of the word “strange.” In brief, the story involves a young person from what appears to have been a prominent family near Nashville, Tennessee, moving to Clarksville as a young man named Aaron Brown and then being identified as female before being taken away by a family member. “Truth Stranger Than Fiction” appeared chronologically close to the incident and is one of the longer reprints of an original article that appears to be now lost.

It’s an interesting piece in a lot of ways. It’s about gender in mid-nineteenth century America and how it was perceived. It gives us a glimpse of what appears to be a dysfunctional family. And it stumbles down the very well-worn path of asserting that reading novels could cause women to lose their minds.

Stylistically, the article wobbles from a clickbaity opening to a tsking close. The introduction by the Chronicle’s editors protests that they have only the best intentions in drawing public attention to the incident, publishing the piece “not to gratify any inordinate thirst for the novel and exciting, but rather to vindicate the name and protect the feelings of a respectable family. Reports, alike prejudicial and unfounded, have probably gone out, which may be best contradicted by an authentic statement of facts as they transpired.”

It’s an interesting performance. A paragraph of psychological analysis is followed by Aaron’s entrance into Clarksville and an editorial shift to jokiness, as the “personage in the garb of a man” is described in terms often employed to refer to young women: “[d]ark flowing locks, lustrous and languid black eyes, and sunny smiles dimpling upon the cheek”. Pronouns are emphasized by italics and used as wisecracks. Aaron’s ignorance that Aaron Brown was a prominent politician is played for chuckles; and the attempt to find work as a tailor is a source of mockery: Aaron is incompetent, as a tailor and—because townspeople identified Aaron as female from the beginning—as a young man. Why doesn’t Aaron remove the jacket? Probably because body shape would be revealed. Why not sit on the bench? Tailors sat cross-legged at that time, a posture that wouldn’t have been habitual with Aaron, who thus would have been exposed as not an actual tailor; also, body shape could have been revealed. Aaron’s inability to handle the heavy fabric from which men’s suits were made is more probably due to a lack of experience in tailoring; the assumption that it was similar to shirt-making may have been a common one.

Having stereotyped Aaron’s feminine aspects, the author then stereotypes the pursuing father, who is presented as the long-suffering patriarch of melodrama; and Aaron becomes an ingrate, spouting defiance in a note and hiding from a loving father. The family’s respectability is emphasized; Aaron’s willfulness is thus reinforced. That the father is so readily recognized as “a highly respectable old gentleman residing near Nashville” hints that the family is prominent—and thereby steers public attention onto every prominent family near Nashville.

By now the authorial jokiness has shifted to ambivalence. Aaron’s story has inspired a citizen of Clarksville to become a protector, hiding Aaron from pursuers, and the author of the piece has stopped mocking. After Aaron is captured, the author shifts to presenting Aaron as insane, assuming that the father will take Aaron to a lunatic asylum. A paragraph sympathizes with the father and his “darling child,” so “passionate” about reading novels that it harms a family; and we’ve circled back to the theme of the first paragraph.

It’s an interesting story leaving a reader with a lot of unanswered questions. What was going on in the family home, that inspired Aaron to flee? Whatever it was, a mere description of it persuaded a family to hide Aaron and fend off pursuers; and the father knew that the only way to get Aaron to come with him was to promise that the two wouldn’t be going home. Who was Aaron? a transman attempting to shape a new life? a young woman trying to escape something in her home life and traveling as a man for safety?

And, of course, did the incident actually happen? Perhaps: women have lived as men in every society, because they found it more freeing; because they found it safer; because they knew that they were structurally women, but actually men. That the piece appeared in a newspaper doesn’t imply that the write-up was truthful. Antebellum newspapers weren’t expected to be filled only with news and advertisements; even four-page, weekly newspapers were basically advertising circulars sprinkled with news and entertaining reading. The piece transcribed here is from the front page of the Schenectady Reflector, which also features a column of real estate ads, two pieces on the death of Andrew Jackson, a poem, an essay on the importance of frugality among wives, an anti-war editorial by John C. Abbott (with a disturbingly detailed description of the explosion of a bomb-shell in New York City weeks earlier), and the transcription of a formal letter from the Emperor of China to the President of the United States. The editor of the Reflector knew a good story when he saw it and reprinted it—and probably didn’t care whether it happened or not.

We care, of course, and it’s frustrating not to know the rest of the story—or how the story appeared in its first incarnation or even when it is supposed to have occurred. The Reflector of July 4 has Aaron coming to Clarksville on “Thursday, 20th ult.,” but 20 June 1845 was a Friday (the only time in early 1845 that the 20th was a Thursday was in March); and the reprint of the article in the 9 July 1845 Cincinnati Herald has Aaron arriving on “Thursday, 29th ult.,” but 29 June 1845 was a Sunday (May was the only month in 1845 when the 29th was a Thursday). Issues of the Clarksville Chronicle for 1845 are missing from online databases.

As a result, the transcription here includes text from two early reprints: the Schenectady Reflector ([Schenectady, New York] 4 July 1845; p. 1) and the Cincinnati Weekly Herald and Philanthropist ([Cincinnati, Ohio] 9 July 1845; p. 2). There are differences in wording: the introduction by the editors of the Clarksville Chronicle is missing in the Herald’s version. Aaron has “[d]ark flowing locks” in the Reflector and “[d]arkly flowing locks” in the Herald; Aaron is captured after a “short struggle” in the Reflector and after a “slight scuffle” in the Herald. Only the Herald reveals that the Chronicle was published in Clarksville, Tennessee. A sentence appears in the Herald that is missing in the Reflector; because it explains an action, it’s been added, in square brackets.
“Truth Stranger Than Fiction” (from the Clarksville Chronicle [Clarksville, Tennessee]; reprinted in Schenectady Reflector [Schenectady, New York] 4 July 1845; p. 1. with text from Cincinnati Weekly Herald and Philanthropist [Cincinnati, Ohio] 9 July 1845; p. 2.)

We take the following strange and romantic story from the Clarksville Chronicle of Tuesday last:

The following article is published, not to gratify any inordinate thirst for the novel and exciting, but rather to vindicate the name and protect the feelings of a respectable family. Reports, alike prejudicial and unfounded, have probably gone out, which may be best contradicted by an authentic statement of facts as they transpired.—Eds. C. C.


The human mind, in some of its [w]ilder moods exhibits at times mysteries more curious than all the phenomena [sic] of the physical world. Strange adventures, wild and fantastic fancies, plans and purposes mysterious, and motives only known to the heart that conceives them. Wo unto those who without the helm of reason are drifted upon the surges of human action, as prey for romance, speculation, and novelty.

On Thursday, 20th [sic] ult., a mild and interesting personage, in the garb of a man, alighted from the stage in this place, and in ten minutes was seeking employment among the tailors. The feminine appearance, soft, sweet voice, and extremely delicate features of this individual led every one to suppose that it was a female. A tidy frock coat, always buttoned, a chapeau gracefully worn, and tidy boots and trowsers [sic] adorned the person of this mysterious visitor. Dark flowing locks, lustrous and languid black eyes, and sunny smiles dimpling upon the cheek, marked this personage as a very handsome and interesting young gentleman, and the knowing ones said she was a GIRL, as in fact she was. She reported herself as having come from Norfolk[,] Virginia. When conversed with by those familiar with Virginia she evinced a perfect familiarity with the geography and scenes of that State.—Every village, every hamlet, everything remarkable in the different roads from Norfolk she remembered and detailed.

Her name was Aaron Brown. ‘That,’ said her landlord to her, ‘is the name of our candidate for Governor.’ ‘Well,’ she replied, ‘I don’t know but I may be a candidate, too, some day.’ She claimed to be a tailor, and on Saturday Mr. L— gave her employment in his shop. She would not pull off her coat, as she was subject to rheumatism—she would not sit upon the tailor’s bench, it was so uncomfortable; she could not sew on tailor’s work at all[ ]well, but when something thin and light was given her she proved herself at home; she could make shirts very well, and made the one she wore. Her mother had taught it to him. She was discovered to blush at every uncouth expression uttered in her presence, and shrunk from each familiar approach. Curiosity was on the alert, gossip was on tiptoe; and HE or SHE, as this interesting visitor was promiscuously styled, became quite a hero or heroine.

On Saturday morning an old gentleman with sad and care-worn features, alighted at the Native American Hotel. He was her father, and happened, as guided by some invisible friend, to put up where his daughter was staying. [They met, but he did not recognize his daughter.] She paused at a gentleman’s gate, stepped in, and politely asked for the kind favor of a pen and ink, to write a note. In a few moments her distressed old father received the following brief billet:

“I am in this place; I have seen you, but despair of finding ME! I will elude you.

“Farewell forever. Your Daughter.”

Her father was recognized to be a highly respectable old gentleman residing near Nashville. Every one was touched with sympathy at his apparent suffering and distress, and all were anxious to assist him in reclaiming his wayward daughter.

After a various and unsuccessful search on Sunday evening, it was at length ascertained where she was concealed, and a few gentlemen repaired to the house, but the person who was concealing the object of their search, resisted their en[tr]ance and refused to give her up. They returned, and having obtained a process of law, repaired again to the house. It seems that this new friend and his wife had heard her story, and become interested in behalf of the poor unfortunate wanderer thus pursued. A short struggle ensued, which fortunately resulted in injury to no one, and she was taken captive, but not until she had attempted to draw a bowie knife with which she had been provided for her defence. In a moment she was in her father’s arms and fell upon his neck weeping bitterly, but declared that she would not go home. He then promised her that he would not go home, but would carry her to a place he had selected, (we suppose it to be the Lunatic Asylum,) and she consented to go with him. It only remained to provide a more suitable dress, and those unhappy visitors who had excited such an interest, departed on their journey at the dead hour of night.

The father of this unf[or]tunate female evinced for her the deepest and most tender feeling—why should he not? She was, and ever had been a darling child. He could not, he said, believe her conduct criminal, nor did any one else. She had been from childhood, affectionate and dutiful, and exemplary in conduct. He had discovered for many days before she left home, a certain degree of melancholy upon her. She had long been passionately fond of reading novels, and the passion had grown upon her until she deserted every other employment. Some vision of romance had flitted before the eyes of this unhappy girl, and alas! she pursued it until she had nearly ruined herself, and broken the hearts of a doting family.

Copyright 1999-2019, Pat Pflieger
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