I was thrilled to discover I live just down the road from the childhood home of the author of America’s first lesbian autobiography, The Stone Wall. The book was published in 1930 in Chicago under a pseudonym. It wasn’t until 2003 that the author’s birth and married names were discovered by Tufts University doctoral candidate Sherry Ann Darling in what historian Jonathan Katz calls “a major example of creative, historical detective work.” I was just as excited to find that the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, NYC – oft cited as the place the Gay Revolution began in 1969 – was originally opened the same year the Stone Wall was published, as a tearoom and in probable tribute to the author.
I first found mention of the autobiography in The History Project’s Improper Bostonians (1998). One tantalizing sidebar paragraph: ”’Mary Casal’ (her real name is not known) was born in Western Massachusetts in 1864. Her autobiography, The Stone Wall, published in 1930, is the amazing psycho-sexual self-portrait of a young woman’s growing awareness and acceptance of her lesbian identity. For a time, she taught in a ‘very select girls’ day school on Beacon Hill’ and is quite possibly included in [a] photograph of Miss Ireland’s school… ”
Casal’s Massachusetts’ roots were not mentioned in earlier notice by lesbian literature authority Barbara Grier or historian Jonathan Katz. Darling includes Grier’s 1976 review reprint in an online OutHistory bibliography :
Grier, Barbara (alias: Gene Damon). “Life History of a Lesbian: Mary Casal. Reproduced from Lesbian Lives: Biographies of Women from the Ladder. Editors Barbara Grier and Coletta Reid. Diana Press 1976 :
“Apparently this is an undoctored life history of a Lesbian. Mary Casal wrote her life story in a casual conversational and entirely frank manner. Since Miss Casal was born in 1864 and was at the time of writing 65 years old, the complete detail of her love affair is almost amazing. Miss Casal was born in New England on a farm and apparently was a part of the class described as upper middle class. Her parents were a rather odd mixture, her mother a descendent of the very pure Puritans and her father a descendent of a distinguished English family of artists and musicians. She was the youngest of nine children and her childhood friends were all male… By the time she had completed her college education she had had three or four … crushes and one of them had apparently been physically satisfactory. In her effort to make her autobiography utterly untraceable, Miss Casal has obscured the sequence of her life to an extent that makes dates impossible to find in relation to her big love affair. However, somewhere in her middle thirties she met and fell in love with a girl two years younger. The affair was entirely complete and very happy for both women for many years, approximately fifteen years or a little more. During these happy years the women discovered many other women of like temperament and the authoress expresses her initial surprise at this, because previously Mary and her friend Juno had thought they were the only women in the world who loved another woman.
Miss Casal’s revelations about the Lesbian world of New York and Paris around the turn of this century are most interesting. Although Miss Casal tries to give the impression that she was never a professional author, it is hard to believe in view of the quality of writing in her memoirs. I heartily recommend this as almost a class[ic] case of lesbianism. Unfortunately the book is very rare and quite expensive. Those willing to take the trouble can borrow the book through the Library of Congress.”
This review by Grier was likely published in the Ladder before The Stone Wall was reprinted in 1975 by Arco Press. A more recent reprint in 2018 by Forgotten Books makes hardback and paperback editions more readily available. The Stone Wall is also now available for free online.
Jonathan Katz offered a much longer critical review of The Stone Wall in his work Gay American History (1976). OutHistory.org has now made this available online.
I encourage anyone to read The Stone Wall. It is a concise two hundred pages. Given that the author would have been the age of my grandmother when she wrote it, I was struck by her unusual frankness about sex. Her autobiography also provides examples of of what are now called #MeToo moments in late 1800s-early 1900s. Casal discusses childhood abuse and struggles with marital sex. She also gives accounts of intimacy with other women and entry into the subculture of women like her. Nowhere does she refer to herself as a lesbian, though Sherry Darling discovered that Casal’s editor/publisher referred to her a lesbian in correspondence with others and may have edited out anything he considered “too hot” for 1930. At the age of sixty-six, the last of her family still alive, she was not too reticent, although she did disguise some facts to spare her peers.
It is a delight to see historians recover more of her story, linking her solitary work to a much larger, vibrant subculture. In 2004, David Carter, investigating Stonewall: the Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution, discovered that the same year Casal’s autobiography was published, a tearoom named Bonnie’s Stonewall Inn opened on Seventh Avenue South in Greenwich Village NYC. The owner was Vincent Bonavia.
In those Prohibition days, the tearoom gained a reputation as one of the most notorious in the Village. Bonnie’s Stonewall Inn was raided for selling liquor. Carter also postulated that its name selection sent a coded message that lesbians were welcome there. Casal and her woman partner lived for a number of years in Greenwich Village.
In Sherry A. Darling’s dissertation on Mary Casal, she uncovered the underground lesbian community centered around actresses in the legitimate theatre in NYC circa 1890-1920 that the author was part of. Darling believes, based on her research, that one character in Casal’s memoir is a male impersonator and actress who introduced Casal and her partner to others in that circle.
In 1934 the tea room, now a bar, moved to two former stables that had been merged and renovated at 51-53 Christopher Street, the current site of the Stonewall Inn.
In this pre-1930 photo, the horse stable on the left #53 had already been converted to use as a bakery and the third floor of the stable on the right had yet to be razed.
This 1939 NYC tax photo shows Bonnie’s Stonewall Inn sign on the far right over the joined buildings. Source:NYC Municipal archives.
The business changed hands and function over the decades but retained some variation of the same name on the old signage.
Matchbook cover circa the 1940s before it became a restaurant. Courtesy of Tom Bernardin.
In 1969, as the Mafia-owned gay bar the Stonewall Inn, it returned to its uproarious origins.
Diana Davies photo of the Stonewall Inn taken Sep. 9, 1969 after the June-July riots had closed it down. Note on the sign that “Restaurant” had replaced “Bonnie’s.” Photo courtesy New York Public Library.
Through extensive research into the few concrete details in The Stone Wall, Darling discovered that Casal was Ruth Fuller Field, born and raised in Deerfield, Massachusetts. Field later lived with her husband in nearby Montague on the Connecticut River. Casal had written that as a young lady she had spent the summer with a married sister whose family was great friends with the neighboring Governor, who had recently lost his wife. Given the approximate time period Darling was able to identity the Governor. Through his diaries and local property deeds, she identified his friends and neighbors. Through the genealogy records of those friendly neighbors and corroborating detail in The Stone Wall Darling found the name of the sister who had visited them that summer: Ruth Fuller Field.
I easily found confirmation that the person Darling identified as using the Casal pseudonym grew up in Deerfield. These documented details about Ruth Fuller Field echoed elements in Casal’s autobiography as well.
There is the 1870 U.S. Census record filled out by Deerfield’s historian George Sheldon. Ruth W. is the youngest, at 5, of six children living with their parents Joseph and Lydia Fuller. A black “colored” male farm laborer also lived with them.
George Sheldon also wrote Deerfield’s history and genealogy in 1896. In it, Sheldon included the Joseph Fuller family, noting that he was a teacher of music as well as a farmer and that by then he resided in Mont[ague]. In addition to the children in the 1870 census, three deceased children were listed. Ruth W. is the last of the living children listed. She was born June 17, 1864. She married Feb 12, 1887 to Frank A. Field of Mont[ague].
There appear to be no street names or house numbers back then, but an online search of the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Society’s collection provided details about Ruth’s most famous uncle, George, who painted landscapes of the neighborhood where the Fuller families lived. Called the Bars, because of some residents’ use of whole tree trunks stacked up to make fences, it was several miles south of (Old) Deerfield center, just past the saw and grist mills on the Deerfield River.
I was curious about just where that might be. It sounded as if it was on or near one of my favorite drives, a back way to Old Deerfield that passes through woods and farm fields before it comes out along the Deerfield River, where I might pass an acre of lavender in bloom.
When I searched for old maps, I found a watercolor tinted lithograph online dated 1871, from an atlas of Franklin County by Frederick Beers. The mills on the river (Mill Village) were marked south of Deerfield center. The race, a small canal, diverted the river to the mills. Each building was marked with its function or the names of its residents. Clustered together on the road south of the mills were the Fuller residences!
Enlarged neighborhood detail from 1871 Deerfield map by Frederick Beers.
The J.N. Fuller family (Ruth’s) lived next to Joseph’s father Aaron and his mother Sophia, and across the road from his brother George, who became the acclaimed painter even as he struggled to make a living as a farmer.
A Mill Village Road starts across the highway from where I live. Since it was a sunny March day when I found the map, I copied it and drove down that road. I passed by odd housing developments and cornfield stubble still under melting snow. The road started to descend toward the river.
Coming around a wooded bend, I saw a sign on the right side of the road, the Bar’s Farm Stand. Pulling over into its vacant, muddy little parking lot, I stared straight ahead at an old gambreled house, large and immaculately preserved. It looked like the one in photos at the PVMA identified as belonging to George, Ruth’s uncle. Across the street were two houses, just as marked on the old map. One, a boxier, old white painted house was in the position marked as the residence of Ruth’s grandfather Aaron. Next to it, with a driveway lined with sugar maples, sap buckets hung out, was a dark-stained wooden house. It was just where the map indicates Ruth’s family would have lived.
Photo by Kaymarion Raymond, March 2019
The cluster of old houses were indeed located on a plateau, higher ground above the river flood plain with woods uphill and fields around that would have been in hay or planted with potatoes. As I continued north toward Old Deerfield, the road dropped down to the river, met Stillwater Road. The one room school the Fuller children attended at that crossroads was gone. Where the mills would have been on the river was now a dairy cow pasture, but running through it was a winding shallow gully that must have been the remains of the race that diverted water to the mill wheels. If I had gone farther, I would have passed a favorite Fuller swimming hole. Already I’d gone by a man pulling on his waders, getting ready to fish in the river.
__Casal, Mary.[Ruth Fuller Field.:] The Stone Wall: An Autobiography. Eyncourt Press. Chicago. 1930. Free online PDF. https://archive.org/details/stonewallautobio00casa
__The [Boston] History Project. Improper Bostonians. Beacon Press, Boston. 1998.
__Darling, Sherry A. “A Critical Introduction to The Stone Wall: An Autobiography.” Dissertation, Tufts University. 2003. Hat tip to Anne Moore UMass archivists for accessing a copy of this for me.
__Katz, Jonathan Ned. Introduction, Mary Casal, pseudonym of Ruth Fuller Field: The Autobiography of an American Lesbian (1930). Outhistory.org. http://outhistory.org/exhibits/show/casal
__Darling, Sherry Ann. Bibliography, Mary Casal, pseudonym of Ruth Fuller Field: The Autobiography of an American Lesbian (1930). http://outhistory.org/exhibits/show/casal. includes article by Grier cited below:
__Grier, Barbara (AKA Gene Damon). “Life History of a Lesbian: Mary Casal.” Lesbian Lives: Biographies of Women From the Ladder. Editors Barbara Grier and Coletta Reid. Diana Press.1976.
__Carter, David. Stonewall: the Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2004.
__ Landmarks Preservation Commission (NYC).June 23, 2015, Designation List 483LP-2574STONEWALL INN, 51-53 Christopher Street, Manhattan. Includes pieces of the building history not included in other sources.
__Stonewall photos used here, and many more, gathered from various sources into an excellent online slideshow. https://www.nyclgbtsites.org/site/stonewall-inn-christopher-park/
__”The 40 Songs on the Stonewall Inn Jukebox June 1969.” Just for fun if you read this far, oldtimer nostalgia. Playlist on Spotify by Douglas Bender on Feb 18 2014.“[Motown] is not an audible sound. It’s spiritual, and it comes from the people that make it happen.” – Smokey Robinson. Record Compilation Credit: Williamson Henderson, President SVA. https://www.charentonmacerations.com/2014/02/18/stonewall-jukebox/
__Deerfield Mass. Census of 1870. Schedule 1, Inhabitants, Page 6.
__Sheldon, George. A History of Deerfield, Massachusetts: The Times when the People by Whom it was Settled, Unsettled and Resettled. Volume 2. Press of E.A. Hall & Company, Deerfield Mass, 1896.
__Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Society. Deerfield Massachusetts online collection. Much information online about George Fuller, Ruth’s Uncle, including paintings and descriptions of their neighborhood. http://www.memorialhall.mass.edu/collection
__Beers, Frederick. “Deerfield.” Atlas of Franklin County. 1871. http://historicmapworks.com/Map/US/8346/
In the Field family since 1866.
|Cold Brook Farm, Montague, MA|
|Description||‘125 acre plantation, 6 or 8 buildings, electric water-powered generator, sawmill, cider mill, 26-room house for summer guests, dairy and beef hogs, tobacco, onions, asparagus, various garden vegetables, steamboat landing, Black family as cooks, had electricity before the town was electrified.’|
|Contributor Name||Parzych, Joseph A.|