In the small town of Saunemin, Illinois, US and Irish flags fly side by side, marking the home of Albert DJ Cashier, a veteran of the American civil war who lived a hard working and quiet life until his final years when his story made national headlines across the US.
Today in Saunemin, the mayor himself is known to give visitors personal tours of Cashier's small, one-bed home, and may even accompany you to the grave, where the headstone etched, "Albert DJ Cashier, Born Jennie Hodgers in Clogher Head Ireland, 1843-1915", may give those unfamiliar with Cashier's story cause to give it a second glance.
As a girl of 16 in the Louth fishing village of Clogherhead, the stowaway Jennie Hodgers took the boat to Liverpool, and another to New York where she arrived in 1859, as Albert Cashier.
Whether Hodgers identified as transgender or whether she understood that life as a working class, illiterate female in the US, where employment options would have been limited to jobs such as working as a maid, laundress or even a prostitute, would come with its limits, is unknown.
As Fiona Ní Eidhin, who produced the TG4 documentary Jennie Hodgers – Saighdiúir Lincoln, puts it, "the only person who can really answer that is dead. But what everyone seems to agree on is that being a soldier was a well-paid job. It meant security, three square meals a day, $13 a month, and a pension. It was a respectable job and would be a better way of life, providing you survived the war."
Cashier was a plucky soldier, jumping out of the trenches to insult the enemy and taunt them into battle
In August 1862, Cashier enlisted into the 95th Illinois Infantry, passing the medical exam which primarily consisted of inspecting hands, feet and teeth and a general understanding you could hold a gun and carry things.
Short, light and fearless, Cashier survived his three years in Abraham Lincoln’s army. And though he kept to himself, never going to the toilet or changing his clothes in front of the other men, his fellow soldiers held him in high esteem.
As Ní Eidhin’s documentary recounts, Cashier was a plucky soldier, jumping out of the trenches to insult the enemy and taunt them into battle. On another occasion, when captured by a Confederate soldier, he knocked over his captor and ran, unharmed, all the way back to camp.
Cashier continued to live as a man after the war ended, and was afforded opportunities denied to women at the time, such as the right to vote, along with a wider array of employment opportunities.
In Saunemin, Cashier found odd jobs as a janitor, a street-lamp lighter and looked after the town’s church.
“Again, he kept himself to himself. He didn’t want too many questions asked about who he was or where he came from, but he was a very respected member of the community. He would wear his uniform all the time, buttoned up very high, apparently to hide the lack of an Adam’s apple,” says Ní Eidhin.
It was while working for Senator Ira Lish that Cashier’s secret began to unravel. When one day Lish accidentally hit Cashier with his car, the doctor who attended him discovered his identity. Cashier begged Lish and the doctor to keep quiet and they agreed.
The pension board accused Cashier of fraud and set about rescinding his pension, saying that this now frail and elderly person could not have fought in the war because they were female
After the incident, Cashier’s health began to deteriorate and it was arranged that he be moved into the Soldiers and Sailors’ Home in Quincy, Illinois. Lish told the medical staff about Cashier, warning them to keep the secret, but one day in 1913 two male nurses made it known and a national media frenzy ensued.
The pension board accused Cashier of fraud and set about rescinding his pension, saying that this now frail and elderly person could not have fought in the war because they were female. However, Cashier’s comrades from the 95th rallied around and testified that this was indeed the person they fought alongside and the board agreed to continue the payments.
With declining mental health, Cashier was declared insane and moved to a mental asylum.
Forced to live in the women’s ward and wear dresses for the first time in decades, Cashier tied up the skirts with safety pins to form pants. But tripping and breaking a hip, Cashier became bedridden and died on October 10th, 1915, aged 71.
Cashier was given a full military funeral, was buried in uniform and a gravestone was erected to Albert DJ Cashier. Sixty years later, a headstone bearing both Albert and Jennie’s name was added.
Why the girl who left Clogherhead became the man who fought for liberty in the US will never truly be known, but there is little doubt that both Jennie and Albert were brave, determined and full of resolve, living a life of adventure and independence that most Irish women of the time could only have dreamed of.