A different picture of Pulaski: The Polish general may have been intersex

  • Peter Benton, right, with the Massachusetts Society of the Sons of the American Revolution salutes after placing a wreath at the monument to General Casimir Pulaski in Pulaski Park during Northampton's Pulaski Day celebration in October 2013. At center, holding the Polish flag, is Frank Chmura of Holyoke. FILE PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 4/7/2019 11:36:52 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Polish general Casimir Pulaski is known today as a Revolutionary War hero, the “father of the American cavalry,” and in Northampton, the namesake of Pulaski Park.

A lesser-known fact about Pulaski is that the celebrated general may have been intersex, according to an upcoming Smithsonian Channel documentary set to premiere on Monday at 8 p.m.

The documentary, titled “America’s Hidden Stories: The General Was Female?” highlights research suggesting that Pulaski’s gender may have been more complex than most people realize.

About 20 years ago, forensic anthropologists Charles Merbs, a professor emeritus at Arizona State University, and the late Karen Burns, formerly of the University of Georgia, examined skeletal remains believed to be Pulaski’s. The remains were exhumed from beneath a Pulaski monument in Georgia when it was temporarily removed due to disrepair.

When they studied the remains, both anthropologists were met with a surprise, Merbs told ASU Now.

“Dr. Burns said to me before I went in, ‘Go in and don’t come out screaming,’” Merbs said. “She said study it very carefully and thoroughly and then let’s sit down and discuss it.

“I went in and immediately saw what she was talking about,” he continued. “The skeleton is about as female as can be.”

While Merbs and Burns were confident in their evaluation of the skeleton, they could not prove that the remains indeed belonged to Pulaski. The researchers compared the skeleton’s DNA against the remains of Pulaski’s grandniece, but results were inconclusive, and the findings were classified as an opinion.

But recently, three researchers used Smithsonian Institution funding to analyze the remains again. This time, modern technology could confirm the match: Pulaski’s grandniece shared identical mitochondrial DNA with the remains from underneath the monument.

Pamela Stone, an anthropology professor and director of the Culture, Brain and Development Program at Hampshire College, said the research “suggests that gender is so much more complicated,” but added that she is “a little wary of being very DNA-centric” when talking about gender identity.

“DNA can suggest someone is intersex, but maybe they didn’t see themselves as intersex,” Stone said.

Intersex refers to any variation of sex characteristics that do not fit into the idea of a typical male/female gender binary.

“How these things manifest in terms of someone’s literal physicality is one thing, and how someone takes that identity into their life is another thing,” she added, referring to sex characteristics.

While esteemed by American society in general, Pulaski has served as a particular source of pride for the Polish American community, which has a sizable presence in the Pioneer Valley.

Fred Zimnoch, a Northampton resident and president of the Polish Genealogical Society of Massachusetts, said he has long been familiar with research suggesting Pulaski may have been intersex and was unsurprised when the information recently made headlines.

“He’s a remarkable Revolutionary War hero, and we all should know about him,” Zimnoch said, “not just because he’s Polish.”

Zimnoch added that he regards Pulaski — who is also credited with saving George Washington’s life during the war and ultimately died after being shot while leading a cavalry charge — as not just a Polish hero, but “one of the first Polish Americans.”

“He came to this country, he fought for this country, he died for this country, and that certainly makes him a Polish American for me,” Zimnoch said.

Pulaski became the seventh person to receive an honorary American citizenship in 2009; today, only eight people have been granted this national recognition by Congress.

Zimnoch said that the research surrounding Pulaski’s gender is interesting, but added that it “doesn’t make a difference to me.”

“As far as I’m concerned … what he did, he did,” Zimnoch said.

Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz, who is also of Polish descent, said that the research adds “a unique sidenote” to Pulaski’s story.

“I don’t think it in any way diminishes General Pulaski’s revered status in the Polish American community,” Narkewicz said.

“It certainly doesn’t change it for me, but it is a fascinating story,” he continued, “especially now as we live in a time where there’s more awareness about people having this non-binary status and not necessarily feeling like they fit into one gender or another.”

Although Pulaski was raised as a man, Merbs said that there were “interesting little clues” in the commander’s life, such as a private baptism, suggesting that Pulaski and his family knew he in some way did not fit seamlessly into their society’s notion of “male.”

“I don’t think, at any time in his life, did he think he was a woman,” Merbs said to ASU Now. “I think he just thought he was a man, and something was wrong … Back in those days they just didn’t know.”

But while Pulaski presented himself as a man, it’s impossible to know what he thought of his own gender, or how he would have identified in today’s world.

DNA “does tell us something, but it doesn’t tell us everything,” Stone reiterated. “But I think it’s really important that we’re really talking about the fact that people’s identities are much more complicated, and that it doesn’t lessen the things that they have done.”

The research suggesting that Pulaski may have been intersex is also an encouraging reminder that gender roles do not determine a person’s talents or accomplishments, she added.

“Someone like Casimir is giving us that example of, it doesn’t really matter,” Stone said. “This person was strong, and in it for the win, and led.”

“I think it’s fabulous and gives value to (the idea that) it’s not about your sex or gender,” she added, “it’s about your passion.”

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com.

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