Deborah Sampson was born on December 17, 1760, in Plympton, Massachusetts. She was the daughter of Jonathan and Deborah Sampson. Deborah’s mother was the great grand-daughter of William Bradford, the governor of Plymouth Colony. And some of her ancestors were aboard the Mayflower.
Deborah grew up to be much taller than the average woman of her time (5′ 0″), and, in fact, she was taller than the average man (5′ 7″) too. Her full adult height reached 5′ 9″.
She was not thin or shapely, and according to her biographer, Hermann Mann, “Her weight might displease a coquette.” It was reported that her breasts were very small. Her biographer added, “The features of her face were not what a physiognomist would term the most beautiful.” A neighbor who knew Deborah in her later years termed her as “a person of plain features.”
Okay, you get the idea. Deborah Sampson wasn’t the average looking woman of the time, and she was not the kind of girl the local menfolk were going to typically chase or go “hubba hubba” over when catching a glimpse of her.
Tall, broad, strong and not one of delicate feminine features, in 1782, Deborah made her first attempt at trying to pretend to be a man. In early 1782, she donned men’s clothes and tried to enlist in an army unit in Middleborough, Massachusetts. Signing up as “Timothy Thayer,” and binding her breasts in with a tied linen cloth, she collected a bonus and enlisted.
However, she failed to meet up with her company as agreed upon. She had been recognized by a local resident and was forced to return the portion of her bonus money she had not spent. Hearing of her cross-dressing escapade, Deborah’s Baptist church withdrew her fellowship, which meant that its members refused to associate with her until she apologized and asked forgiveness.
In May of 1782, Deborah gave it another try, and this time she was successful. “Robert Shirtleff” (1760-1827) enlisted, and was accepted, into the light infantry company of the 4th Massachusetts regiment. (Shirtleff has variant spellings of Shirtleffe and Shirtliff.)
Light infantry companies were not ordinary military regiments, they were elite troops. Their job was to provide flank cover for advancing regiments, as well as rearguard and advancing reconnaissance duties for units on the move. The consisted of the finest soldiers, taller and stronger than average. This actually helped Deborah Sampson in her masquerade as Robert Shirtleff, as elite troops’ superior status made their men much less likely to be suspected or questioned.
(As a sidebar, we will, of course, never know why Deborah Sampson chose the moniker “Shirtleff”- could it possibly have been her own private “in joke” and a play on the word “shirtless” -an obvious joke on her hidden identity and her big secret?)
Robert Shirtleff (an entirely fictional identity) was ostensibly born on December 17, 1760. He was a former indentured servant. In the real world, fellow soldiers gave Shirtleff the nickname “Molly” because he couldn’t grow facial hair.
But Shirtleff also was to be a brave soldier and fought in several skirmishes during the revolutionary war. Under the command of Captain George Webb, the company consisted of 50 or 60 “men” (uh, make that 49 or 59).
On July 3, 1782, Shirtleff was injured in battle. He sustained a head wound. More importantly, he had also been hit by two musket balls in the leg. Shirtleff begged his fellow soldiers to let him die, but they put him on a horse a took him to a doctor.
The doctor treated Shirtleff’s head wound, but the leg was another matter. If the doctor started investigating his leg area, he may find that facial hair was not the only thing Robert “Molly” Shirtleff had not grown. Deborah (Shirtleff) thanked the doctor for treating his facial wound, but he didn’t tell him about the wound to his thigh and treated it himself.
Poor Deborah was forced to remove the musket balls from her leg by herself. She successfully (and surely most painfully) removed one, using a pen knife and a sewing needle, but the other pellet could not be reached, and was to remain in her leg for the rest of her life. It never fully healed.
Because of the injury, Robert Shirtleff was taken out of active battle. Sampson (Shirtleff) was reassigned as a waiter for the next seven months, serving General John Paterson.
On June 24, 1783, her unit was assigned to quell a rebellion by American soldiers, who were angry and upset by a delay in their pay and their discharges. Shirtleff helped with staving off this rebellion.
In the summer of 1783, Shirtleff became ill and was treated by a doctor. But this time, “his” clothes were removed and “her” true identity was discovered. For Robert Shirtleff, the jig was finally up.
The usual penalty for women disguising themselves as men was a reprimand, but not so for the brave Deborah Sampson. She was honorably discharged on October 25, 1783. She was given a note with some advice on it and and sufficient money to travel.
Robert Shirtleff had served with courage and honor for a year and half. But after October 25, 1783, Robert Shirtleff forever became what he rightfully was- an illusion created whole cloth by Deborah Sampson.
(Image credit: Mlc)
Her military career now behind her, Deborah Sampson married Benjamin Gannett (1757-1823), a farmer, on April 7, 1785. The couple had three children, Earl (1786), Mary (1788), and Patience (1790). They also adopted an orphan named Susanna.
Sadly, Benjamin Gannett was never a successful farmer and the family was to live constantly in a state of near poverty. Needing money, in 1802, Deborah Sampson Gannett began making lecture tours, regaling audiences with her adventures as Robert Shirtleff. She would open her lectures garbed in traditional feminine garb, but near the end she would don a full military uniform and surprise the crowd by performing military drills and ceremonial routines. But the lectures did not cover enough to pay her family’s bills and debts and, sadly, Deborah was forced to ask the U.S. military, on several occasions, for back pay and expenses for the battle injury she had incurred.
She became good friends with Paul Revere. Besides asking Revere for loans on more than one occasion, she asked him to intervene and make a request that the army pay her more money in the form of severance for her service and the injury she had sustained in battle. Revere wrote on Deborah’s behalf, informing the army that “since she quit the male habit, and soldier’s uniform, for the more decent apparel of her own gender,” she should be paid the back monies owed her.
Over the years, she was paid certain set sums on different occasions, but Deborah Sampson lived the remainder of her life in need of money and with unresolved debts.
Deborah Sampson died of yellow fever at the age of 66 on April 27, 1827. She had outlived her husband by four years.
In Sharon, Massachusetts, Deborah Sampson is immortalized by a statue of her which stands in front of the public library. She is properly honored as a war hero in Massachusetts and a chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution is named in her honor. During World War II in 1944, the liberty ship SS Deborah Gannett was launched.
In 2001, the town of Plympton incorporated Deborah Sampson to the state flag and she was named the official heroine of the state of Massachusetts. At the 2016 Democratic National Convention, actress Meryl Streep paid tribute to Deborah as one of the women who made history.
In 1838, Congress granted her heirs a military pension. Faintly ironic, as Deborah Sampson Gannett could so have used full military pension money herself. But money aside, the brave Deborah Sampson (and her alter ego, Robert Shirtleff) have been fully recognized and acknowledged, and given their rightful place in American history. And maybe sometimes in life, some things are more important than money.