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Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Abortion - Infanticide - Lady in waiting of Empress Catherine I of Russia and a royal mistress of Tsar Peter the Great of Russia
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: 1717
Date of birth: ???
Victim profile: Her newborn infant
Method of murder: Drowning
Location: St. Petersburg, Russia
Status: Executed by decapitation on March 14, 1719

Mary Hamilton or Maria Danilovna Gamentova (died 14 March 1719), was the lady in waiting of Empress Catherine I of Russia and a royal mistress of Tsar Peter the Great of Russia. She was executed for abortion, infanticide, and theft and slander of Empress Catherine. She is pointed out as one of the possible inspirations for the song Mary Hamilton (ballad).

Mary Hamilton was a member of the Scottish family Hamilton, who had emigrated to Russia by Thomas Hamilton during the reign of Tsar Ivan the Terrible, and was likely the daughter of William Hamilton and the cousin of Evdokiya Grigorievna Hamilton.

She became lady in waiting to Empress Catherine in 1713, aroused attention with her beauty and love life and became the lover of Tsar Peter. She also had a lover, Ivan Mikhailovich Orlov. When Orlov betrayed her with Peter's other lover, Avdotya Chernysheva, she tried to win him back by bestowing him with gifts stolen from Catherine. She had an abortion in 1715 by taking a medicine for constipation, and gave a secret birth in 1717, after which she drowned the baby.

In 1717, Orlov was interrogated about some missing documents of Peter's. He confessed his relationship with Hamilton and pointed her out for abortion. Avdotya Chernysheva accused Hamilton of spreading the rumour that Catherine ate wax to keep her skin pale, and when Catherine had Hamilton's room searched, several stolen objects belonging to Catherine were found there. Hamilton and Orlov were both arrested and imprisoned in the Fortress of Saint Petersburg. Mary Hamilton confessed to theft and to killing her newborn infant, but refused to testify against Orlov despite torture.

In November 1718, Mary Hamilton was found guilty of abortion, murder of her infant, and theft of jewelry belonging to the Empress; she was sentenced to death. Both Empress Catherine and Tsarina Praskovia Saltykova asked Peter for mercy on her account but without result. She was executed, dressed in white, by decapitation on 14 March 1719. She was decapitated by sword instead of an axe, as Peter had promised her that the executioner would not be allowed to touch her.

After the execution, the Emperor took up the head, gave a lecture about its anatomy, kissed it, and then threw it away. The head of Mary Hamilton was thereafter preserved at the Russian Academy of Science at least until the reign of Catherine the Great.


1719: Mary Hamilton, lady in waiting

On March 14, 1719, Mary (Marie) Hamilton, lady-in-waiting upon the tsaritsa Catherine I, was beheaded in St. Petersburg for infanticide.

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.


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



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