GLR September-October 2022


Genderfluid Master of the Bizarre W ILLIAM B ENEMANN

W HEN THE BODY of Rep. John Ran dolph of Virginia was exhumed, they discovered that the roots of a nearby pine tree had pierced his coffin, threaded themselves through his long flowing hair, penetrated his eye sockets and, feeding off his brain, had filled his skull with their white, spidery tendrils. It was a macabre but appropriately sensational discovery for a body that had been the topic of so much gossip and speculation while the man was alive.

in unexpected ways. When in Congress arguing against the es tablishment of a national bank, Randolph rejected the imposi tion of “a master with a quill behind his ear”—a mere bookkeeper or accountant who might direct the nation’s fate. “If I must have a master,” he proclaimed, “let him be one with epaulettes, something that I could fear and respect, something I could look up to.” Later in life, when Andrew Jackson had re placed Thomas Jefferson as his great idol, in an uncharacteris

tically fawning letter Randolph cast Jackson as Alexander the Great and himself as his lover Hephaestion, though he added: “I trust that I am something better than his minion (the nature of their connection, if I forget it not, was Greek love).” Randolph was first elected to the House in 1798, and because of his sharp intellect and unsurpassed oratorical skills he was immediately assigned the powerful position of chairman of the Ways and Means Com mittee, serving also as majority whip, and eventually as majority leader. Still, his an drogynous appearance bewildered his con temporaries. “His whole organization was delicate as a woman’s; nay more delicate,” one observed. “His long straight hair,” an other wrote, “is parted on the top and a por tion hangs down on each side, while the rest is carelessly tied up behind and flows down his back. His voice is shrill and effeminate and occasionally broken by low tones which you hear from dwarfs or deformed people.” Another was pointedly dismissive: “As to Mr. John Randolph you can scarcely form an idea of a human figure whose ap pearance is more contemptible... one would suppose him to be either by nature, or man ual operation fixed for an Italian singer, in deed there are strong suspicions of a physical disability.” At times Randolph was described al most as one of the walking dead. His lips were “the color of indigo” and his com plexion was frequently compared to parch ment, “destitute of any beard, and as smooth as a woman’s.” One observer de scribed his skin as “precisely that of a mummy; withered, saffron, dry, and blood less.” Contemporaries were also unsettled by Randolph’s mesmerizing eyes. His pupils were usually dilated into huge black

Known as John Randolph of Roanoke (appending the name of one of his estates in order to distinguish himself from other relatives of the same name), Randolph was a member of Congress and a fixture in the nation’s capital during the Jeffer son and Madison administrations. Ran dolph was born in 1773 on a plantation named Matoax and later inherited Roanoke, but he spent most of his youth and a good part of his manhood on a third family plantation, aptly named Bizarre, in a family that can best be described as Southern Gothic. Young Jack was a sen sitive and high-strung child. When thwarted, he would work himself into tantrums so violent they caused him to pass out. His father died when he was only two, but he enjoyed an idyllic child hood of comfort and privilege under the care of a doting mother—until she re married and his stepfather felt compelled to beat the sissy out of the effeminate boy. The first corporal punishment Ran dolph ever received was inflicted “as soon as the festivities of the wedding had ceased,” he later wrote, and ushered in a regime of “most intolerable tyranny.” Harsh discipline left Randolph with a burning resentment against tyranny of all kinds, but also with a craving for strong masculine authority figures he could em ulate, a complex desire that later erupted William Benemann is the author of Unruly De sires: American Sailors and Homosexualities in the Age of Sail and Men in Eden: William Drummond Stewart and Same-Sex Desire in the Rocky Mountain Fur Trade .

John Randolph of Roanoke on his embarkation for Russia onboard ship Concord .

The G & LR


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