Mary Hamilton (transvestite)

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Mary Hamilton
Mary Hamilton - transvestite.jpg
A fanciful 1813 illustration of Hamilton being whipped, wearing male boots and breeches, but naked from the waist up
Born Mary Hamilton
Died unknown
Nationality UK
Occupation 'quack' doctor
Years active 1746

Mary Hamilton (fl. 1746) was the subject of a notorious 18th century case of fraud and female cross-dressing, in which Hamilton, under the name of Charles,[1] duped a woman into supposed marriage.

While the surviving records of the case indicate that Hamilton was only prosecuted for deceiving one woman into marriage, newspaper reports at the time claimed that there had been 14 marriages in all. Henry Fielding wrote a pamphlet naming some of the supposed previous wives and identifying Hamilton as a sexually rapacious lesbian. An account in the Newgate calendar gives other details.[2]

Early life[edit]

Archival record[edit]

According to Hamilton's own deposition, she was born in Somerset, the daughter of Mary and William Hamilton. Her family later moved to Scotland. When she was fourteen, she used her brother's clothes to pose as a boy, travelled to Northumberland and entered the service of a Dr. Edward Green (described in the deposition as a "mountebank") and later of a Dr. Finey Green. She studied to become a "quack doctor" as an apprentice of the two unlicenced practitioners. In 1746, she moved to Wells, and set up a medical practice of her own under the name Charles Hamilton. She met Mary Price, a relative of her landlady, whom she married in July 1746. The marriage lasted for two months before her true sex was discovered, and she was arrested.[3]

A deposition from Mary Price says that after the marriage she and Hamilton travelled selling medicines. During the marriage Hamilton "entered her body several times, which made this examinant believe, at first, that the said Hamilton was a real man, but soon had reason to judge that the said Hamilton was not a man, but a woman". When they were in Glastonbury, Price confronted her. Hamilton admitted the truth to Price, at which point she reported the matter and Hamilton was arrested.[3]

Newspaper reports[edit]

In addition to Hamilton's and Price's own depositions, there are several reports of the case in the local newspaper, the Bath Journal. The first of these says that after news of the arrest got out many people visited the prison to get a look at Hamilton, who was very "bold and impudent". It added that "it is publickly talk'd that she has deceived several of the Fair Sex by marrying them".[3] The author promises to "make a further Enquiry" into the these allegations for a later report.[3] A subsequent report states that Hamilton was born in Yeovil. Another report says that at the trial the prosecuting attorney, Mr. Gold, had alleged in his opening statement that Hamilton had been married fourteen times.[3]

The final report was repeated in the Daily Advertiser on 12 November, where it was probably seen by Fielding.[3]

Fielding's version[edit]

Henry Fielding, who wrote a sensational pamphlet, The Female Husband, about the case, gives a different account of her life. He claims that he had his information "from the mouth" of Hamilton herself. He says Hamilton was born in 1721 on the Isle of Man, the daughter of a former army sergeant who had married a woman of property on the island. She was at first an innocent girl, but was lured into lesbian sexual practices by her friend Anne Johnson, an enthusiastic Methodist (Fielding implies that non-conformism in religion is linked to sexual experimentation). When Anne leaves her for a man, Hamilton seeks another female lover. She dresses as a man and pretends to be a Methodist preacher. Aged 18, she meets Mrs. Rushford, a wealthy 68-year-old widow. Tempted by the money she will get as a "husband", she marries Mrs. Rushford. According to Fielding, she was able to sexually satisfy her bride by means "which decency forbids me even to mention".[4] However, the bride eventually accidentally discovers Hamilton's sex, and Hamilton is forced to flee.

She uses various other aliases to marry other women, but is repeatedly forced to flee when the ruse is discovered. Additional aliases used by Hamilton were Mr. George Hamilton, Minister Bently, and Doctor O'Keefe.[5] In at least 3 instances she lived for some time unnoticed by her married spouse.[5] Finally, posing as a doctor, she marries Mary Price, a beautiful 18 year old girl. The marriage is apparently happy, until, while Hamilton is visiting Glastonbury, she is recognised by someone from a previous "marriage". Mary cannot believe it, but her mother ensures that Hamilton is arrested. Fielding claims that even while she was in gaol, she tried to persuade the gaoler to obtain a girl to "satisfy her most monstrous and unnatural desires".[4]

Authenticity of the accounts[edit]

Though Fielding's is the only full account of Hamilton's life before her arrest, it is not known how fictionalised it is. Historian Louis Crompton describes it as probably "one part fact to ten parts fiction".[4] Sheridan Baker says of the 23 page booklet, "I think it fairly safe to put down the first twenty pages of The Female Husband to pure fiction by Fielding. And in the last three pages, as the record indicates, fiction is not altogether lacking." He dismisses Fielding's claim to have interviewed Hamilton herself, saying that "it seems certain" no such interview took place, and that he was not present at the trial.[3] He notes that many elements of the 'life' of Hamilton as described by Fielding seem to parallel the plots of his novels, and that even the details of the court case, which can be checked against the record, contain elements that are demonstrably false, and probably follow from a misinterpretation of phrases in the newspaper reports.[3] It is possible that Fielding got some details from the prosecuting council Henry Gould (misspelled as 'Mr. Gold' in the newspapers), who was his cousin, but Baker thinks this unlikely, especially as Fielding himself copies the newspapers in misspelling the name 'Gold'. Since details of Hamilton's life as reported by Fielding contradict her sworn deposition, the evidence suggests that Fielding simply elaborated on the newspaper reports, perhaps supplemented by rumours that were circulating about the case.[3]

As far as is known, Hamilton was only prosecuted for fraudulently marrying Price. There is no record of any other prosecution. Whether any previous marriages ever occurred, or if they were merely a product of local gossip and rumour remains unknown.[4]

Arrest and conviction[edit]

As she was a woman, the marriage was invalid. She was charged with fraud.[6] Acording to the local newspaper that reported on the case, "There was a great Debate for some Time in Court about the Nature of her Crime, and what to call it, but at last it was agreed that Mary Hamilton was an uncommon notorious Cheat, a fraud.".[4]

In 1752,[5] Hamilton was brought to the summer Quarter Sessions in Taunton, Somerset, and sentenced that "he or she prisoner at the bar is an uncommon, notorious cheat, and we, the Court, do sentence her, or him, whichever he or she may be, to be imprisoned six months, and during that time to be whipped in the towns of Taunton, Glastonbury, Wells and Shipton Mallet ..."[2]

There is no information about Hamilton's life after her release from prison.

Popular culture[edit]

Fielding's fictionalised version of the story, "The Female Husband", was published in 1746 as an anonymous pamphlet.[7] Fielding's version of story was adapted into a BBC Radio 4 play of the same name, starring comedian Sandi Toksvig. The play was written by Sheila Hannon and was first broadcast in June 2006.[8]

An 1813 edition of the book by Henry Fielding about Mary Hamilton was the subject of an appraisal in a 2010 episode of PBS' Antiques Roadshow entitled "Naughty or Nice." The book's front insert contains a colour etching attributed, possibly falsely, in the book to George Cruikshank which depicts Hamilton being publicly whipped for her crimes.


  1. ^ Baker, Sheridan, 'Henry Fielding's the Female Husband: Fact and Fiction', Proceedings of the Modern Language Association, Vol. 74, No. 3 (Jun., 1959), pp. 213-224
  2. ^ a b Newgate Calendar, Volume 3, page 137 A Woman who was imprisoned and whipped for marrying Fourteen Women, 1746
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i Sheridan Baker, "Henry Fielding's the Female Husband: Fact and Fiction", PMLA, Vol. 74, No. 3 (Jun., 1959), pp. 213-224
  4. ^ a b c d e Louis Crompton, Homosexuality and Civilization, Belknap Press, Cambridge, MA., 2003, p.476.
  5. ^ a b c The Surprising Adventures of a FEMALE HUSBAND containing the whimsical Amours, curious Incidents, and Diabolical Tricks, Henry Fielding,(1813), p.1
  6. ^ Elizabeth Susan Wahl, Invisible Relations: Representations of Female Intimacy in the Age of Enlightenment, Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA., 1999, p.263
  7. ^ The Female Husband: or, the Surprising History of Mrs. Mary, alias Mr. George Hamilton, who was Convicted of having Married a young Woman of Wells and Lived with her as her Husband. Taken from her own Mouth since her Confinement.
  8. ^ "The Female Husband" Radio Listings