An Enigma for Olema: “Evolution or Hoax: Born a Boy But Swears She is a Girl”
By Carol Acquaviva
Reading the Marin and San Francisco newspapers during the summer of 1890, you’d have learned that a man in Olema had wed a woman who was born a boy.
Sherbrook “Sherb” Hardman (1865–1902) — the step-son of Olema blacksmith Frank Miller — married Belle Reynolds of Fairfax, whose birth name was Delbert Reynolds. A San Francisco Justice of the Peace reportedly officiated, although I cannot locate a marriage certificate or written witness accounts. When Sherb met Belle she had been going by “Delbert,” and working in Olema as a laborer.
Reporters didn’t quite know how to categorize Belle. The San Francisco Examiner described “a female masquerading in male attire.” Days later, the same paper led with this front-page headline, followed by an investigation based on interviews and interpretation:
EVOLUTION OR A HOAX.
Marin County Completely Puzzled About Delbert Reynolds.
BORN A BOY, BUT SWEARING SHE IS A GIRL.
Her Husband Also Affirms His Wife’s Story —
All of the People Who Knew Her as a Boy Are Excited Over the Transformation —
Some Believe It to Be a Huge Hoax —
A Peculiar Case.
Was Belle born a boy, but dressed and behaved as a woman? Or was she a girl who had been raised as a boy, and only recently, in her early 20s, began presenting as a woman? And, the locals questioned, if this was by her own choice, what was the motivation? The late-19th century reactions to Belle were varied: surprise, confusion, amusement, and acceptance. Regardless, interest was piqued, and gawkers were abundant. After hearing about Sherb and Belle, visitors to Olema needed to see for themselves, and “[went] away convinced that the being who for twenty-two years they knew as a male had changed sex and was the wife of an estimable young man.”
“The whole county commenced to puzzle over the mystery, and the tongue of Rumor commenced to wag so incessantly that the relatives… were compelled to advance the transformation story.”
Those who had known Belle her whole life provided facts as they knew them. The Examiner explained:
Delbert always dressed in male clothing, sat with boys in school, played with boys, and when the proper age arrived associated with men and performed a man’s labor. The residents of San Rafael were accustomed to see Delbert driving a sprinkling-cart, working in fields and driving Wells, Fargo & Co.’s Express wagons. It is even hinted that a marriage engagement existed between Delbert and the daughter of a well-known resident of San Rafael. Nobody had the slightest reason to suspect that a change had been made in the sex of the person until the fact was announced that Delbert Reynolds had become Mrs. Belle Hardman. To these who know the Reynolds family the entire affair is an enigma.
The Examiner continued:
When the marriage was announced and San Rafael held its breath over the shock a very romantic little story was told in explanation of the strange affair. It was said that Delbert was really a woman and that her name was Belle, and that not wishing to be a burden on her parents she had dressed herself in men’s clothing and passed for a man, so that she could do men’s work, there being no work for women in San Rafael. Doubt was thrown upon this story by the fact that female domestics, etc., are in constant demand in San Rafael, and a woman could always obtain employment.”
Belle’s mother, Helen Reynolds, admitted she was surprised when first hearing that who she thought was her son, was now a woman married to a man. But Helen viewed the situation in a positive light.
“To say I was astonished…poorly expresses my feeling as the time…. Delbert convinced me beyond a shadow of a doubt. It is certainly the most marvelous thing that ever happened, but it is true, nevertheless. My boy has been changed into a girl.”
What we do not have is Belle’s own words or thoughts. A newspaper reporter was invited to the Hardman home in Olema to talk to Belle, but Sherb’s mother forbade it.
It is not clear what became of the union of Sherb and Belle, whether the marriage was annulled or ended in divorce, or more likely was dissolved due to lack of legal legitimacy. The 1900 census shows that Belle had changed her name to Adele, was identified as Black, and was living with and working for a family in Alameda as their cook.
On March 15, 1891 in Olema, Sherb married Dottie Jewell Richmond of Point San Quentin. When Sherb died in 1902 after a long illness, his obituary made reference to his beloved Dottie, and said, “When love rules our hearts and actions, heaven is here.”
At the time of her death in San Mateo County in 1942, Delbert/Belle/Adele had apparently been married three times, each time to a man. In the decades before she died, she seemed to be known as Mrs. Adele Best, having become the widow of Albert Best of Redwood City, several years previous.
This story has an unfortunate ending. An autopsy suggested that Adele, age 74, died of a heart attack possibly brought about while a hospital physician attempted an examination, despite her terror-stricken protests. Insensitive, tabloid-style headlines once again delegitimized her life as a “hoax.” “Man Masquerades As Woman” and “Death Discloses Secret: Woman Really Was Man: Not Even Her Best Friend Knew.”
Adele was characterized as having “long grey hair and a feminine voice,” and had been often referred to as “Grandma Best.” Just prior to her death she she was employed for several months as a live-in cook and housekeeper at the home of Margaret Richetti of Redwood City. Margaret claimed to know little of Adele’s background, but described her as “a gentle soul.” Another acquaintance said, “She was a wonderful person. We knew she was different somehow from other women, but we were all very fond of her.”