The Extraordinary Story of
'Eliza' Edwards


NOTE: In January 1833 a person known as Eliza Edwards died of a lung infection at the age of twenty-four. ‘Miss Edwards’, who sometimes used the professional name Lavinia, had appeared on the stage since the age of 14. She excelled in tragic roles, mainly in Tewkesbury, Norwich and other provincial theatres. During the past few years she had been supported by different gentleman. Her most recent protector was Tom Grimstead, of a noted family in Leatherhead, who paid her rent on Linden Cottage, Clarence Gardens, Regent’s Park. But at the time of her death, she had fallen on hard times, and had sold her piano, her jewels, her stage dresses, and even her walking-dress. At her death, letters from various gentlemen were found among her few possessions, most of them making arrangements for meetings in Jermyn Street or at the corner of Conduit Street, or a few hours’ visit at her apartment. As no friends or relations came forward to claim Eliza Edwards’ body, it was sent to Guy’s Hospital for dissection. There it was discovered to be the body of a perfect man. In other words, ‘Miss Edwards’, with his beautiful long hair in ringlets and pierced ears, was a female impersonator and the male equivalent of a kept woman. It is hard to believe that the men who kept him were not aware of his true sex, but it is possible to see him as a transgender individual whose physical characteristics resembled those of the opposite sex. At the subsequent inquest, which was so packed out with medical students that beadles had difficulty keeping order, two men confirmed that they had known Mister Edwards in Dublin many years ago, where he was an actor, and alternately passed for a man or a woman. The inquest was widely reported in the newspapers, of which the following reports are typical.


EXTRAORDINARY INVESTIGATION.

Yesterday evening an inquest was held at the Coach and Horses, Flood-street, Westminster, on the body of a person who has been known for years by the name of Eliza Edwards, about 24 years of age, who died under the following extraordinary circumstances:– The deceased and a sister resided in Union-court, Orchard-street, Westminster, and both were supposed to be kept women. Last week the deceased died, and there being no claimants for the body, it was taken to Guy's Hospital for dissection, when it was at once discovered, to the surprise of every one, that the deceased was a perfect man. This circumstance was communicated to the parish authorities, and on a representation being made by them to Lord Melbourne, directions were given to the Coroner to summon a jury. The jury-room was crowded to excess, and after the Jury were sworn, they proceeded to view the body of the deceased. It was of very effeminate appearance. There was no beard beyond that of a boy of seventeen, and the whiskers seemed as if they had been plucked out with a pair of tweezers. The hair of the head was light-brown, and upwards of two feet long behind, of a soft glossy texture, and the whole appearance of the countenance was like that of a female.
          Dr. Clutterbuck, of Bridge-street, Blackfriars, examined the body of the deceased at the request of Dr. Somerville, and he identified the deceased as the individual whom he had attended for a dangerous inflammation, but Dr. Clutterbuck had no idea at the time that it was a man he prescribed for; he attended deceased previously at the request of a Mr. Thomas Smith, under whose protection the deceased lived.
          Maria Edwrds, aged 17, who had passed as the deceased's sister, stated, that she had lived with the deceased constantly for the last ten yars, and always thought him to be a female; she never knew to the contrary; the deceased was a performer, and travelled about the country playing female characters; they had been in London three years, and the deceased during that time was supported by different gentlemen; lately he had been very ill and reduced; "about three o-clock on Thursday morning the deceased called me up and said, 'Maria, I am dying; it has pleased God to call me,' and in about five minutes the deceased expired; he played in the names of Miss Walstein and Miss Edwards, and in the country took the first line of tragedy."
          Mary Mortimer had known the deceased for ten years, and said that he always appeared as a lady-like woman; witness had frequently slept with the deceased, but never knew or supposed he was a man.
          The Coroner and Jury expressed the greatest astonishment at the evidence, and, after some conversation, a Juror said, that although there was no doubt of the identity of the body, he considered it disrespectful in not having the attendance of the medical gentlemen from Guy's Hospital, and he thought they ought to adjourn, which was agreed to, until to-morrow evening.
          In the course of the proceedings, several letters and other documents were read, which were found on the deceased. It appeared from their contents, that the father of the deceased was a Lieutenant-Colonel in the East India service, adn died when the deceased was young, who was brought up under the protection of his uncle, from whom he eloped at the age of 14, in Dec. 1823. He first appeared in public at Norwich, in the character of Isabella, in The Fatal Marriage. The above is from one of his own letters addressed to a gentleman, and he signed himself "Lavinia Walstein." In others he is addressed by gentlemen as a female, and they forward him money for his support. They were in the most affectionate terms. One gentleman met the deceased in Regent-street, and was so enraptured, that he writes and implores another interview; but it does not appear that it was granted. It also appeared the deceased was introduced to the Stage by the celebrated Talma. He must have carried his impositions to a great extent, but from his appearance no one could tell him from a female. (Morning Chronicle, Thursday, 24 January 1833)

. . . The inquest terminated last night, after an examination of evidence unfit to meet the public eye. The body of the wretch had undergone a previous examination by the surgeons of Guy's Hospital, and proved its sex, and the disgusting habits of the deceased. A verdit of "Died by the visitation of God" was returned, accompanied with a suggestion that some public mark of ignominy should attend the disposal of the remains. (Jackson's Oxford Journal, Saturday, 26 January 1833 [the rest of the story repeats that of the Morning Chronicle])

. . . On Thursday the investigation was resumed, when circumstances of an extraordinary character appeared, but totally unfit for publication. The body had been four hours in the hands of the anatomists before the sex of the deceased was discovered. One or two gentlemen came forward, and stated that the deceased belonged to Dublin. The Jury returned the following verdict:– "That the deceased died by the visitation of God; and in returning this verdict, the Jury are compelled to express their horror at the unnatural conduct the deceased had evidently indulged in, and strongly recommend to the proper authorities, that some means may be adopted in the disposal of the body which will mark the ignominy of the crime." (Belfast News-Letter, Tuesday, 29 January 1833)


CITATION: If you cite this Web page, please use the following citation:
Rictor Norton (Ed.), "The Extraordinary Story of 'Eliza' Edwards, 1833", Homosexuality in Nineteenth-Century England: A Sourcebook, 27 May 2012 <http://rictornorton.co.uk/eighteen/edwards.htm>.


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