One of the challenges of recovering queer history from the closet is the fact that until recently, no one wanted to document their same sex desires. To do so could result in being arrested, committed to a mental asylum, being fired from a job, being ostracized by family and friends, and in some cases, suicide. This was certainly the case in the 19th Century.
The lack of primary source material in an era when being “out” was incomprehensible leaves historians with little more than speculation. And yet, that speculation is often fueled by very compelling circumstantial evidence. Consider the fascinating case of Paul Morphy.
Never heard of him? You’re not alone. Curiously, of all the interesting characters New Orleans has spawned in its 303 year history, Morphy was one of the most eccentric.
Born into a prominent family in New Orleans in 1837, Morphy grew up to become the greatest chess master of his time and still regarded by many as the greatest chess player who ever lived. He earned this reputation by the age of 20 and quickly grew to hate it. In fact, he abandoned the game to pursue a law career, but he never secured full-time work as an attorney. After law school he traveled to Europe where he was declared the “World Chess Champion.”
Upon returning to New Orleans he gave the game up for good and desperately tried to shed his fame, but his celebrity status continued to haunt him. With his family fortune providing financial security, he lived a leisurely life as a Southern Dandy before beginning his gradual descent into madness.
He developed a severe case of paranoia. He believed his brother-in-law was persecuting him and he was convinced restaurants were trying to poison him. He sometimes raised his walking cane in anger at people who dared speak to him as he strolled through the French Quarter. And there was odd behavior at home too. His niece wrote a booklet about him claiming he obsessively kept several pairs of women’s shoes arranged in a semi-circle around his bed.
When his delusions became worse, his family tried to have him committed to a sanitarium, but Morphy successfully argued for his own release. Nevertheless, his friends still described him as “deranged” and “not right in the head.”
In the past, some have theorized Morphy’s mental illness was a result of his homosexuality. While such theories are not credible today, it is important to recognize the psychological damage of being closeted.
Speculation about Morphy’s sexuality stems from a letter written by a friend of Morphy’s to another mutual friend. In part, the letter reads:
“I can say, never did man more devotedly serve another. I neglected my wife for him, accompanied him to Paris and left her till broken-hearted she came to fetch me back. I put a coldness between myself and all my family which only years will heal, and I don’t, even now, know why. I am not a chess-player, I am not an American, I have nothing to hope for from Morphy, and I would not say what I have herein written, to anybody but you, and you will be guilty of an infamous act if you let anyone see this letter. I shall watch over Morphy until he leaves Europe, and when he leaves I can say … . I nursed you when ill, carrying you in my arms like a child. I have been a lover, a brother, a mother to you; I have made you an idol, a god – and now that you are gone, I never — but I will not finish. I say this to you, Fiske, but I have said nothing of it in my book; there Morphy is all in all, the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end; all that is great, magnanimous, true, noble and sublime, and Morphy will not open its pages without a blush, or close them without a sigh. – Burn this letter, Fiske, and forget the contents.”
So was Paul Morphy gay? No one knows for sure, but a majority of chess historians agree he probably was. Does it matter? Yes and no. It matters to the extent that Paul Morphy serves as an example of the challenges queer historians face. After all, how are we going to get our history out of the closet if we don’t know whose closet to look into?
Paul Morphy died in 1884. He is buried in St. Louis Cemetery #1 near the French Quarter.