Boston, Massachusetts, 1812 – Lucy Brewer (alias Louisa Baker) escaped a life of prostitution by donning men’s attire and enlisting as a seaman on the USS Constitution. [more]
In August 1815, Boston printer, Nathaniel Coverly Jr., published a pamphlet entitled An Affecting Narrative of Louisa Baker, which became an immediate bestseller in New England. It is an autobiography, in which Miss Baker relates the story of her journey from idyllic rural Massachusetts to the depths of urban degradation in Boston, to military glory on the deck of a Navy frigate.
Louisa Baker was born in small town forty miles outside of Boston. In her teens, she fell in love with and was seduced by, a handsome young man who promised to marry her. But after stealing her virtue, the young man left without fulfilling his promise. “I was conscious,” she says, “of having forfeited the only gem that could render me respectable in the eyes of the world.” She found herself pregnant and, afraid to face her parents with her shame, she traveled alone to Boston.
She tried to find work as a servant and ended up in the household of a woman she believed was a kindly mother with a number of “darling daughters.” The mother nursed Louisa through her pregnancy, but the baby died at childbirth. It was then that she learned the true nature of the household. It was a house of prostitution and her benefactor now demanded that she work off the debt she had incurred or risk public humiliation.
Louisa Baker worked for three years as a prostitute in the most degrading circumstances. She could see no escape, until one day, inspired by the well-known story of Deborah Sampson, who fought in the American Revolution dressed as a man, Louisa put on a sailor’s suit, wearing a tight waistcoat underneath to conceal her breasts, and walked through Boston. When she saw that she could pass as a man with no problem, Louisa enlisted in the American navy under the name George.
During the war of 1812 she fought in a number of engagements with British warships and distinguished herself in battle. After three years’ service she took her wages and left. She bought new clothes, reassumed her female character and returned to a happy reunion with her parents.
The pamphlet sold so well that a sequel was published in November 1815. In the second pamphlet, entitled The Adventures of Lucy Brewer, (alias) Louisa Baker, we learn that the protagonist’s real name is Lucy Brewer, her home is Plymouth, Massachusetts, and she sailed on “Old Ironsides”— USS Constitution. She also relates some further adventures where Lucy, in man’s attire, proves more manly than her foes.
The sequel was successful as well, and in May 1816, a third installment, The Awful Beacon of the Rising Generation, was published. In this pamphlet, the brother of a woman whose honor had been defended by Lucy (dressed as a man) recognized the story from the previous published work, and came to Plymouth to see her. The man, Charles West, began courting finally married Lucy. The rest of the pamphlet is a caution to young women on the danger prostitution and a warning that young men can be ruined as well, by disease or theft, if they are unwise enough to visit prostitutes.
In 1816 the three pamphlets were combined under the title The Female Marine and between 1815 and 1818 there were at least nineteen editions of The Female Marine or its component parts. After 1818 the book went out of print until 1966.
Historians have tried to verify the story of Lucy Brewer, but unfortunately have not found any confirming records of Lucy Brewer, Louisa Baker, or Charles West and no one onboard the Constitution during the war of 1812 had a first or last name of George. The story was probably made up, whole cloth, by the publisher, Nathaniel Coverly. Though Lucy Brewer probably did not fight in men’s clothing, there are many confirmed stories of women disguised as men fighting in the American Revolution and the War of 1812, and historians believe that hundreds, or even thousands, of disguised women served in the Union and Confederate armies during the Civil War.