1956: Jesus Maria de Galindez 1865: Marcellus Jerome Clarke, “Sue Mundy”

1719: Mary Hamilton, lady in waiting

March 14th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1719, Mary (Marie) Hamilton, lady-in-waiting upon the tsaritsa Catherine I, was beheaded in St. Petersburg for infanticide.

A frightened Mary Hamilton contemplates her imminent execution in this 1904 painting by Pavel Svedomsky.

Lady Hamilton — her Scottish family had emigrated generations earlier — did not like to wait on her libido.

She could tell you if Peter the Great deserved his nickname, and dish on any number of other courtiers, nobles, and hangers-on.

This pleasing sport, of course, assumes with it the risks imposed by an equally impatient biology. Hamilton’s gallantries two or three times quickened her womb.

Her decision to dispose of these unwanted descendants in the expedient way — once by abortion, and again by infanticide — was done on the sly (voluminous court gowns helped) but surely also with no expectation of such a severe sanction in the unlikely event of detection.

But according to Eve Levin,* Russia’s longtime slap-on-the-wrist policy for infanticide was changing, and beginning “to distinguish between a woman who killed her child to hide illicit sexual conduct, and a woman who killed her child because she was too poor to care for it. In the first instance, the killing of the child reflected selfish behavior and was considered to be murder.”

Mary Hamilton was obviously not too poor to raise children.

In 1717, an unrelated investigation of another of Hamilton’s lovers led him to accuse the libertine lady-in-waiting of practicing post-natal birth control, which Mary admitted to,** certainly expecting her mistress the queen and her paramour the king to look forward, not back.

Peter, the towering and intense “learned druzhina” with his eye fixed on the West and a modernity that Russia lagged behind, was a liberal man in many respects. But he remained eminently capable of ruthlessness in service of an idea. This affair played out, after all, in his brand-new capital St. Petersburg, built on the bones of thousands peasants who threw up the city over swampland at Peter’s command. In 1718, he’d had his own son knouted to death.

Apparently infanticide was one of those ideas.

After all, executing women for infanticide was happening where the Hamiltons had come from. And it would still be good enough for late 18th century Enlightenment philosophers.

On the day of the execution, the prisoner appeared on the scaffold in a white silk gown trimmed with black ribbons. Peter climbed the structure to stand beside her and spoke quietly into her ear. The condemned woman and most of the spectators assumed that this would be her last-minute reprieve. Instead, the Tsar gave her a kiss and said sadly, “I cannot violate the laws to save your life. Support your punishment with courage, and, in the hope that God may forgive you your sins, address your prayers to him with a heart full of faith and contrition.” Miss Hamilton knelt and prayed, the Tsar turned away and the headsman struck.

Then, the bystanding tsar picked up the severed head that had once shared his pillow and discoursed to the multitude on its anatomical features — another idea imported from the West. That strange tsar afterward had the disembodied dome preserved in a jar until Catherine the Great ran across it and (after remarking that the woman’s youthful beauty had been preserved this half-century) had it decently buried.

Something else of Mary Hamilton outlasted her pickled cranium, however.

In one of those unaccountable twists of history, Hamilton maybe became conflated with the “four Marys”, Ladies-in-Waiting of Mary, Queen of Scots — and the story seemingly became translated backwards into this altogether different time and place. This is a much-disputed hypothesis† but for purposes of a blog post is well worth the noticing, while resigning to wiser heads the literary forensics at stake.

There was no “Mary Hamilton” among the Queen of Scots’s attendants, but in at least some of the many different versions of this ballad that survive, a person of this name is held to have become the lover of the king (“the highest Stuart,” in this case) and been put to death for killing her illegitimate child.‡ It is, at the very least, rather difficult to miss the parallel.

O little did my mother ken,
The day she cradled me,
The lands I was to travel in,
Or the dog’s death I wad d’ee!

Variants of this ballad remain popular to this day.

* “Infanticide in Pre-Petrine Russia,” Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas, Neue Folge, Bd. 34, H. 2 (1986).

** She had also pilfered some effects from the Queen.

† Dissenting opinions on identifying the “Mary Hamilton” of the ballad with our Mary Hamilton can be read here and here.

Presumed basis for the conflation: an actual 1563 infanticide scandal featuring the illicit offspring of Mary’s apothecary and “a Frenchwoman that served in the Queen’s bedchamber.”

Also on this date

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Abortion and Infanticide,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Murder,Nobility,Notable Jurisprudence,Notable Participants,Russia,Women

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One thought on “1719: Mary Hamilton, lady in waiting”

  1. I began to read this entry because I have a copy of the Joan Baez song ‘Mary Hamilton” and was therefore familiar with its story. It’s interesing to see how some of our folk songs are based on actual events, even though removed in time or country. Thanks for this entry.

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