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
Mary Hamilton

OccupationQuack doctor
Years active1746

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 a 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. A 1746 account in the Newgate calendar gives other details.[2]

Henry Fielding published a partially fictionalised account[3] of the case under the title The Female Husband.

The court case[edit]

In 1746 Hamilton was brought before the summer Quarter Sessions in Taunton, Somerset.[4] According to the local newspaper report, "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 she should be charged with fraud."[3]


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 unlicensed 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.[5]

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.[5]


The justices delivered their verdict that "The 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 Shepton Mallet ..."[2]

The report in the Newgate Calendar concludes "And Mary, the monopoliser of her own sex, was imprisoned and whipped accordingly, in the severity of the winter of the year 1746."[2]

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."[5] The author promises to "make a further Enquiry" into these allegations for a later report.[5] 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.[5]

The final report was repeated in the Daily Advertiser on 12 November, where it was probably seen by Henry Fielding.[5]

Fielding's version: The Female Husband[edit]

In 1746, Fielding anonymously published[6] a sensational pamphlet, The Female Husband, that gives a different account of Hamilton's life.[7] The author claims that he had his information "from the mouth" of Hamilton herself. However, it is likely that he never met the woman he satirized in his work.[8] He says that she 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 had been brought up in the strictest principles of virtue and religion, but was seduced into "vile amours" by her friend Anne Johnson, an enthusiastic Methodist, and "transactions not fit to be mention'd passed between them". When Anne leaves her for a man, Hamilton seeks another female lover. She dresses as a man and pretends to be a Methodist preacher. She meets Mrs. Rushford, a wealthy 68-year-old widow who takes her to be a lad of about 18. Tempted by the money she will get as a "husband", Hamilton marries Mrs. Rushford. According to Fielding, she was able to deceive her bride by means "which decency forbids me even to mention". However, the bride eventually discovers Hamilton's sex, and Hamilton is forced to flee.

Hamilton uses various other aliases to marry other women, but is repeatedly forced to flee when the ruse is discovered. In at least three instances she lived for some time unnoticed by her married spouse. 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 and prosecuted. She is sentenced to imprisonment and to four public whippings in the market towns of Somerset. Fielding claims that "on the very evening she had suffered the first whipping, she offered the gaoler money, to procure her a young girl to satisfy her most monstrous and unnatural desires."[9]

Fielding's text was re-published with alterations in 1813, again anonymously, as The surprising adventures of a female husband! Containing the whimsical amours, curious incidents, and diabolical tricks of Miss M. Hamilton, alias Mr. G. Hamilton, alias Minister Bentley, Mr. O'Keefe, alias Mrs. Knight, the Midwife, &c ...[10] This lesser-known version has many alterations including a more sensationalized title and changes to the historical and cultural context.[7] The pamphlet was inexpensive and more than likely purchased by both men and women of different social statuses. Fielding exaggerated and fictionalized parts of the story in order to keep the audience interested and to entice people to read who might not be interested in erotic fiction.[7]

Something interesting about Fielding's version of The Female Husband was his use of pronouns. When Hamilton is passing as a male, Fielding uses 'he/him', a tactic which might seem to cast the author as complicit in the deception.[11] In Fielding's version the reader can be confused by the use of gender: "She had not been long in this city, before she became acquainted with one Mary Price, a girl of about eighteen years of age, and of extraordinary beauty. With this girl, hath this wicked woman since her confinement declared, she was really as much in love, as it was possible for a man ever to be with one of her own sex." [12] Fielding's use grammar here confuses the gender issue; both 'man' and 'her' refer back to Hamilton, or the 'wicked woman' speaking to Fielding from her jail cell. However, in the pamphlet published in the 19th century, the author makes a point of correcting this ambiguity, often adding italics to emphasize the pronoun choice.[11] Not only does the nineteenth-century pamphlet consistently refer to Hamilton with a female pronoun, the author draws attention to the choice by using italics which are only used when a masculine pronoun would be indicated by Hamilton's masculine persona.[11] While in earlier text Fielding does play with the idea that women might find Hamilton attractive because of her femininity, whenever her 'sex' is discovered in his pamphlet, the relationship abruptly ends and unlike the 19th century author, Fielding more subtly exploits the possibilities of suggestion, and manages at the same time to maintain a tone of moral reprimand.[11] It has recently been claimed that Fielding merged the conventions of the criminal biographies that were so popular in his time, with those of the comic marriage plot (a staple of drama that was slowly gaining ground in fiction as well).[13]

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".[3] 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.[5] 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.[5] 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.[5]

As far as is known, Hamilton was in truth 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.[3]

Broadcast media[edit]

Fielding's version of the 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.[14]

The 1813 publication by Henry Fielding[10] was the subject of an appraisal in a 2010 episode of PBS' Antiques Roadshow entitled "Naughty or Nice." The publication includes a colour etching attributed, possibly falsely, to George Cruikshank which depicts Hamilton being publicly whipped for her crimes.

Other cases of female husbands[edit]

Prosecutions involving women disguising themselves as men, and often marrying other women, were regularly reported since the seventeenth century and continued on into the eighteenth.

  • 1694: Anthony à Wood writes in a letter:

...appeared at the King's Bench in Westminster hall a young woman in man's apparel, or that personated a man, who was found guilty of marrying a young maid, whose portion he had obtained and was very nigh of being contracted to a second wife. Divers of her love letters were read in court, which occasion'd much laughter. Upon the whole she was ordered to Bridewell to be well whipt and kept to hard labour till further order of the court.

  • 1720: Sarah Ketson took on the alias John and attempted to defraud a woman named Ann Hutchinson into marriage. She was convicted.
  • 1759: Sarah Paul, going by the alias Samuel Bundy, was convicted and sent to Southwark Bridewell for tricking a woman into marrying her and defrauding the woman of her money and apparel. Although in Paul's case the wife, Mary Parlour, brought up the charges it appears to be under community pressure. Parlour, in fact, knew of Paul's sex and originally chose to continue their relationship. It was neighbors who inspected the nature of Parlour and Paul's relationship, suspecting that they had not consummated the marriage, and found out Paul was performing as a man. Parlour failed to appear at trial, resulting in the magistrate discharging Paul, but not before he ordered her masculine clothing to be burned.[15]

In 1829 it was widely reported that another female husband, James Allen, had successfully evaded detection and prosecution for 21 years.[16][17][18] He had married Abigail Allen (née Naylor) in 1807 at St Giles' Church, Camberwell.[19] It was only under autopsy at St Thomas' Hospital, London, that his sex was discovered to be female.[20] His wife declared she was "entirely ignorant of the fact of the said James Allen being a female".[21]


  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 c Newgate Calendar A Woman who was imprisoned and whipped for marrying Fourteen Women, 1746
  3. ^ a b c d Louis Crompton, Homosexuality and Civilization, Belknap Press, Cambridge, MA., 2003, p.476.
  4. ^ Elizabeth Susan Wahl, Invisible Relations: Representations of Female Intimacy in the Age of Enlightenment, Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA, 1999, p.263
  5. ^ 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
  6. ^ Eastwood, A. L. (2007). "Surprising histories: a comparison of two pamphlets". Notes and Queries. 54 (4): 490–496. doi:10.1093/notesj/gjm191.
  7. ^ a b c Eeastwood, Adrienne (2007). "Surprising Histories: A Comparison of Two Pamphlets". Notes and Queries. 54 (4): 490–96. doi:10.1093/notesj/gjm191 – via MLA International Bibliography.
  8. ^ Castle, Terry (1982). "Matters Not Fit to Be Mentioned: Fielding's The Female Husband". ELH. 49 (3): 602–622. doi:10.2307/2872757. JSTOR 2872757.
  9. ^ 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.
  10. ^ a b The surprising adventures of a female husband! : containing the whimsical amours, curious incidents, and diabolical tricks, of Miss M. Hamilton, alias Mr. G. Hamilton, alias Minister Bentley, Mr. O'Keefe, alias Mrs. Knight, the midwife, &c. who married three wives, and lived with each some time undiscovered: for which acts she was tried at the summer sessions, in the county of Somerset, in the year 1752, found guilty, and whipped four several times, in four market towns, and afterwards imprisoned six months ..., Henry Fielding, 1813. p.1
  11. ^ a b c d Eastwood, Adrienne L. (1 December 2007). "Surprising Histories: A Comparison of Two Pamphlets". Notes and Queries. 54 (4): 490–496. doi:10.1093/notesj/gjm191. ISSN 0029-3970.
  12. ^ Fielding, Henry (27 February 2014). The Female Husband. The University of Adelaide Library. p. 15.
  13. ^ Castro-Santana, Anaclara. Errors and Reconciliations: Marriage in the Plays and Novels of Henry Fielding (Routledge, 2018) pp. 145-50.
  14. ^ "The Female Husband" Radio Listings
  15. ^ Derry, Caroline (2008). "Sexuality and Locality in the Trial of Mary Hamilton, 'Female Husband'". King's Law Journal. 19 (3): 595. doi:10.1080/09615768.2008.11427709.
  16. ^ "Inquest". The Times. 15 January 1829.
  17. ^ "The Female Husband". The Times. 17 January 1829.
  18. ^ "EXTRAORDINARY INVESTIGATION; OR, THE FEMALE HUSBAND". The Newcastle Courant. 24 January 1829.
  19. ^ London, England, Church of England Marriages and Banns, 1754-1932. London Metropolitan Archives; London, England; Reference Number: p73/gis/014
  20. ^ Clayton, Susan (1999). Bard, Christine; Pellegrin, Nicole (eds.). "L'habit ferait-il le mari ? L'exemple d'un female husband, James Allen (1787-1829)". Clio (in French) (10): 91.
  21. ^ Evening Mail. 23 January 1829. Missing or empty |title= (help)