New documentary argues Revolutionary War hero was intersex
By NARA SCHOENBERG | Chicago Tribune | Published: April 4, 2019
(Tribune News Service) — When the skeleton believed to belong to the Revolutionary War hero Casimir Pulaski was first examined by modern scientists in the late 1990s, the results were disappointing.
“You’ll just have to shoot me,” a forensic anthropologist told the head of the scientific team, according to a new Smithsonian Channel documentary.
“It’s a woman. It’s not Pulaski.”
The team soon realized there were at least three possible explanations for the unusual finding: The bones they’d extracted from a well-known monument in Savannah, Ga., may have belonged to someone other than Pulaski. But it was also possible that Pulaski was a biological woman who lived as a man. And it was possible that Pulaski was one of the estimated 1 in 1,500 people who are born intersex, or with bodies that don’t fit neatly into the standard definitions of male and female.
In the documentary — “The General Was Female?” — which premieres Monday, scientists use skeletal remains and DNA testing to make a case that the skeleton was Pulaski’s and that the Polish-born general, widely celebrated in Chicago, was intersex, or what used to be known as a hermaphrodite.
“That’s pretty much the only way to explain the combination of features that we see,” Virginia Hutton Estabrook, Georgia Southern University assistant professor of anthropology, said in an interview. Estabrook participated in the most recent effort to identify the bones, and she appears in the documentary.
“He was so important as a touchstone” for the Polish community, Estabrook told the Tribune. “And it’s kind of cool that in the 21st century, Pulaski can be a touchstone for a different group of people: That, hey, there were intersex people in history, too, and here’s this one who had this really amazing life: heroic, resourceful, all of the features in the American narrative that we value and treasure.”
The documentary is an episode in the Smithsonian Channel's "America's Hidden Stories" series.
Born in Poland in 1745 to an aristocratic family, Pulaski was a skilled cavalry officer and Polish revolutionary who fought Russian domination in his homeland, eventually fleeing to Paris with a bounty on his head. Pulaski made his way to America, where he joined the revolution here. He probably saved George Washington’s life by stalling the British advance at the Battle of Brandywine, according to Maj. Douglas Shores, author of “Kazimierz Pulaski: General of Two Nations,” who is quoted in the documentary.
Pulaski was fatally wounded at age 34 while fighting for the American cause in Savannah.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Catholic and Polish Americans embraced Pulaski’s story. Chicago, home to a large Polish community, still celebrates the general. The first Monday of March, which sometimes falls on Pulaski’s March 6 birthday, has been an Illinois state holiday since 1986. He’s also memorialized with an 18-mile-long street, Pulaski Road, that cuts through all of Chicago from north to south.
The Pulaski skeleton controversy already was raging when Pulaski’s remains were moved to the Savannah monument in 1854, according to Estabrook. Some questioned whether the body dug up from a Savannah plantation for reburial at the monument was actually the general’s. The first modern scientific team to examine the bones in the 1990s struggled to get DNA evidence and failed, according to the documentary, but DNA analysis had improved by 2015, when a successor team that included Estabrook took up the cause. The team, which included anthropology student Lisa Powell and Eastern Michigan University associate professor of anthropology Megan Moore, sent the remains to a DNA laboratory in Canada.
The first DNA test, in which the skeletal remains were compared with those of a grand-niece of Pulaski’s, found that the two subjects were not related. But the results were puzzling, Estabrook said: They indicated that both Pulaski and the niece were from Asia. Researchers determined that the likely explanation was contamination of the bone samples.
A second test, conducted using other bone samples, found that Pulaski and his grand-niece were a match. The results, derived from mitochondrial DNA, weren’t as conclusive as better-known nuclear DNA tests, but the scientist who conducted them said that 99.98 percent of the population would not share the characteristics that these two people shared. Scientists also found that Pulaski’s skeleton was between 5 foot 2 and 5 foot 4, in line with accounts of the general’s height, that the skeleton showed signs of extensive horseback riding, that the skeleton was in the right age range, and that the skeleton had a right hand injury consistent with a battle wound Pulaski was known to have suffered.
“It’s extremely likely that this is Casimir Pulaski,” Estabrook told the Tribune.
The documentary posits that Pulaski had an intersex condition called congenital adrenal hyperplasia, in which a genetic female with XX chromosomes is exposed to high amounts of testosterone in utero and is born with genitals that can look quite masculine. That would explain a document highlighted in the documentary, in which a priest noted that Casimir was baptized at home as a baby due to a “debility” that appears to have precluded a more public baptism.
It would also explain why, despite a markedly female-looking skeleton, Pulaski was raised male and appears to have identified as male all his life.
The pelvis alone will correctly determine a skeleton’s sex 95 percent of the time or more, according to Larry Cochard, an associate professor of medical education at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and the school’s anatomy lab director, told the Tribune. Cochard said that if the pelvic bones look very female to expert eyes, sex can be assessed with close to 100 percent certainty.
Estabrook told the Tribune that in addition to a very female-looking pelvis, the skeleton had a markedly female facial structure and jaw angle.
A report on the scientific team’s findings is in the process of being peer reviewed by the Journal of Forensic Anthropology, Estabrook said.
Pulaski, who never married but engaged in a long correspondence with a female friend, joins a short list of historic figures who are known to have been intersex, according intersex activist Hida Viloria, who appears in the documentary. Viloria could name only one other historic figure, the 19th century French author Herculine Barbin, who wrote a memoir.
Viloria told the Tribune that the documentary has important long-term implications for the intersex community, sometimes referred to as the “Invisible I” in LGBTQIA.
“I do believe having evidence of an intersex historic figure is going to change the way intersex people are viewed and put us on the map in a way we haven’t been,” Viloria said. “We’re out here, and we’re thriving, and we’re in every realm of society, so I think this documentary is going to be a very strong reminder of that and help establish that intersex people are a real and ancient community.”
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