Casimir Pulaski is getting a coming-out party almost three centuries late. The Polish nobleman and Revolutionary War hero who saved George Washington’s life was intersex, according to a soon-to-air documentary.
The revelation’s origins date back to 1996, when researchers in Savannah, Georgia, began investigating skeletal remains deposited in the city’s Casimir Pulaski Monument. During the 19th century, the bones had been moved to the 54-foot obelisk in Monterey Square from an unmarked grave on a rundown plantation. Study of the findings, however, raised intriguing questions. The skeleton’s wide pelvis suggested that the deceased was a woman.
Two decades of research have determined the remains were, indeed, Pulaski’s. After the original investigation into the deceased’s identity was dropped due to insufficient DNA evidence, it was reopened four years ago. Virginia Hutton Estabrook, a professor of anthropology at Georgia Southern University, and graduate student Lisa Powell combed through old bone samples and notes left behind from 19 years earlier.
What they uncovered was startling. The facial bone structure matches 18th-century portraits of Pulaski, which, in turn, have a startling similarity to medical diagrams of individuals with congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH), a condition frequently associated with intersex variation. Individuals born with CAH often produce excess testosterone, which may lead to genitalia that do not correspond with typically male or female traits in people with XX chromosomes.
Although CAH is among the most common causes of intersex variations, it’s not the sole determinant of whether a child will be born intersex. Overall, estimates suggest there are up to 5.5 million intersex people in the United States today—a population that’s roughly the size of Minnesota’s.
Many people are unaware of their intersex status, but the evidence surrounding Pulaski’s is extremely compelling. His baptismal records claim the ceremony had to be performed at home due to ob debilitatis causam, signifying an unspecified deformity. Examination of the skull revealed an atypically large pituitary gland, which is responsible for the release of hormones in the body. And after comparing a femur found in the Pulaski monument to a tooth belonging to his maternal great grandniece, a mitochondrial DNA match proved the remains were Pulaski’s.
The 23-year investigation is the subject of a 50-minute documentary special set to air on the Smithsonian Channel Monday night as part of its “America’s Hidden Stories” series. Hida Viloria, an intersex activist and writer interviewed in the program, says the findings are nothing short of a “dream come true.”
“The discovery that Casimir Pulaski was intersex is something that I never thought I’d be able to see [in my lifetime] because it’s not often that you have a chance to excavate someone’s remains and run an autopsy,” says Viloria, author of Born Both: An Intersex Life and founding director of the Intersex Campaign for Equality, in a phone interview. “I was always aware that given our population numbers, we have ancestors. I was sad about the thought that we would never know what amazing people have been intersex throughout history.”
Pulaski joins an extremely exclusive club of historical figures identified as intersex. Herculine Barbin, born in 19th century France, won the right to be legally classified as male after being assigned female at birth. Barbin’s posthumous memoirs helped inform Michel Foucault’s groundbreaking research on human sexuality.
Examples like Barbin are few and far between, according to Victor Salvo, founder of the Legacy Project, an educational program designed to teach youth about the contributions of LGBTQ people throughout history. One of the difficulties with locating trans, gender nonconforming, and intersex people within that narrative is that their identities are often discovered only after death, and that information may be suppressed due to the prevailing mores of the era.
Salvo cites the example of Albert Cashier, a transgender Civil War soldier whose identity was uncovered after his death in 1915. People like Cashier, who was born in 1843, were forced to live in secrecy. According to Salvo, they “didn’t leave written manifestos” because it was “effectively confessing to a crime.” The nation’s first ban on individuals wearing “dress not belonging to his or her sex” in public places was instituted in 1848.
“You’re talking about an entire class of people whose only hope for being left to live in peace was to erase evidence of their own existence,” Salvo says in a phone interview. “Because of that, [LGBTQ and intersex people] have been literally redacted out of history.”
The Smithsonian special is well-timed for Illinois, where Pulaski’s memory holds tremendous weight. In honor of Chicago’s Polish community, former Mayor Harold Washington designated the first Monday in March as Casimir Pulaski Day back in 1986.
In March, the Illinois House passed a bill requiring public schools to teach LGBTQ history. Should the state senate and Governor J.B. Pritzker approve the legislation, Pulaski could soon be taught as part of that curriculum.
Israel Wright, former executive director of the LGBT Hall of Fame at the Chicago History Museum, says Pulaski could help fill gaps in local history where the lives of intersex people should be. The Hall of Fame, which was founded in 1991, has yet to induct an intersex person. While nearly 50 trans individuals have been honored in the decades since, the original class of inductees was entirely made up of cis people.
Wright says that having someone with Pulaski’s significance represent the intersex community is “remarkable.”
“It acknowledges and embraces a segment of the community by saying ‘Yes, you count’ and ‘Yes, you have meaning,'” he says. “It gives you hope that things are getting better—that we’re getting to a point of understanding.”
But while the findings have a particular relevance for Chicagoans, it could have a major impact on the way intersex people are viewed around the world. Although Pulaski lived as a man, many children born with CAH are assigned female and subjected to invasive surgeries to “correct” any perceived variance in their genitalia. This practice, which originated at Johns Hopkins University in the 1950s, has been condemned by the United Nations and three former U.S. surgeons general. Johns Hopkins says it no longer performs intersex surgery, yet the procedure remain common.
Pulaski was born before such medical interventions became an option. Had he been alive two centuries later, his life could have been very different. As a woman, Pulaski wouldn’t have had the opportunity to volunteer for the Continental Army and aid in the reform of the American cavalry. He wouldn’t have led Washington through an escape route at the Battle of Brandywine, when he otherwise would have faced certain death.
Without an intersex person at the front lines living as themselves, Chicago-based intersex activist Pidgeon Pagonis says, the reality is that America “would still be a colony.”
“The father of the American cavalry was not even male by our scientific definition,” Viloria adds. “It’s a powerful testament to the fact that biology doesn’t dictate who we are in terms of our lived gender, our perceived gender, and our ability to thrive as any gender.” v