Dakota Datebook

Mrs. Corporal Noonan

Thursday, December 30, 2004

Truth is stranger than fiction, as confirmed in today’s story, which appeared in the Bismarck Tribune on this date in 1878. “Not long ago,” the story read, a trance medium arrived in Bismarck, and the coterie of spiritualists of the city have been quietly conversing with the spirits of the departed, through the gifted medium, until they unhesitatingly declare that better mediumistic powers have never before been developed.”

The reporter was impressed enough to ask for a private sitting with the medium. The story says he had no particular person he wanted to contact when the séance began, but he didn’t have to wait long before the spirit of Mrs. Noonan appeared. She had died at Fort Lincoln less than two months earlier.

Mrs. Noonan did laundry for the 7th Cavalry and also acted as a midwife for the surrounding territory during her years at the fort. She married a man named Clifford in 1869, then James Nash two years later, and then Corporal John Noonan two years after that.

On November 4th, Mrs. Noonan died after a two-week illness. Before she died, she asked to see a priest and told a fellow laundress she wanted to be buried in the clothes she was wearing at the time of her death. After her death, however, the laundresses thought it was indecent to just put her in her coffin as she was; they decided to bathe her and bury her in a nicer dress. What they discovered set off a string of events that made national headlines. Mrs. Noonan was a man.

The Bismarck Tribune wrestled with a way to report the story. The Corporal and his wife had been married five years, during which Mrs. Noonan had worn fine fashions at the fort’s festivities and gatherings. A reporter wrote, “(Corp. Noonan) will probably swear when he hears the sad news. The deceased was in the habit of shaving every day, and in that way kept down a heavy beard. He was a Mexican with coarse voice and masculine looks all over. The secret of the unnatural union…may be clothed in some dark mystery.”

The story did compliment Mrs. Noonan, however, for keeping a clean home that was nicely decorated, inside and out. She was respected for her work, but she didn’t have many friends among the other women, who considered her “something” between a man and a woman.

Meanwhile, Corp. Noonan was out in the field with the 7th Cavalry. When they returned and learned what the women had discovered, Noonan was not only grief-stricken, his fellow soldiers ostracized him. Noonan soon deserted. A Tribune reporter found him in the stables of the lower garrison on Nov. 28th and talked to him. Noonan was absolutely adamant that he didn’t know his wife was a man. In fact, he said, they had been trying very hard to have a baby.

“I dare not say that the medical officers were wrong,” Noonan said, “but I know that I am right, and I know that my wife was a woman. There is some terrible mystery about this thing that I can’t understand.” Two days later, Noonan shot himself through the heart.

At the Bismarck séance a month later, the reporter said Mrs. Noonan’s apparition told him her real name was Joseph Drummond; he had become a woman to hide a terrible crime committed in Washington D.C. 15 years earlier. Of her husband, Mrs. Noonan’s spirit said, “I deceived him from the time of our marriage. He always believed me to be a woman, and I was afraid to reveal my sex or name, for fear he would drive me from him and tell what I had done.”

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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