When Edward Hyde, Lord Cornbury, the newly appointed governor of New York and New Jersey, arrived in Manhattan on May 2, 1702, he was ebulliently received by the citizenry. This was likely the high point of his six and a half years in office. Among the allegations of corruption that would soon dog him: accepting bribes from crooked Jersey officials, spending extravagant sums on candles and firewood for two Colonial garrisons, building a “pleasure house” on Governors Island, and running up colossal personal debts.
But rumors of financial improprieties alone wouldn’t have led mythologizers to dub Cornbury “a degenerate and a pervert” and “quite possibly the worst governor in the history of the empire.” Such bile had more to do with his personal habits, particularly what is said to have been his signature sartorial flourish. He opened up a session of the New York Assembly dressed as his cousin—Queen Anne. “You are very stupid not to see the propriety of it,” he scolded the legislators.
Cross-dressing reportedly became a theme of his regime. He pranced in drag along the ramparts of Fort Anne. He got his kicks by donning a dress, hiding behind a tree, and startling passersby, shrieking with laughter. After his wife died in 1706, one account alleges that he “was in that Garb when his dead Lady was carried out the Fort, and this not privately but in face of the Sun and sight of the Town.”
That many of these stories were suspicious, if not specious—advanced by three of Cornbury’s most hated political enemies, none of whom claims to have witnessed any of it firsthand—did nothing to diminish their efficacy as political smears. In 1708, Cornbury was sacked as governor, arrested for unpaid debts, and imprisoned for seventeen months. Upon his release, he fled back to England vowing to clear his name. He failed.