In my local park, there is a little urban zoo where you can see goats, sheep, rabbits, hens and two portly pigs. The hog is called Lasse and the sow is called Maja. They are named after a man called Lasse-Maja – a legendary name in Swedish culture.
It struck me, however, that I’ve only really heard his name – I didn’t really know who he was. So I researched him. And I was met by a story that was fascinating and tragic in equal measure.
Lars Larsson, later Molin, was born in 1785, and went on to become one of Sweden’s most notorious criminals. He wrote a sensational autobiography about his escapades in 1833 and this book was extremely popular because it contained adventure and, not least, explicit sex scenes. It still continues to fascinate Swedes, with the latest publication coming out in 2016.
So, why the nickname Lasse-Maja? Lasse is a man’s name, and Maja is a female name. Well, he was given this gender-combined name because he periodically lived as a woman. He often dressed as a man when he committed his crimes, as it was more comfortable. However, he lived long periods as a woman and supported himself as a maid, housekeeper and prostitute. By today’s terms, he probably would have identified as transgender. His book is one of the few 19th Century works to describe the transgender experience, which added to its mystique and popularity. In this article, I will use the pronoun ‘he’ for ease.
Lasse-Maja’s life was one of poverty and misery. He was a serial liar and petty thief who was arrested over 30 times and frequently escaped. He became notorious amongst citizens and was written about in newspapers. However, in 1812 he stole silver from a church in Järfälla, just outside of Stockholm. He was captured, sentenced to life and shipped off to the fortress prison on the west coast island of Marstrand. He even managed to escape from this military building on one occasion, but was later caught and returned.
Lasse-Maja was an inventive and guileful person and quickly gained a position of privilege in the prison. He made sure that his reputation spread to the outside world, and convinced the authorities to arrange for tourists to visit him and hear his elaborate stories. His celebrity became so large that he was even given an audience by Crown Prince Oscar.
In 1839 he was pardoned, probably because of the popularity of his book. He traveled the country telling his stories and died in Arboga in 1845, where he is buried today. Several books and films depict his life, and in the fortress prison there is a plaque to commemorate him. He also has a walking trail, a skerry, a tv show, a pre-school and a hotel named after him.
Lasse-Maja would probably never have been remembered in Swedish culture if it wasn’t for the autobiography, the female clothing and his skill for self promotion. Popular culture depicts him as a happy-go-lucky, cheeky, lovable rogue. However, Lasse-Maja was no Robin Hood – the truth is that his life was extremely tough and without much joy. He lived a life of crime, deceit and despair.
Today, it is hard to really know Lasse-Maja’s truth. He was a first class liar, manipulator and fabulator. However, one thing is certain; Lasse-Maja holds the position of the most famous transperson in Swedish history.