She Assumed the Identity of a Man, Married a Woman – and Was Beheaded for It

The story of Catharina Linck, the last woman in Europe executed for lesbian acts

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Illustrations of Catherina Linck as a woman, and as a man.
Illustrations of Catherina Linck as a woman, and as a man.Credit: Württemberg State Library
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

It happened in November 1721, 300 years ago this month, in the city of Halberstadt in Prussia (today in Germany). These days, Catharina Margaretha Linck would likely be termed a transgender man, but in the 18th century, she was condemned for performing an “act of sodomy” which she was induced to do by Satan – no less. Disguising herself as a man, she married a woman and had sexual relations with her. For that she was condemned to death.

The past month wasn’t one of the best for the world’s trans community. In Israel, a trans man was attacked by students at a Tel Aviv high school. In Russia, President Vladimir Putin forbade teaching about transgender rights in the country’s schools, describing such instruction as “a crime against humanity.” In Malaysia, a trans woman managed to flee the country just before she was sent to a “rehabilitation camp.” On the other hand, the global trans community could take heart from news out of Germany – the very place where the brutal events involving Linck occurred – to the effect that two trans people were elected to parliament in October.

Little is known about Linck’s life. In fact, the sole source of information about her are court documents drawn up three centuries ago, summing up the incriminating evidence against her. She was born in 1687 in the city of Halle, the illegitimate child of a widow who was impregnated by a soldier. She grew up in an orphanage, which she left in her youth to embark on a series of adventures that would end with her death.

After setting out on her new path, she assumed the identity of a young man, subsequently changing her names, livelihoods and religious affiliation (between Catholic and Lutheran). At one point she joined a nomadic group, which was described in the court documents as a cult whose members were fortune tellers. She fled from them after persuading two men they could walk on water – both of whom drowned. Afterward she held various jobs, including as a swineherd and a textile worker, until adopting a military career in 1705.

A famous case in 18th-century Italy was that of Catterina Vizzani, who was persecuted and murdered after assuming the identity of a man. Credit: G.Dallorto

Linck served in three different armies, in Prussia and Poland, as a musketeer, under a number of names, including Anastasius Lagrantinus Rosenstengel, Cornelius Hubsch and Peter Wannich. Around this time she started to have sexual relations with women, using a device that the documents describe as a “device made of stuffed leather,” to which were attached small sacks made of pigskin, meant to simulate testicles, with the whole apparatus tied to her body with straps. Tiring of army life, she went AWOL, was caught and sentenced to death. In her defense she asserted that she was a woman. Her punishment was reduced and after a few weeks in prison she was released.

In 1717, Linck married a woman. The relations between the two had its ups and downs, until the bride’s suspicions were provoked: One night she examined her partner’s body closely. She acceded to Linck’s importuning not to turn her in to the authorities, but afterward the partner’s mother put an end to their relationship when she discovered that the groom was, according to the perception at that time, a woman posing as a man. The mother thrashed Linck, tore off her pants and confiscated the device, which was later presented in court as evidence. The mother-in-law didn’t realize that by taking legal steps, she would endanger her daughter as well (the daughter was charged with sodomy).

The couple was put on trial. The charge sheet against Linck was voyeuristic, intrusive and humiliating, with detailed descriptions of the accused’s body and of sexual acts, as well as allegations of abusiveness and violence on her part. In the trial, she was accused of having sexual relations with various young women, widows and prostitutes, while disguised as a man. In Linck’s defense, there were arguments to the effect that the Bible does not expressly forbid sexual relations between women. It was also argued that because the device was artificial, what she had done did not fit the definition of an “act of sodomy.” Physicians who examined her body found that she was a “woman” in every respect and not a hermaphrodite.

The judges pondered the charges and the appropriate punishment. Finally, they condemned Linck to death; she was beheaded and her body was cremated. The punishment was authorized by King William Fredrick I himself. It emerges that Linck was the last woman to be executed in Europe for performing lesbian sexual acts; men were subsequently executed, however, for having sexual relations with men.

The pirate-woman Mary Read.

History mentions several other women who used various ploys to “disguise themselves” as men, deceived their wives and were tried. Mary Hamilton, who was born in Somerset, England, and grew up in Scotland, started to wear her brother’s clothes when she was a child. As a young adult she passed herself off as a doctor, though lacking any training. At the time, no one was suspicious when she wore “masculine” trousers.

In 1746, in her new identity as Dr. Charles Hamilton, Mary married a woman. Two months later, the wife turned her “husband” in to the authorities, claiming Hamilton had deceived her and made her believe she was a man. Hamilton was convicted of “vagrancy,” a charge that included various counts, and whose purpose was for the authorities to show the public that they sought to ensure proper social order. The verdict stated: “We, the Court, do sentence her or him, whichever he or she may be, to be imprisoned six months, and during that time, to be whipped.” A device she had used was described in the case by a contemporary as a “means which decency forbids [one] even to mention.”

Thereafter, women like Hamilton were termed “female husbands” and eventually entered the history books as “transgender pioneers.” There’s a Wikipedia entry today for “female husband,” but it’s doubtful whether such individuals, from centuries past, can be termed transgender, since the term did not exist in their time.

A famous case in 18th-century Italy was that of Catterina Vizzani, who wore men’s clothes from a young age and assumed the identity of a man she called Giovanni Bordoni. She married a woman in Rome, but the bride’s uncle, a priest, discovered her identity and had her assassinated. After her death the physicians discovered that she was a virgin. That “discovery” led her admirers to maintain that she deserved to be canonized, because she had succeeded in preserving her virginity despite the many temptations she encountered.

The pirate-woman Mary Read, a contemporary of Catherina Linck, was born into a poor English family at the end of the 17th century. Her mother forced her to disguise herself as a man in order to continue to receive money from her grandmother, who had supported her brother financially and didn’t know he had died. Read assumed a new identity as Mark Read, enlisted in the British Navy, fell in love (as a woman) with a Dutch sailor, switched to the side of the Dutch and sailed to far-off destinations.

On one of her journeys the ship was attacked by pirates. Most of the crew were killed, but Read survived and joined the ranks of her captors, as was the custom at the time. Even after her secret was revealed, the pirates did not change their attitude toward her. In 1720, while anchored in Jamaica, the pirates were stopped by a British patrol boat and taken captive after a short battle. Read was spared punishment because she claimed she was pregnant. The others were hanged. Read died shortly afterward in prison.

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