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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published January 14 2012

Eriksmoen: Meticulous laundress kept true identity secret

Libbie Custer knew her favorite laundress Mrs. Nash was also an excellent baker, midwife, and seamstress. What Col. George Custer’s wife did not know was that this multitalented woman was really a man.

Despite the fact that Nash had been married at least three times during her acquaintance with Libbie, no one other than her husbands was certain of her true gender. People commented on her coarse and stubborn beard, angular shape and awkward gait, but it was not until after Nash’s death in 1878 that people learned the truth.

Because Nash’s husband came under ridicule after the revelation of her gender, he committed suicide.

Today, nothing is known about the early life of Nash because she carefully guarded the secret of her identity. She claimed she was from Mexico and had two children. She told Libbie that before moving to Kentucky, she earned a living by “driving ox teams over the plains of New Mexico.” In 1866, she moved to Elizabethtown, Ky., lived “along Suds Row” and got a job doing laundry for the U.S. Army during Reconstruction.

Nash gained a reputation for the meticulous work she did on the laundry. To earn extra income, she tailored officers’ uniforms and “built a reputation as a dependable midwife (and) few births occurred at the post without her expert help.” Not noted for external beauty that would catch a soldier’s eye, Nash had a number of attributes that made her an apparent good catch. She was reputed to be an excellent cook, kept a neat and tidy house, was industrious, and had her own source of income. In 1868, she married Harry O. Clifton, the quartermaster’s clerk.

On April 3, 1871, the 7th Cavalry arrived in Elizabethtown, and on Sept. 3, Custer assumed command of the post. Libbie joined her husband at the post, and they lived in the elaborate “Hill House,” where Libbie first met Nash (Mrs. Clifton at that time). Libbie wrote, Nash “was our laundress, and when she brought the linen home, it was fluted and frilled so daintily that I considered her a treasure.”

Libbie admired Nash, who she knew “to be tenderhearted.” Sensing that something was bothering her laundress, Libbie visited her home. She learned that Mr. Clifton had deserted his wife, stealing all of the money she had saved. He also deserted from his military obligation. Another man soon came courting – Sgt. James Nash, the personal servant to Libbie’s brother-in-law, Capt. Tom Custer. In 1872, James Nash and the company laundress married, despite the fact that the Clifton never divorced.

In March 1873, the 7th Cavalry was ordered to Dakota Territory. The Nashes arrived at Fort Rice on June 10 to rejoin the 7th and were then transferred to Fort Abraham Lincoln on Sept. 21. When the couple first arrived at Fort Lincoln, they seemed happy attending military balls and other social functions. “Then, unexpectedly, Nash stole his wife’s savings and deserted her and the service.” Mrs. Nash was then pursued by Corp. John Noonan, and the two were married later that year.

Noonan and Nash appeared to be “a contented and happy couple, the center of the social circle at Fort Lincoln.” Nash kept a bright and tidy home for her husband, who became a favorite hunting partner with Custer. When Custer went with most of the other 7th in pursuit of Sitting Bull in 1876, Noonan served with a detached unit at the Yellowstone Depot. After the Battle of the Little Big Horn, he returned to Fort Lincoln.

In fall 1878, Noonan was sent out on patrol in pursuit of some rebellious Indians. Nash fell ill. When her condition became worse, she called for a priest and instructed her friends she wanted to be buried as she was, without the normal preparation for burial. When Nash died on Nov. 4, some of her closest friends decided they could best show her proper respect by cleaning her up by removing her clothing. They discovered Nash was really a man.

When Noonan returned, he was teased by many of the other soldiers. Noonan fled the fort and busied himself cleaning stables south of Fort Lincoln. A reporter for the Bismarck Tribune found him on Nov. 28. Noonan insisted “he didn’t know his wife was a man. In fact, he said they had been trying very hard to have a baby.” Two days later, Noonan shot himself. To try and restore the dignity he had been denied by his fellow soldiers at Fort Lincoln, Noonan was buried with his fallen comrades at the Custer Battlefield Cemetery in Montana.

“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at: cjeriksmoen@cableone.net.