Theodora Grahn – The heavy drinking, transgendered celebrity of Regency London

Whatever else Regency London has going for it (and there was a lot), breaking the gender stereotypes was not one of them. Much more than race was ever an issue in London, people from the LGBT community such as it was had it particularly hard. Homosexuality was illegal and brought the risk of capital punishment of traditional gender roles.

However there was at least one well known person at the time who broke all of the strict gender rules. A woman who had a male name and dressed in male clothing to live a very male lifestyle and was widely accepted in the society in which she moved.

She was born in Leipzig in 1844 but following the early deaths of her parents, she moved to live with her Aunt in Berlin in what is now Germany, Theodora Grahn worked as an exchange broker in a business she set up herself in her teens, at which point she began to dress as a man and took on the name Baron John de Verdion. 

If alive today it is very possible that Perhaps today she would be considered transgender and would have chosen to be referred to as ‘he’ for his own dignity. However it isn’t known whether Theodora took on the persona of a man because she was transgender, or if she was simply determined to live the kind of life unavailable to women of the period.

As recounted in the book Kirby’s Wonderful and Scientific Museum or Magazine of Remarkable Characters , she was outed as female in 1770 by a group of men who got her drunk and tore off her clothes to, “verify her sex beyond all possibility of doubt”, which is a rather polite way of describing a horrible assault and hate crime.

Unsurprisingly, she couldn’t bring herself to stay in Berlin and instead moved to London and continued to work. She only made one concession perhaps due to her ordeal in Berlin and demoted herself from ‘Baron’ to ‘Dr.’ John de Verdion. 

In London she worked as a language teacher, teaching German, French and English. She was also a translator, a bookseller, and dealt in antique books, medals and foreign gold and silver coins.

Despite only leaving the house dressed as a man, her biological sex was well known and she became another of those well-known and mocked British eccentrics. Unlike in her native Berlin, her apparent eccentricity, talent and determination in her career meant that she managed to avoid the excesses of prejudice in London.

Londoners still love an eccentric, and back then Theodora was known for carrying an umbrella in all weathers. She also had a reputation to keep up with and even beat men in the traditional male pastimes of eating and drinking to excess.

“She was an extraordinary lover of good eating… it is well known, she could dispense with three pounds of solid meat.  A friend… was absolutely witness to her eating eighteen eggs, and a proportionate quantity of bacon, which were all broken into the frying pan at once.” 

She was also known to drink two bottles of wine in one sitting, and have to be carried home.

Of course, her sex wasn’t totally ignored and it was known that she was sometimes menaced by men who suspected that she may be a “disguised female” but her large network of friends in the taverns and coffee houses of London meant that help was always at hand. She died from cancer in 1802. 

A contemporary publication featuring the formidable Theodora Grahn

I’ve covered plenty of ‘eccentrics’ over the years in this blog, another ‘German’ and contemporary of Theodora who also lived in London was Peter The Wild Boy. You have to go a long way however to surpass the incredible John “Mad Jack” Mytton – The craziest man in history!

About Stephen Liddell

I am a writer and traveller with a penchant for history and getting off the beaten track. With several books to my name including several #1 sellers. I also write environmental, travel and history articles for magazines as well as freelance work. I run my private tours company with one tour stated by the leading travel website as being with the #1 authentic London Experience. Recently I've appeared on BBC Radio and Bloomberg TV and am waiting on the filming of a ghost story on British TV. I run my own private UK tours company (Ye Olde England Tours) with small, private and totally customisable guided tours run by myself!
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