Who was the real person behind “Fielding’s husband”? | Antiques roadshow
Editor’s Note: Although Charles Hamilton has been referred to as “she / she”, “he / him” and sometimes both sets of pronouns, in court and in the print media, during their lifetime it is impossible to find out how Hamilton perceived their gender or gender identity. This article will use the pronouns “they / their / their” to refer to Hamilton.
FIRST FEATURED in a 2003 Seattle ANTIQUES ROADSHOW episode, an 1813 volume review The wife husband, a short and sensational pamphlet or short story by English novelist Henry Fielding is memorable for more than one reason.
For starters, it’s not often that a guest comes to ROADSHOW claiming to have inherited their mother’s ‘porn collection’ – as this guest named Vincent did, to reviewer Selby Kiffer’s surprise. . And second, the subject of the book, having been based on a real person, was the 18th-century equivalent of one of today’s headline-ripped page-turners.
In Fielding’s story, a woman dons men’s clothes to deceive several unsuspecting women into marrying them for personal and financial gain, as well as to satisfy their “most monstrous and unnatural desires.” She is eventually caught, tried and publicly whipped.
Reading the frontispiece of the book, Reviewer Selby Kiffer, Fielding’s Tale
The surprising adventures of a wife husband! Containing the whimsical loves, curious incidents and devilish tricks of Miss M. Hamilton, alias MG Hamilton, alias Minister Bentley, alias Dr. O’Keefe, alias Mrs Knight, the midwife, and so on. Who married three wives and lived with each an unknown time for what act she was tried in the summer session in Somerset County in 1752, convicted and repeatedly flogged.
First published in London in November 1746, Fielding’s The wife husband has been revised and reprinted numerous times over several decades, sometimes as extracts in magazines, and even made its way into publications across the Atlantic. This is the type of fiction that would arguably still grab the attention of readers, having dramatic elements of polygamy, courtroom spectacle and, of course, the main hook: the revelation that a particular central character is more complex than it looks.
Yet, “Fielding’s husband”, aka George Hamilton, was based on a real individual: a certain Charles Hamilton. In Female husbands, a trans story, author Jen Manion says husbands like Hamilton “exposed what needed to be kept hidden and revealed the inconsistency of something that was meant to be clear. For this, they were seen as social outliers and marginalized historical subjects. “
Like many marginalized identity groups, LGBTQ figures in history have often been difficult to track down, with their queerness disputed by historians, with evidence of their relationships hidden for years or even erased from historical accounts.
It is important to keep in mind that in the 18th century, English and colonial American societies were rigidly structured around heteronormative and gender-binary social norms, predating all of the now-familiar modern concepts of transgender, lesbian, gay, bisexual and queer. (For example, the earliest known use of the now obsolete word “homosexual” dates from 1868, and “transgender” was not invented until 1971 – both well beyond the lifetime of Charles Hamilton.)
Charles Hamilton was born in Scotland, assigned a woman at birth, and was called Mary Hamilton as a child. Hamilton left home at the age of 14 wearing their brother’s clothes, then, living as a man, began a career posing as a doctor, traveling from town to town. Hamilton met Mary Price, their landlady’s niece, and the two were married in a legal ceremony in July 1746 in Wells, England.
Manion argues that Hamilton’s decision to take on a male identity was not simply a suit of convenience in order to escape a woman’s restrictive and limited role in this society at the time:
In the case of female husbands in particular, it is impossible to isolate the economic and social power of gender and sexual freedom. Sexual freedom – including the freedom to have sex with women, not to have sex with women, not to have sex with men, or not to have sex at all – was central to the vast array of social powers that accompanied manhood. And tragically, this was a key practice for which female husbands were punished.
Two months after their wedding, Mary Price reported Hamilton to authorities in Glastonbury, claiming she had been duped, her husband was a woman and wanted her marriage to be called off.
The case was unprecedented. At the time, there was nothing specific in UK law that prohibited being an assigned female person at birth, but living as a man married to a woman. And Price testified that she and Hamilton had sex. Therefore, Hamilton not only overturned gender norms as a living and working man, but also entered into a legal and sexually active marriage. So how would the law proceed in this unusual case?
Detail of frontispiece illustration from an 1813 edition of Henry Fielding’s pamphlet “The Female Husband”, depicting Mary Hamilton being whipped in public.
Hamilton ended up being accused of breaking vagrancy laws. The vagrancy law of 1744 mainly focused on deceptive ways of making money and was used to charge people for various transgressions (to name a few: fortune tellers, unlicensed peddlers and men who have abandoned their wives and children).
Hamilton’s punishment was six months of hard labor, plus a public flogging in each of the four county towns they had visited professionally as a charlatan. Manion says that for the community of Glastonbury, “Hamilton was a serious threat – and their ability to have sex with a woman as a man was at the heart of that threat. By their very existence, they exposed the instability of sexual difference and the imitability of heterosexual sex.
Assuming Price was really unaware of Hamilton’s secret, in addition to Hamilton’s deception, Manion argues that the court also required Hamilton to be publicly humiliated for overturning the societal norm of a heteronormative, binary relationship of kind. We had to make an example, and Fielding Wife Husband, with its exaggerated detail and color illustration of Mary Hamilton, aka George, whipped in public, has sent a clear warning well beyond county lines not to violate societal norms.
What happened to Hamilton after serving his sentence? Manion’s research indicates that they appear to have emigrated to the British colonies in North America, continuing to live as a man and work as a quack. Moreover, unlike the character of George Hamilton of Fielding, who married several women, there is no historical evidence that Charles Hamilton ever married anyone other than Mary Price.
Reports of other people of gender non-compliance marrying women are said to continue to surface after Hamilton’s story became known. But as Manion asserts,
Charles Hamilton was the original husband. While not the first person to be assigned a woman to live as a man and marry a woman, Hamilton was the first person to do so who was characterized as a “female husband.” . This designation took on a life of its own in the decades that followed, creating a catchy, memorable, and succinct way of describing both trans gender and homosexual love.
18th-century English society was concerned with punishing Charles Hamilton’s gender nonconformity, but three centuries later we can see the importance of Hamilton’s story beyond transgression.
Henry Fielding’s pamphlet was entertainment for the public at the time, but it helped do more than he or Hamilton could have imagined by creating enduring evidence of queer history.
Resources for further reading
The Female Husband, or the Startling Story of Mrs. Mary, aka Mr. George Hamilton, who was convicted of marrying a young woman from Wells and living with her as a husband: taken with her own mouth since his imprisonment, Henry Fielding, 1746
The wife husband: a trans story, Jen Manion, 2020, Cambridge University Press
Frontispiece illustration and title page from an 1813 edition of Henry Fielding’s publication “The Female Husband”.