Kirill Finkelshteyn
In a wrong body. The secret of the life of Nicolai de Raylan.
Moscow: IDRIS publisher.  2021; 416 p. 16+



   On November 4, 1906, two respectable gentlemen arrived in Phoenix, the capital of the state of Arizona. One was a weighty, gray-haired gentleman; another was a miniature middle-aged man with a thin, gaunt face. If it weren’t for the high-heeled boots and the elegant Victorian-style duplex coat, he could be mistaken for a teenage boy, the son of a grizzled gentleman.

    The porters loaded the couple’s luggage into the steam car on duty at the station square, which quickly took them to a small cozy hotel Union. The companion-backed miniature man barely climbed onto the hotel porch. Often he had to carry a handkerchief to his mouth to stop him from coughing. Thin arms and a thin body made him look like a frail ballerina.

It seemed that the coat he was wearing was a pair of sizes larger than necessary, a seemingly fragile man weighing no more than 90 pounds. In an experienced look, the owner of the hotel identified that the reason for the discrepancy was most likely the rapid weight loss, so characteristic of patients with consumption. Everything indicated that another patient, suffering from this common disease, arrived at the hotel.

    At the beginning of the 20th century people with consumption came to Arizona from all over America. Almost 25 years have passed since Koch discovered the causative agent of consumption, which has caused the highest number of deaths among all diseases over the last two centuries. But as well as century ago, a climate that stimulates the body’s defenses was considered as the best way of treatment. The dry desert wind, a lot of sunshine, the warm winter and the hot summer made Phoenix the best natural health resort for tuberculosis patients, the home of their last hope. Tent type resorts for poor people and landscaped hotels for the rich were opened in the city and the surrounding area. Reception of tuberculosis patients turned into a profitable business of the state Arizona and hotel Union.

    A miniature man registered under the name of Nicolai de Raylan, and his companion as Dr. William Rowe. They rented two adjacent comfortable rooms, connected by a large balcony. While the porter was moving the luggage of the guests to the room, the owner of the hotel Mr. Christofferson managed to talk with the doctor and became convinced of the rightness of his guess. Rowe told him he met de Raylan a few months ago in small town Canon of the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, where he worked as a practicing physician. 

    Along with the Phoenix, Canon was considered as one of the best climatic resorts for consumptive patients. Nicolai de Raylan arrived there from Chicago, hoping that the mountain air would stop the disease. For a while it seemed that a serious illness was receding. Nicolai got stronger, began to walk around the picturesque surroundings, hope appeared in his eyes. But with the onset of cold weather, Raylan's health deteriorated and the doctor advised him to move to warm Arizona for the winter. Just at that time, Raylan’s wife Anna with the son Harry arrived in Canon. Spouse asked Dr. Rowe to accompany her husband as a personal physician. The doctor was not busy with family concerns, by that time he had become a widower. The promised fee of 20 dollars a day exceeded his income from medical practice, and the patient was genuinely sympathetic, therefore Rowe accepted the proposal without long hesitation. So Raylan traveled south to Arizona with his personal physician, while his wife and son returned to Chicago.

    It turned out that Nicolai was an open, talkative person and a few days later the owner and employees of the hotel learned a lot about the circumstances of life of the new guest. He said that he was born and raised in Russia, the surname de Raylan inherited from his father, a Russian admiral. After arriving in America he settled in Chicago, where he soon became the secretary of the Russian consulate and founded his own law office. He was proud to say that he had served in the American Army in the 1898 Spanish War, showed the medals received for courage and a letter of thanks to hussar Raylan from President McKinley, whose assassination in 1901 shook the country.

    Nicolai had a photo album in an expensive leather cover, which he often showed to the doctor and the owner of the hotel. In one of the pictures he was captured on a rearing horse, in the uniform of famous Chicago’s «black hussars», a showy cavalry company, which indispensably participated in all crowded celebrations and parades. Raylan said that in addition to serving at the Russian consulate, his main pastime was training in the hussars’ detachment and in the athletic club.

    The album was filled with photos of friends, relatives and his own pictures. Among them was a photograph of a young girl with a bouquet of white flowers, a long, falling bang on her forehead and a slightly noticeable smile reminiscent of the smile of Leonardo’s Gioconda. Raylan said it was Eugene, the beloved of his youth in Russia. With great warmth he talked about his beautiful wife Anne and his teenage son Harry, and regularly exchanged letters with them. Their photos adorned several pages of the album and the bedside table of the fragile hussar.


                                                        De Raylan at the age 17 and his sweetheart  Eugene (Zaney).

    Every day Raylan sat for a long time in a chair on the balcony of the hotel, inhaling the healing air of the Arizona desert, admiring the far-off outlines of the bizarre mountains. They resembled the results of the game of baby giant in the «Arizona sandbox»: heavy wet sand taps and sandy spires petrified by the hot wind. Near the hotel located on the outskirts of the city grew large single cacti - thick green prickly posts with short « branches» and smaller cacti - fat green spiny leaves growing straight from the ground.

    Sometimes a small tram that looked like a wind-up toy, passed through the street; one day, on the occasion of a holiday, a parade of mounted Indians and cowboys marched in front of hotel. Looking at them, Rylan recalled the noisy and chaotic Chicago: crowded trams, a human anthill of crossroads, and many colorful processions that were staged in honor of the Columbian Exposition. There were friends and girlfriends, «black hussars», colleagues from the consulate and the law office, and Anna with Harry. Whether he will return to them alive or his body will be brought home in a boarded-up coffin, is known only to God.

    Often, Nikolai made short walks together with the doctor, where he told him about numerous affairs with women, and about the news of literary and political life of Russia. His service at the Russian Consulate gave him the opportunity receiving new books from the homeland, read Russian newspapers coming with diplomatic mail. The doctor learned from de Raylan about the Russian revolution and the adoption of the constitution. It was felt that the events taking place in the distant homeland still worried Nicolai. Rowe found his patient to be an educated, noble, and well-mannered man, although, sometimes Nicolai used dirty words in the story, telling about the adventures in the «black hussars» squad and other incidents of his stormy life. 

     In the evenings, he usually spent time playing cards at a nearest casino or reading Russian books brought with him. His favorite was an old Morocco binding book with illustrations on the Napoleonic Wars. When the doctor inquired about the contents of the book, Nicolai replied that these were the memories of Nadezhda Durova, a famous Russian cavalry girl who had fought in the Russian army during the war with Napoleon, posing as a man. Several times the doctor accompanied Raylan to the National Bank. Subsequently, the bank teller revealed that de Raylan had opened an account shortly after arriving in Phoenix and presented several checks for a small amount. He also reported that Raylan had accounts with three Chicago banks under different names. Almost every day, when his strength was sufficient, Nicolai reached the post office, asking for letters in his name. He did not tell anyone about the contents of his correspondence with his wife and others, but he quoted to the doctor son’s letters with parental pride and compassion. The doctor remembered that one of them said: “Dear Papa: I hope you enjoy Arizona and get well.  Today I had my haircut and the bunny had a haircut, but not by a barber, her hair is falling out. Your loving son. Harry".


    Day after day went on, a delicate balance came into Rylan's condition. It seemed to him that things were getting better and the worst was over. But a rapid deterioration began in early December. The fever raised at night, large drops of blood appeared on the handkerchief with which Raylan tried to restrain coughing attacks. His face became sickly thin and acquired a waxy quality. It became clear to the doctor that the patient's days were numbered; he had no more than a few months to live. Apparently, Nicolai understood this too. Outwardly, he remained calm and balanced as before, but his glance became detached. It seemed that he was looking through the people, as they were a miracle, delving deeper into the memories of his short life.

    The doctor was sincerely sorry for the patient, because Nicolai was only 32 years old and his last days he was forced to spend away from his family and friends. Seeing that the patient could not be helped, the doctor asked: is it worth sending his wife a telegram asking to come to Phoenix? Raylan replied that he hopes God would heed his prayers and he should get better soon. When asked about the will, he said that he would soon write a new one and certify it with a notary, then added:

    - Anything can happen, doctor, I know death is ready to take me in any moment; everything is in the will of God. Therefore, could you do me a favor? I don't really care to have my wife come here to be with me, for she would be no help to me. But after my death she must come immediately, for we have promised together that if I die first, she must wash and dress my body, then bury me according to the Orthodox rite in a uniform of the Chicago Hussars. If she dies first, I must wash and dress her body.

    The Doctor promised to grant strange will of the dying man, but he was not too surprised, as it turned out, he already knew something about an unusual arrangement. A few days ago, when his patient fell into oblivion after a severe attack, the doctor came to correct the pillows and accidentally looked on a piece of paper lying on the bedside table. Perhaps, it was a short message from Raylan’s wife. The doctor’s upbringing did not allow him to read other people’s letters, but he could not do it with all the desire, because it was written in Russian. As he ran through the letter, his eyes fixed on a phrase written in English: «No one should touch my body, as long as my wife is not coming». Dr. Rowe thought that probably Anna sends instructions to her beloved spouse what he should inform others, feeling the death is coming. As it turned out later, the doctor was not far from the truth.

    The agony began on the morning of December 18, Raylan started to move into a coma. Around two o'clock in the afternoon he wake up and nearby Dr. Rowe asked: «Should Anna be telegraphed»? Nicolai replied, I think it’s time, although I still hope to get better». But fifteen minutes later his breathing went away.

      Having recorded the death of the patient, Rowe sent a telegram to Nicolai’s wife, which recently became a widow. He reported the death, asked when she would arrive and what would be the orders regarding the body. After that, he went to the best in the city funeral home “Mohn and Driscoll”, named after its owners, and arranged to transport the body to the morgue. The doctor remembered unusual will of de Rylan, do not touch his body until his wife arrived. But it is not known how long we should wait her. Then, apparently, Anna will take the remains to Chicago. So he ordered to embalm the body to save it from smoldering. Perhaps this seemed more important to him.

    Raylan’s remains were taken to the morgue and Mr. Driscoll began embalming. He prepared a formalin-based solution, the tools with which he was going to inject it into the blood system and laid the body on a special table. Driscoll was a professional in his business and was not sentimental, but even at the hotel he noticed to the doctor that he was surprised how feminine the face of the deceased looked: with smooth delicate skin, without any signs of a mustache and beard. His astonishment increased many times when he began to free the body from clothes. Under a shirt, Driscoll found an elegant cross on a silver chain with words engraved in Slavic letters. Raylan's chest was tied with a wide bandage, under which was hidden a small but clearly female breast. Further verification revealed that Nicolai de Raylan was a WOMAN. There was no doubt about it...


    Shocked by an unexpected discovery, Mr. Driscoll covered the body and sought Dr. Rowe to question him about his late patient. He found him in the hotel's office, and after short conversation convinced himself that the doctor had been no party either by consent or known edge to this strange deception. Whereas if it were to be kept up the doctor could himself have put the body into a coffin and could have complied with all required regulations for the burial of the body. When Mr. Driscoll finally asked Dr. Rowe if he knew that De Raylan was a woman, the doctor stunned and discouraged. Soon he recovered and said that he had never had the slightest suspicion that his patient was not what he seemed. He had been with him a great deal in their rooms, in traveling and on the street. They had visited barber shops together for De Raylan shaved regularly and frequently. There had never been a move by him that could have raised a doubt as to his sex, not even could Santa do better than to make the boy or girl a present of a good wheel. In addition, he had a real wife and son, and purely male habits. However, the doctor noticed after a short hesitation, that Raylan had a couple of suspicious oddities, he allowed listening to the lungs only from the back and through the underwear, and on his face there were no signs of a beard.

    After short discussion the Dr. Rowe agreed with Mr. Driscoll that no further steps should be taken toward the sending of the body away until there could be an investigation of the strange affair and that the authorities should be notified. They also decided that the strange case should not be leaked to the press, the body should be definitely embalmed, and the doctor will immediately send a telegram to Raylan’s wife.


    However, it was almost impossible to keep the secret of an unusual incident in a city, where the most exciting thing to happen all year were a few rodeos and unsuccessful bank robbery The next day an article with the screaming headline: «DEAD MAN WAS A WOMAN» appeared in the local newspaper Arizona Journal-Miner. The shocking news was immediately reprinted by many provincial and metropolitan newspapers, and the name of Nicolai de Raylan became known throughout the country.

    Dozens of reporters in Chicago and Phoenix rushed in the footsteps of a mysterious woman looking for scoops. In Phoenix they interviewed a personal doctor and those with whom "he" communicated there. In Chicago, they found the "widow" and her son, and soon the first "wife" of de Rylan, it turned out that "he" was married twice. It was found out that Nicolai de Raylan for ten years served as a clerk and a secretary of the General Consul of Russia in Chicago Baron Albert Schlippenbach, that he was the founder and owner of a very profitable «Russian Law Office» which worked in close contact with the consulate. Also reporters discovered that Raylan’s bank accounts held about $6,000, a significant amount at that time, equivalent to $170,000 in the current calculation. One account was opened in the name of Nicolai de Rylan, the other in the name of Nicolai Konstantinovich, the third in the name of «son» Harry. It was reported that Rylan was living a large life spending several thousand dollars a year, an amount far exceeding the modest salary of a clerk or secretary.

Nicolai’s friends, employees of the legal office and the consulate, the current and previous wives all claimed that there was some mistake, Rylan was undoubtedly a man. “A woman? That is absurd! De Rylan was a man, slight, delicate and lean, but certainly a man. I lived with him for 5 years, he drank, smoked, dragged after women, this was the reason for our divorce, I knew several of his passions” - said the first “wife” Eugenie. Her current husband, Francis Bradchulis, added that he was involved with de Raylan in business, they visited the beaches together and he has no reason to doubt Nikolai’s male identity.

    Reporters visiting the home of last wife found her in a mourning dress, holding his picture in her breast, sobbing convulsively:

    – The dead woman in Phoenix is my husband? All nonsense, all nonsense! He was probably robbed, hidden somewhere and hopefully still alive. If he did die in Phoenix, his body was subsequently replaced. It is possible that Rylan was killed by powerful Russian enemies because of his revolutionary activities. I looked upon him less as a husband than as a baby; he was so slight and delicate. I loved him so much; he was always kind to me. My husband was well-educated, fluent in five languages, well versed in Russian history and the political situation in the country. He told me he was born in a suburb of Saint Petersburg, and his father was an admiral in the Russian Navy.


                                                      .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .     .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .


    There was an intense telegram exchange between Phoenix and Chicago after the death of the fragile Hussar. Reports of de Rylan’s death and his true gender were sent to his “wife”, to the Chicago Bank, the Chicago Probate Court and to the Russian Consulate. In a reply the Russian consul asked Dr. Rowe to report the events in Phoenix more detailed. The Doctor was about to leave Arizona, so he immediately sent a report to the Consul, Baron Schlippenbach, along with an accompanying letter, which was published in the Chicago’s newspaper: 


     Phoenix. Arizona. Dec. 22, 1906.

      Baron Schlippenbach, Chicago, Illinois. 


     <…> I considered De Raylan a very honest, upright, noble, gentleman, and shall forever cherish the memory of him, I can hardly bring myself around to say "her" for I only knew her as .the man, a noble hearted man. And there is a noble thing revealed in the autopsy we physicians were all satisfied that she was a perfectly virtuous woman, a virgin.

"Why she hid under the disguise of a man, is more than I can tell, but that she wanted to keep up the disguise even in death is evident.

    There will be photographs or her corpse and probably one will be sent you.

    I am going to Los Angeles from here, but will be in Canon City, Colorado, soon.


    Wishing you everything good, as he was in the habit of saying when writing you. Very respectfully yours. 

                                                W. C. ROWE


                                                     .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .     .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .


    The public administrator's office of the Cook County in Chicago, where de Rylan resided, seized his Chicago bank accounts when received a report of Rylan’s death and «his» feminine affiliation. The money Rylan ordered from Chicago’s banks was never transferred to Phoenix. It appeared that Rylan bequeathed to the last «wife» and «son» all his property, which included considerable money, jewelry and personal belongings. But could a woman have a wife, can a «wife» claim to «his» inheritance and is «his» will be held valid by a court? Is it possible that De Rylan’s «wife» did not know that «he» was a woman, and was not an accomplice of deception? All these issues required judicial review.

When Anne de Rylan learned about the seizure of the account she quickly realized that she might not inherit husband’s inheritance and hired a lawyer to defend her interests. In a telegram to the funeral home of Mon and Driscoll, she said that she would not be able to come to Phoenix and requested that the circumstances of her husband’s death no longer be made public. In response, she was told that she herself had become guilty for the commotion, claiming to have her husband’s body replaced by a woman’s. But the main question, when Rylan’s body should be sent to Chicago and who would be paying for the transport, was not answered.

    Only on December 23 Anna Raylan sent a telegram in which she asked to bury husband in Phoenix at the least possible cost, and required that all his personal belongings must be sent to her. Chicago’s reporters also learned that the husband of Raylan’s first wife, Francis Bradchulis, who was in a joint business with Nicolai, offered to pay for the transfer of his friend’s body to Chicago, but Anna refused.  


    The funeral of de Raylan took place from the undertaking rooms of Mohn & Driscoll on December 24th. As the preceding days, the undertaking rooms were thronged all forenoon with visitors desirous of seeing the body, of this remarkable woman, and find out the latest rumors about her. At the beginning of the service the chapel doors were closed against a further accession to the people, who came to look at the last act of the drama played out before their eyes for free. The service was allowed only for a few officials, hotel employees, «shaving» the late hairdresser and a few reporters.  The only person who knew Rylan before was Charles Tanner, because. Dr. Row had already left Phoenix. Reverend McLean officiated the service. His address was brief and did not touch the life of the dead. He only said about the temporality of earthly life, the kingdom of God, absolution of sins, and eternal rest. No one else wished to make a farewell statement. Since the deceased was a virgin woman, the form in relation to the funeral and burial of virgins was observed. Dressed in a long white cloak, the body of the dead was enclosed in a white casket, and conveyed to the grave in a white hearse – symbols of purity and virginity. The procession slowly moved towards the newly opened Greenwood cemetery. The horse-drawn hearse was followed by a carriage conveying the pall bearers, followed in a taxi car by the late Charles Tanner, a priest and manager of the local public school. At the end of the procession there were wagons with curiosities and sympathizers.


    We can assume that Nicolai died with the thought that his wife and son would get the fortune he had acquired, and with his friends and colleagues they would accompany him on his last journey. Dressed in a hussar uniform, he will be buried according to the Orthodox rite, and in the people’s memories he will remain as an ardent horseback rider and reveler, a successful businessman, a caring father and a conqueror of women's hearts. Ironically, none of Nicolai’s wishes came true, and her/his life became the property of the tabloid press. The only small consolation in his afterlife could be the fact that he was buried with a dear to his heart Orthodox cross with the name Nicolai engraved on it.

    It would seem that the mystery of de Rylan’s life was forever buried along with the body, and no one would ever know his/her real name, who were her parents, why she turned into a man, what forced her to leave Russia, how she managed to mislead two «wives» and all the people around. However, the subsequent course of events showed that it was too early to close this mysterious affair. For several years after the death of the little hussar, the interest in his/her life did not diminish. Interviews with Rylan’s «wives» and the Russian consul in Chicago; information about the struggle for his inheritance, about the Russian legal office, and a summary of Nicolai’s diary entries were published in American press. Also two major articles based on Raylan relative’s evidences were released in a Russian historical journal in 1915 and 1917.

    The following parts of the book present a historical investigation, which tells about the life of de Raylan in Russia and America: about childhood and adolescence spent in Odessa, Kiev and Saint Petersburg, about the journey to the United States; his participation in the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago, the Russian law office, relations with wives, the court battle for inheritance, literary and linguistic talents, as well as about motives of his behavior from the point of view of modern medicine. A separate chapter is devoted to the fate of close friends and patrons of Rylan: Russian consul Baron Albert Schlippenbach and Vice-consul Prince Nicolai Engalitcheff.

    In conclusion of the prologue we shall notice that both the reporters covering the case of de Raylan and the author of this book in some cases speak about Raylan as «he», in others as «she», embarrassing herself and readers. No doubt biologically Raylan was a woman, and she grew up and was raised as a girl. But from a certain age she began not only to dress in men’s clothes, but also to feel like a man, showing the advantages and disadvantages of a mail sex. Therefore, when talking about the time when the hero of the story wore in women’s clothing, the pronoun «she» will be used, and from the moment of reincarnation in Nicolai de Raylan - pronoun «he».