You can imagine how surprised I was to find out that Casimir Pulaski was a woman. I can imagine how surprised you may be to hear about it, too.
Pulaski, of course, is a big deal: a hero of the Revolutionary War who is a hero in Poland and in the United States and, particularly, a hero in Connecticut. It’s not by any accident that a grade school in Meriden is named after him. Casimir Pulaski Day is celebrated the first Monday of March (in Illinois).
(I should point out that in the interests of clarity, if not complete accuracy, I’m going to continue here to refer to Pulaski as “him.” Perhaps that could change with the inexorable advance of time and acceptance of evidence.)
The evidence showing Pulaski was female, or intersex, received coverage in some major outlets earlier this month after the airing of a documentary on the Smithsonian Channel titled “The General Was Female?” But even though I like to think I pay attention I didn’t know anything about it until just the other day.
As mysterious to me as the developing saga about Pulaski’s gender was how the story popped up on my phone, uninvited, one evening. With a touch of growing unease, for at least the last year or so I’ve been developing the impression that my phone knows more about me than I do — as in what I’m interested in or, even, where I am — or that it’s doing a better job when it comes to following the Henry James urging to be someone “on whom nothing is lost.”
But by what algorithm, what alchemy, one has to wonder, would my phone know that I would be interested in Casimir Pulaski? Black holes, the New York Yankees, alien visitations — those I would understand. But Casimir Pulaski? It popped up as a feed from BBC News.
At any rate, just in case, like yours truly, you did not happen to attend Casimir Pulaski Elementary School, where, one presumes, you would have learned all about him to the point of being tested about it, likely, here’s a brief rundown:
Pulaski, born in Poland in 1745, fought against the Russians and then fled to France, where he met Benjamin Franklin, who told him of a worthy cause overseas, and so traveled to North America to serve in the army of George Washington. He is credited with helping establish the cavalry for the rebels during the Revolutionary War. Among many Europeans ready to help a fledgling nation, Pulaski is credited with saving Washington’s life during the Battle of Brandywine, outside Philadelphia, in 1777.
A couple of years later, Pulaski was wounded in battle, in Savannah, Georgia, and died there at the age of 34. He was buried, and that would have been the end of it, so to speak, until a monument needed moving, giving researchers the opportunity to dig up — or exhume if you want to be professional and polite about it — the grave.
Whereupon it was found that the skeleton, as one researcher put it, “looked very female.”
Now this was in 2005, a time of comparative ancient-ness when it comes to DNA stuff, so the mystery lingered. Fast-forward to the brilliance of modern-day advancements and researchers who wanted to take another look. That look proved compelling, because it enabled a DNA test that showed the skeletal remains identical to that of Pulaski’s descendant.
The BBC report says it’s unlikely Pulaski ever felt he was female or unisex. It was a different era, as you can imagine. The New York Times story includes the observation that had Pulaski been raised as a female it’s not likely he’d have wound up in the military or been in a position to help Washington. So … we’d still be a British colony.
Huh. Thanks, smartphone!
Reach Jeffery Kurz at 203-317-2213, or firstname.lastname@example.org.