Lewis Ginter’s Gay Mystery
Where are the lines drawn in history between a lifelong male companionship and sexual orientation? It’s a blurry and controversial one for Major Lewis Ginter, a man that played a role in much of the Richmond we see today.
Ginter wanted to bring a world-class hotel to Richmond. Poof! – The Jefferson.
Street car suburbs – the rage of the late 1800s? Yes – today’s Bellevue neighborhood.
And what about Richmond’s very own version of Fifth Avenue? With his home on West Franklin Street (now Virginia Commonwealth University’s Ginter House), he started a trend with colleagues building their own mansions on the block.
Most notably, he boosted Richmond’s economy post-war while building his own wealth through his cigarette-manufacturing empire.
He accomplished all of this, yet very little has been written on Ginter until now thanks to author Brian Burns.
“He’s a clear figure in Richmond history, but his story had never been told,” Burns said. “Richmonders deserve to have a single source to learn about him.”
In his new book, Lewis Ginter: Richmond’s Gilded Age Icon, Burns not only explores the Major’s life, but also the city’s antebellum success, wartime perils, and post-Civil War struggles.
Burns is no stranger to writing about Richmond’s history. He produces local radio show The Rainbow Minute with partner Judd Proctor. (Note: The text of the show appears on GayRVA.com daily.)
The couple lives in Ginter’s streetcar suburb — it was researching the orgin of Bellevue’s arch that got Ginter’s life on Burns radar.
Also intrigued by the man’s relationship with John Pope, Burns wanted to know more. Although in his book, he refers to Pope as Ginter’s lifelong companion, Burns speculates that Ginter may have been gay — but in the context of the culture of the time, there’s no concrete proof.
Burns explains that a gay cultural identity as we know it today did not exist during Ginter’s time; however, the Major did travel to Europe which was more cosmopolitan and socially progressive than Richmond in the 1890s.
“Based on everything I learned about him and Richmond culture during his time, it’s entirely possible that Ginter didn’t confront his sexuality at all.”
At the time of Ginter’s death, the newspaper said he never sought the company of women. Burns notes that Ginter was not the only lifelong bachelor of the Victorian era and that it was commonplace for gentlemen to mentor young businessmen.
“Clearly, long before Pope died, he was already a businessman,” Burns said. ”He didn’t need Ginter to survive in business the way he once did.”
Burns says the best way to describe Ginter’s relationship with Pope is a “romantic friendship” or “idealized friendship.”
“Ginter was devoted to the ideals of his time. He was seemingly more focused on doing his duty to others, and doing the ‘right thing’ as defined by his society, than answering his own carnal desires.”
He explains at the time men socialized together amongst themselves and romanticized the brotherhood of men.
“I think if he was gay, the times provided the perfect cover for him because he lived during and after the Civil War and that was a time where male bonding was a great thing.”
“It could have been a very close friendship – but when you think about the fact that he never immediately sought the company of women – he had an orientation.”
In Victorian times, with sex been a taboo subject, homosexuality was off the public radar screen. Burns said during Ginter’s time, there weren’t many people that suspected anything. They lived together with bedrooms side-by-side.
“If they were doing something society would disapprove of, you would think they wouldn’t have led such an open relationship,” Burns said.
“He may have never expressed it, he may have never confronted it or acted on it. But I think he had an orientation. Ginter might have scratched his head and not understood what he was.”
Burns mentions that older Richmonders don’t want to talk about the possibilities that Ginter could be gay, while others have been very receptive.
“Everyone wants to claim Ginter for their team because he was such a big figure,” Burns said.
Brian Burns gives a book talk and reading on Thursday, September 8 from 6 – 8 p.m. at Chop Suey Books, 2913 W. Cary Street.
“Lewis Ginter: Richmond’s Gilded Age Icon” is this month’s selection at River City Reads, a citywide book club, and is available locally at Chop Suey Books, Book People, Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, Jefferson Hotel Gift Shop, and the American Civil War Center At Tredegar. Photo by Roland Winston.
Kevin Clay is the editor and publisher of GAYRVA.COM. He is a Richmond native, loves the city and knows it's on the edge of greatness. Don't hold back RVA. You can follow Kevin on GAYRVA's Twitter or e-mail him at email@example.com.
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