When the American revolutionary war hero Casimir Pulaski was baptized in Warsaw, Poland, in 1745, his parents opted for a ceremony at home, due to an unspecific “debility.” For centuries, historians assumed that this was ordinary post-natal weakness, not uncommon among newborns in 18th-century Poland. Now, however, following new DNA analysis on Pulaski’s skeleton by forensic anthropologists working out of Georgia, US, there’s a new explanation: Pulaski may have been born with indeterminate genitalia, and his parents keen to keep them under wraps.
In a Smithsonian Channel documentary to air tomorrow (April 8), scientists from institutions including Georgia Southern University and Eastern Michigan University explained how they initially assumed bones exhumed from a Savannah, Georgia, monument to the military hero must have been misattributed, as the skeleton was clearly female. Analysis of DNA samples from the remains and from Pulaski’s grand-niece, however, seemed to suggest a likely, if not certain, match. The skeleton was also around the right height—between 5 ft 2 and 5 ft 4, according to contemporary accounts—and age, with characteristic similarities, including a known right hand injury and signs of extensive horseback riding.
The skeleton believed to be Pulaski’s, at first glance, appears female; evidence from his life has led researchers to conclude that Pulaski was either a trans man or intersex, with some female and some male characteristics (without more specific genetic evidence researchers can’t know for sure which one). Their current thesis is that the bones do belong to Pulaski, who may have been either biologically female or born intersex, with a body that was neither obviously male or female. They suggest that he may have been born with a condition called congenital adrenal hyperplasia: genitals that look masculine, combined with XX chromosomes, produced by overexposure to testosterone while in the womb. (Intersex people make up as much as 1.7% of the population, though their traits may not be spotted until puberty or later.)
“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, told the Chicago Tribune.
Pulaski joins a short list of other historical figures whose remains have suggested that they were either transgender or intersex. The British doctor, James Barry, who issued strict instructions after his death not to examine his body, is believed to have been biologically female, precipitating sometimes heated debate about the ethics of “out”-ing the dead as trans. In similar circumstances, the death of Charley Parkhurst, an American stagecoach driver, made the national news in 1879 (paywall), following the discovery of his “true sex.”
This story has been updated to correct a misspelling of Charley Parkhurst’s name.