Lisbetha Olofsdotter is one of the many seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Swedish women who disguised themselves as a man. Her case is, however, unusual in that during the time she disguised herself as a man she married a woman. Her case is also unusual in that she was made to suffer a harsh and humiliating punishment for her activities in 1679.
Not much is known of Lisbetha Olofsdotter as an individual other than that she was born at Tisslinge croft in Östuna parish, within Långhundra district, presumably at some point during the 1630s. Her trial in 1679 noted that she had two children fathered by Anders Pärsson Gångskräddare. At that time her son was six and a half years old and still thriving.
Lisbetha Olofsdotter left her husband in 1672 due to his “unpleasant way of expressing himself and whoring about”, that is to say due to the ill-treatment and infidelity she was suffering at his hands. At that time although it was possible to get a divorce if one of two spouses was charged with infidelity, domestic violence was not an accepted reason. Indeed, voluntarily abandoning one’s spouse was, in contrast, a punishable offence and in its own right a cause for divorce unless the missing spouse was persuaded to return by the local priest with the support of the sheriff. We know of at least one case where a woman’s decision to disguise herself as a man was down to her fear that her violent husband would otherwise hunt her down. This does not appear to have been the case with regard to Lisbetha Olofsdotter.
Lisbetha Olofsdotter travelled to Stockholm where she began to work at Huvudsta farm, for a period of four and a half years. According to her own account she was encouraged by another woman to disguise herself in male attire and thus ‘fixera’ (beguile/scam) a widow who was particularly ‘keen on men’. We do not know whether this plan came to anything, but in mid-October 1676 Lisbetha Olofsdotter began to work as a man-servant for Jonas Persson in Allby, Botkyrka parish, using the name of Mats Ersson. Just a couple of weeks later her master’s brother, Erik Persson Arnelli, a skipper, arrived at the farm in the company of a farmer who wanted to hire her services as a soldier. During her later trial Lisbetha Olofsdotter revealed that the skipper, who had discovered her real gender, threatened to kill her if she exposed her true self or if she refused this farmer’s request. The skipper was paid 24 daler for facilitating her employment as a soldier, whilst Lisbetha Olofsdotter received 300 daler in soldier’s wages, which was a considerable sum. Although she had grounds for claiming that she had been forced into this situation in those days military conscription frequently occurred and it was far from unusual for people to be forced and threatened into service. Similar cases of threats and coercion arise in other legal proceedings regarding women who were recruited into the army.
In her new role as a soldier she attended every military gathering and to bring less attention to her deception she had inserted a horn into her trousers which she used in order to urinate from a standing position like other men. Just as the company of soldiers she was in was about to depart she became severely ill and had to be left behind. Before this point she had successfully posted marriage banns and then married Kjerstin Ersdotter, a maidservant. It remains unclear how this had been achieved. Apparently the priest, the surrounding people, and her spouse were not in any doubt that Lisbetha Olofsdotter was a man. During her trial Lisbetha Olofsdotter claimed that Kjerstin Ersdotter had proposed they marry before the regiment she belonged to departed for active service. Kjerstin Ersdotter explained that ‘rumours had started to circulate’ about them. It is unknown how developed this pair’s marital relationship was but Kjerstin Ersdotter had recounted that her attempts to gain ‘carnal knowledge’ of her husband had only been met by his cold rebuffs. Sexual activity before or outside marriage was cause for serious punishment, but within marriage it was a mandatory duty. Kjerstin Ersdotter stated that she had felt fooled and betrayed, but the trial demanded to know whether they had “otherwise engaged in carnal temptation’ together which they both denied. Sexual activity between women was not expressly a criminal offence, neither in the law of the land or in the addenda to the laws known as God’s law. However, other Biblical sources could be called upon – such as Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter 1, verses 26 and 32: “Thus God has abandoned those who give into shameful desires. Their women had gone against natural practises and taken up unnatural ones”. Those who did so “deserved to die”. Despite this, no Swedish or Finnish legal proceedings of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries are known in which a woman is condemned for having had sexual relations with another woman. The court was satisfied with Lisbetha Olofsdotter’s and Kjerstin Ersdotter’s statements and focused instead on the deceitful nature of Lisbetha Olofsdotter’s relationship with Kjerstin Ersdotter and based the extremely severe punishment on this.
Lisbetha Olofsdotter was given the death sentence in 1679, based on six points. Firstly, she had abandoned her real and legally married husband. Secondly, she had “wantonly and with viciousness” disguised herself as a man by donning men’s clothing and thus made an ‘abomination’ of herself before God and caused a lot of anger. The judgement passed down was in accordance with God’s law and the fifth book of Moses, chapter 22, verse 5: “A woman shall not dress as a man, and a man shall not dress as a woman, and those who do are an abomination in God’s eyes’. Thirdly, she had fooled another woman into marrying her which resulted in her being guilty of bigamy and, fourthly, she had made a mockery and travesty of God’s commands and the holy bond of matrimony. Moreover, fifthly, she had cunningly and deceitfully scammed her fellow man of a sizeable sum in soldier’s pay which she had subsequently wasted. Sixthly, she had also deceived the authorities by allowing herself to be hired for a service that she could not perform. Due to all of these reasons the court was unable to release her from the death sentence and she was condemned to be executed by decapitation. Thus it was not just the fact that she had disguised herself as a man which led to her sentence, albeit it was that element which was noted at the official execution. Her judgment stated that she should be executed wearing a woman’s head-dress, and this is what happened. Wearing “female head-dress and male clothing” and carrying a faggot she was led out of prison to Hötorget, where her head was severed from her body, to impress fear on and serve as a warning to the public.
Only one other case is known, in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Sweden and Finland, in which a woman who disguised herself as a man was sentenced and executed. This was the case of ‘Kierstin vid Kopparberget’, a glazier’s wife, who had taken service as a soldier in Dalarna. In 1624 she was publicly hanged in Stockholm, wearing boots and carrying a sword. Here, too, the cross-gender element was reflected in the actual punishment – hanging was considered to be the most shameful and disrespectful method of execution, reserved for male thieves.
Lisbetha Olofsdotter’s life story remains a dark series of events, characterised by violence, threats, and deceit, which came to a tragic and humiliating end at a time when Sweden was both a strongly patriarchal and fundamentally Lutheran society, within which the Bible served as the law.