Thursday, December 7, 2017

'My Dear Doctor': Hjelmar von Dannevill

Hjelmar Dannevill. From the file 'Dr von Dannevill, October 1914 - June 1917' [Archives Reference: AD 10 Box 9 17/26] Archives New Zealand The Department of Internal Affairs Te Tari Taiwhenua

Below is an excerpt from a chapter in my forthcoming book, Between the Devil and the Sea, on the remarkable Wellington figure of Hjelmar Dannevill. During the First World War her private letters were confiscated and Hjelmar was eventually interned on Matiu Somes Island for a brief period - one of the few women to be interned during the war. Her sexuality and disruption of gender norms was a major factor.

A Visit to Miramar

On 21 May 1917, Police Matron Beck and Detectives Boddam and Cox left the tram and made their way towards the Lahmann Home’s impressive entrance. Built in 1907 by the director of a short-lived amusement park called Wonderland, the grand wooden building had been purchased in 1911 by Dr Edith Huntley, a well-known advocate of women’s health and the first woman councillor of Miramar. But it was Hjelmar Dannevill who answered the door. She was dressed in her distinctive style—collar, shirt and waistcoat, an immaculately tailored jacket adorned with a pocket watch, and a long skirt that reached to her leather boots. Hjelmar was known to have smoked from a pipe, but not on this occasion.

Once inside the detectives found a picturesque foyer of dark red walls and stained wooden panels. Great bowls of scarlet gladioli and vases of feathery-looking ixia dotted the space, and Boddam noted the staircase that led to the Home’s second floor and its exterior balconies. ‘After informing her who we were in the usual way’ wrote Boddam, ‘I requested her to accompany us at once to the office of the Commissioner of Police, who desired to interview her.’[i] After confiscating a bag of letters, books and other papers, Hjelmar went quietly, saving Boddam the task of using the warrant for her arrest.

As Hjelmar boarded the tram surrounded by Police she must have pondered her sudden change in fortune. Five years earlier she and Dr Huntley had been the hosts to over two hundred women of high society. The December 1912 opening of the Lahmann Home was a grand affair. Guests toured the grounds with cups of high tea accompanied by the music of the Miramar Band, while those inside were treated to performances on the grand piano.

It was also a chance to rub shoulders with Wellington’s elite, including the Prime Minister himself. Earlier that afternoon Massey had announced his pleasure at opening the Home, one he believed was ‘the first of its type in the British Dominion and the first in all the world to be entirely conducted by women.’ It was a place where those ‘suffering from chronic disease or permanent weakness might be afforded all the relief possible’, a place where ‘business men, professional men, or even politicians, if they happened to be overworked, could be given an opportunity of recuperating.’ ‘Someday’, joked Massey, ‘it might be necessary for me to come to the home, but, as you can all gather from appearances, that time was not yet. (Laughter and “hear, hear!”).’[ii]

If Massey had ever checked in to the Home he would have experienced the relatively novel treatment of naturopathy, an alternative medicine on the rise. Modelled on the teachings of German physician Heinrich Lahmann, the Miramar retreat offered a natural care system of massage, hydrotherapy, a vegetarian diet, and plenty of fresh air. Lahmann himself was a staunch advocate of animal rights, refusing to use them in laboratory experiments. The Home was probably equipped with air baths as per Lahmann’s teachings, but it also provided less natural cures: electrical therapy (which some brave guests were ‘treated’ to on open days). A central-city office on Willis Street also offered electrical treatment for those pressed for time.

Hjelmar and the Lahamnn Home seem to have been an accepted part of the Wellington community. She was the host of a number of talks, known as an ‘At Home’, where women gathered at the retreat for music and more tea. ‘Dr Edith Huntley wore a dress of shot violet and green velvet with trimming to match. Dr von Dannevill was in navy blue’ reported one gossip column.[iii] Well into 1915 she spoke publically at women’s events, such as the Moral and Physical Health Society’s annual lecture or to the Pioneer Club, whose upper-class audience included Anne Salmond, the wife of Solicitor General Salmond. At ease on stage or behind the grand piano, no one cared, or cared to mention, Hjelmar’s masculine attire.

But by 1917 attitudes against difference had hardened, and spurred by Edward Bond’s complaints, not even Hjelmar’s high-society friends could save her. She now found herself at the Lampton Quay Police Station and face-to-face with the Commissioner of Police.

O’Donovan interrogated her at length about her past, her nationality, and her gender, hoping to find holes in a story that even today seems impossible to corroborate. The transcript—neatly typed and amended with question marks and notes such as ‘long pause’—fills most of the Army Department file. It reads like Bruce Chatwin story, dancing across European cities to New York, then south to Brazil, Argentina and Chile before sidestepping over to the African continent. India, Russia, China, Canada—almost every major country featured in Hjelmar’s travels.

‘What were you doing in all these places?’ asked O’Donovan.

‘Teaching anything I could, music, languages, first-aid, anatomy’ she replied, adding that she had trained as a musician in Leipzig before attending Zurich University to study medicine. ‘I got recommendations from one place to another. I also began doing journalistic work for various papers.’[iv] O’Donovan questioned her over what papers, which newspaper agents, and in what languages, before eventually discovering the nature of her later work—the study of venereal disease.

Hjelmar said that around 1890, she had made the acquaintance of a man named Hugo Fischer:

He was very wealthy and had lost his only son by syphilis. I had heard that he was keen, by this disastrous loss, to make investigations all over the world to find out the present state of venereal diseases amongst civilised nations as well as the more primitive races and savages even. He intended these investigations to equip about 7 or 8 people to travel over the globe to make investigations into these diseases. After I met him he began to give instructions in what he wanted carried out. He gave credit to draw on his finances to a very high extent and made a written appointment about the matter we had to send in to him. We had also to promise not to make any copies of any notes, as it naturally concerned a great many intimate affairs of people and the discover of gambling places etc.[v]

Using assumed names, Hjelmar mingled with hospital orderlies, clergymen, Police officers and women across the globe, gathering information on the taboo subject. Employing false names ‘was part of the instructions we had from Mr Fischer… he was afraid the leading power in Austria, the Order of Jesuits, would get hold of [their work].’[vi] This was also one of the reasons she wore men’s clothing—entering into seedy dens and asking questions as a woman was not an option, she argued.

O’Donovan was clearly thrown by her gender variance as much as Ellison and Salmond and repeatedly dwelled on it during the interrogation. ‘Were you dressed as you are now?’ asked O’Donovan.

‘I was not dressed in the same clothing.’

‘You were wearing a man’s hat and coat and an ordinary vest and collar of a man?’

‘Yes I think so, and a skirt.’

‘Did any question arise between you and Mr Ellison as regards whether you were a man or a woman?’

‘He said there was no objections to my wearing men’s clothing so long as he knew I was a woman.’[vii]

And later: ‘Did you ask Mr Ellison to certify that you were a woman?’

‘You mean in writing? No.’

‘If Mr Ellison said you were anxious to get a written document from him to say you were a woman would you say that was incorrect?’

‘I did not ask him for a document. I simply asked him for his advice. Dr Huntley thought perhaps it would be best to have a paper in order to identify myself when I came into touch with a rude crowd or investigating policemen and so on, as I had before, to be protected.’[viii]

As a result O’Donovan asked Hjelmer if she would submit to a medical examination, which she did. ‘I hereby certify that I have this day examined Dr H.W. Dannevill, and that the anatomical configuration shows that she is of the female sex’ reads the impassionate medical note.

Hjelmar’s sex was now recorded but O’Donovan was still not convinced of her nationality. Although she claimed to have been born somewhere near Copenhagen in 1862, she could not recall the name of the town nor produce any documentation.

However she did possess documents of a different kind—the confiscated letters shared at the start of this chapter. The file contains no further information on the letters or their writers. They were found amongst Hjelmar’s papers, which were eventually returned to her except for the four letters (including the two above). Three are from women, and in a possible explanation for why they were detained, hint at sexual activity between women.

‘I never wanted you so much as now’

Applying a contested, historically specific category such as ‘lesbian’ to an earlier period is problematic. Lesbian identity is a late twentieth-century concept, and the historical past was a very different sexual place. Women who loved and/or had sex with women, cross-dressed, or resisted heterosexuality did not necessarily have a language to describe themselves as lovers of women. They understood their desires, behaviour and experiences within the social context of their own time.[ix]

Yet these letters, and their wider context centred on Hjelmar and the Lahmann Home, point strongly to lesbian sexuality. Besides some of the leading prose, Katherine’s letter suggests that like Mary Bond she abhorred the thought of her husband visiting her (‘I dread the man intensely’). Could it be that her sexual desire was non-heterosexual? Was she one of many women whose sexuality had been suppressed by Victorian social mores?[x]

Affection is also there in another letter from Helene of Timaru. Its cramped script matches the letter shared at the start of this chapter, but as it is undated and on different paper it was probably written at a different time. Remarkably, it contains a dictated letter from a toddler in the care of Helene named William Stewart—who was none other than the son of Mary Bond.

In the letter written on behalf of William, Helene notes how much he is like his mother and recounts how he calls Dannevill ‘Docket’:
What about the boat Docket? On Wednesday carried the boat down + cleaned it out, and put it in the water. I did get in the boat Docket see!! Mrs Peuko put me on the boat. What shall I tell Docket? Kisses the paper (I kiss Docket!)… when are you coming down mummy + Docket to Peuko’s house? I good boy + do a lot every day.

He then signed off, in his own writing, with ‘William Stewart. I love you Docket.’[xi]

In her second letter Helene longs for the company of Hjelmar. ‘It always comforts me to read your dear loving words and to recall their sweet accompaniments’ she wrote. ‘I wish you were here now, how I long to lay my head against your shoulder and feel the thrill of spirit answering spirit. I do call you at night and early in the morning. I can sometimes feel that I am in your arms.’ In what could be suggestive prose or code, Helen recalls how she liked ‘to think of the iris buds opening… Think of me as they do, my most precious one.’[xii] Her letter also highlights the kinship felt between these women, when she asks,
Do you feel bound to spend your Christmas at Miramar, or could you not bring Molly and well as Mary Stewart and come here for a fortnight? Or as long as you like. Molly could have a tent and a verandah bed. Do answer this question Dear one! Will you! Sit down at the cocoa interval and send me a line. And I hope it will be yes if not, as soon after as possible. You must have a holiday and I do want you so! And we could make you comfortable and happy. My love to Mary Stewart.[xiii]

Are these letters evidence of sexual relationships between women or simply an example of romantic friendships? Late nineteenth and early twentieth century letters between women could be used to convey loving feelings or to discuss plans and fantasies, without necessarily meaning a sexual relationship. The power and intensity of love between women can be portrayed strongly in words, which sometimes included expressions of sensual and physical affection.[xiv]

Feminist historian Lelia Rupp suggests there are three behavioural features or characteristics that relate to lesbian historical evidence: romantic love between women, transgender identities, and sexual acts.[xv] Hjelmar’s letters and her non-binary gender seem to lean towards such evidence, but there is little consistency in historians’ understandings of women’s cross-dressing and its links with lesbian sexuality.[xvi]

Regardless of what we call her lived reality, there were many ways in which gender bending and same-sex relationships were policed before, during and after the First World War. The New Zealand government did not criminalise lesbian sex acts, writes Historian Alison Laurie, but outlawed lesbians through a complex web of regulations and strategies. The state could punish women who transgressed against gender-codes by cross-dressing or with unacceptable sexual behaviours through connecting lesbianism with promiscuity and prostitution. In doing so, ‘the law contained and controlled women’s access to public spaces and to self-determined sexual expression… where these methods proved inadequate on their own, lesbianism was contained by the medical profession who from the earliest times classified it as a disorder.[xvii]

Wartime simply added fuel to the flames. ‘Imperialism, while extolling the self-sacrificing single man who gave his life to tame some remote part of the empire, called for women to return to their traditional roles… independent women were accused of sex hatred and pilloried for preferring their own sex to men.’[xviii]

Not long after Hjelmar’s arrest, such a stance was taken to the extreme in Britain when MP Noel Billing claimed that Germany possessed a ‘Black Book’ of ‘forty-seven-thousand English men and women’ involved in lesbianism and other so-called deviant acts. According to Billing, the British Empire was about to collapse from within—one blackmail at a time. Billing argued that ‘in lesbian ecstasy the most sacred secrets of State were threatened.’[xix]

This was the socio-legal setting in which Hjelmar’s letters were detained, and what she challenged with every collar or waistcoat she wore. Indeed, clothing itself was crucial to how gender was read by others. Victorianism expected women to demonstrate a meticulous personal daintiness. Their gestures were to be free of any sign of masculinity and their clothes and hair were to have ‘a precarious fragility.’[xx] From the late nineteenth century the plainer, more masculine style worn by ‘new women’, such as students, teachers, and office workers, had begun to challenge this view. But when gender variance intersected with male-defined ideas of sexuality, it was seen as a potential enemy of heterosexuality, gender order, and the nation itself.[xxi] In a patriarchal society, such cases had to be controlled.

The war had facilitated a deep intrusion into Hjelmar’s personal relationships by the state, and what it found unsettled Salmond. ‘Although the question of sex has now been settled by medical examination, the further information received and now submitted to me in no way alters the opinion which I formerly expressed, but rather confirms it’. After speaking with Gibbon, he ordered the immediate internment of Hjelmar. She was formerly arrested as an enemy alien on 26 May 1917 and escorted under guard to Matiu Somes Island. She was one of the few women to be interned in New Zealand during the First World War.

A number of newspapers carried the mild sensation of her arrest and usually finished with a comment on her attire. ‘The internment of Dr Hjelmar von Dannevill, which was effected yesterday, did not surprise the Wellington people’ reported the Evening Star. ‘The voice of gossip has insisted for a long time past that this lady, who claimed to be of Danish nationality, would find more congenial company on Somes Island.’[xxii] Her ‘eccentricities’ included wearing ‘her hair short’, a ‘hat, coat, vest, collar’, and ‘boots of a masculine pattern with a woman’s skirt.’[xxiii] The Northern Advocate quipped that the ‘quaint little figure’ who ‘would have passed for a boy easily were it not that she announced her sex by wearing one of the most characteristic garments of woman—a skirt’, would be missed.[xxiv]

Mr JA Fothergill of Dunedin felt compelled to write in support of Hjelmar, noting with regret that the reports on her internment ‘hardly does the citizens of Wellington justice… there must be hundreds of grateful patients (of whom I am one) throughout New Zealand who owe the doctor thanks for unwearied skilled attention and deep sympathy.’ That she wore ‘a masculine style of dress is merely a proof that her mind had risen superior to and emancipated from, the tyranny and vanity of fashion.’[xxv]

Although she was interviewed again—this time by the military—no personal file of her time on Matiu Somes Island has survived. This may be due to her short amount of time in the camp. Two months into her internment, Hjelmar is said to have suffered a severe nervous breakdown. Ironically, with the permission of Defence Minister James Allen she was transferred to the Lahmann Home to recuperate. NZ Truth was bemused and ridiculed the government for interning her in the first place. Rumour had it that her arrest was due to her losing a handbag ‘alleged to have contained incriminating correspondence with Europe,’ read the story.[xxvi] In the end, the rumour was not too far from the truth.


[i] Report of Constable Bodamm, date, Dr Von Dannevill, AD10 Box 9/ 17/26, ANZ, Wellington Office.
[ii]  Dominion, 16 December 1912.
[iii] Freelance, 3 May 1913
[iv] Interview between Dannevill and O’Donovan, 21 May 1917, Dr Von Dannevill, AD10 Box 9/ 17/26, ANZ, Wellington Office.
[v] Ibid.
[vi]
Ibid. 
[vii] Ibid.
[viii]
Ibid.
[ix] “Women who loved” Oram and Turnbull,
The Lesbian History Sourcebook: Love and Sex Between Women in Britain from 1780 to 1970, Routledge: London & New York, 2001,.p.1. I am also aware that my own reading of the sources as a heterosexual, cis-male outsider is just as problematic.
[x] See Martha Vicinus
, Independent Women: Work and Community for Single Women 1850-1920, Virago: 1985, p. 17
[xi] Helene to Dannevill, undated, Dr Von Dannevill, AD10 Box 9/ 17/26, ANZ, Wellington Office. William Paul Bond was born on 7 August 1913, which made him three in 1916. He died in The US in 1973.
[xii] Helene to Dannevill, undated, Dr Von Dannevill, AD10 Box 9/ 17/26, ANZ, Wellington Office.
[xiii] Helene to Dannevill, undated, Dr Von Dannevill, AD10 Box 9/ 17/26, ANZ, Wellington Office.
[xiv]Oram and Turnbull, The Lesbian History Sourcebook, p.51. Hjelmar’s masculinity and her blurring of binary genders adds a further complexity. Judith Halberstam argues that ‘many other models existed beyond the either-or proposition of an asexual friendship or a butch-femme sexual dynamic.’ She suggests that theorising a range of multiple genders and sexual desires would better explain female masculinity than the term lesbian. 

[xv] Leila Rupp, as cited by Julie Glamuzina.
[xvi] Oram and Turnbull, The Lesbian History Sourcebook, p.12.
[xvii] Alison J Laurie,
Lady-Husbands and Kamp Ladies, Thesis, p. 57-58
[xviii] Vicinus, Independent Women, p.285
[xix] Noel Billing, January 1918, as cited by Alison J Laurie, Lady-Husbands and Kamp Ladies, p.64
[xx] Vern Bullough and Bonnie Bullough, Cross Dressing, Sex, and Gender, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 1993, p.155
[xxi] Oram and Turnbull, The Lesbian History Sourcebook, p.14.
[xxii] Evening Star, 29 May 1917
[xxiii] Dominion, 29 May 1917
[xxiv] Northern Advocate, 2 June 1917
[xxv] Evening Post, 5 June 1917
[xxvi] NZ Truth, 21 July 1917

1 comment:

Unknown said...

wonderful fresh intriguing scholarship jared
got lots more truth stuff on her if you want refs
and great news about oup!!