1779: James Hackman, sandwich wrecker

1 comment April 19th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1779, Londoners crowded Tyburn to witness the hanging of James Hackman for a sensational high-society murder.

Just twelve days before his date with the hemp, Hackman had walked up to Martha Ray at the Royal Opera and shot her in the head with a single-shot pistol. Then, he turned a second weapon on himself in a vain attempt to commit suicide.

The reader is not mistaken to detect here the mania of unrequited passion. Several years before the young Hackman was a handsome lieutenant introduced to Martha Ray’s social circle. She was a successful soprano on the London stage and though unmarried lived with the Earl of Sandwich as his wife in all but the illustrious name.


(cc image) from Molly Elliott.

Yes, this is the very Earl of Sandwich who pioneered the eating of things stuck between bread slices.* Sandwich — John Montagu to his parents — had other interests besides the munchies; he was the capable First Lord of the Admiralty throughout the 1770s. (As a result, Captain Cook, whose seafaring explorations were occurring at that time, kept naming islands for the Earl of Sandwich).

Domestic life for the Earl and his legal Countess — not “Earless”; that’s a different thing — wasn’t quite as satisfying. Dorothy Montagu, going gradually insane, separated from Sandwich. The lord plucked 17-year-old commoner Martha Ray — a quarter-century Sandwich’s junior — in 1759 and she lived as his mistress from there on out.*

Despite their age difference and never-formalized status they had a comfortable arrangement; Ray bore Sandwich five children** and the two appeared in public as a couple. The Earl sponsored Martha Ray’s opera career and education.

James Hackman met the Earl’s mistress around 1775 and the two formed an intimacy. Just how intimate they might have been has never been firmly established but is clear that as time passed the infatuation increasingly ran in only one direction. Hackman sold his commission in the 68th Regiment of Foot to become a Church of England deacon, perhaps angling by this expedient to woo Martha Ray away from Sandwich to a wholly respectable union.

She understandably demurred on this “opportunity” — leading the greenhorn Reverend to his blackguard act.

Hackman’s pointless waste of Martha Ray’s life and his own plucked his contemporaries’ sentimental heartstrings like nothing else. “All ranks of people … pitied the murderer’s fate,” remarks the Newgate Calendar. One newspaper report of the death sentence noted that “all present were greatly affected” at Hackman’s agitations “and however we may detest the crime, a tear of pity will fall from every humane eye on the fate of the unhappy criminal.” (General Advertiser and Morning Intelligencer, Apr. 17, 1779)

James Boswell was fascinated by the crime; he attended the trial and spilled many public and private words on its subject.

Boswell empathized with Hackman: in a report of the trial for the St. James’s Chronicle (Apr. 15-17, 1779) he opined that the “natural Effect of disappointed Love, however, shocking it may appear, is to excite the most horrid Resentment against his Object, at least to make us prefer the Destruction of our Mistress, to seeing her possessed by a Rival.” Not that Boswell condoned the murder, but “I would say to all that are conscious that their Passions are violent, Think ye that htis unfortunate Gentleman’s general Character is … worse than yours? No, it is not.”

While Human Justice is to be satisfied, let us consider that his Crime was neither premeditated‡ Cruelty, nor base Greediness. He is therefore an Object neither of Abhorrence nor of Contempt … Let us unite our fervent Prayers to the Throne of Heaven, that this our Brother may obtain Forgiveness through Jesus Christ, and be admitted in another State of Being to everlasting Happiness.

The kinship so many Londoners felt for this homicidal stalker moved print copy high and low, before Martha’s body had gone quite cold. Its most notable product was the 1780 Love and Madness, an epistolary novel of tragic passion presented via the (fictitious) letters exchanged by the supposed lovers. So heavily did this understanding of events by Hackman’s contemporaries color its subsequent remembrance that Love and Madness is also the title or subtitle of two 21st century nonfiction considerations of the affair. (1, 2 | Review of both)

Hackman for his part carried off the requisite public posture of resigned tragic nobility in the few days before he satisfied human justice. The General Evening Post, April 17-20 1779 described the execution:

This unfortunate gentleman received the sacrament in the morning with all the fervency and devotion of a sincere repenting criminal: — he repeated that affecting acknowledgment of his guilt, which on his trial drew tears from the audience, and seemed in a state of composure, unruffled with the idea of punishment, which, he said, was no more than he deserved.

At nine o’clock he came into the press-yard, where a great crowd of persons assembled to gratify their curiosity. That all might have an equal share of the sight, a lane was formed by the multitude on each side, through which Mr. Hackman passed, dressed in black, leaning on the arm of his friend the Rev. Mr. Porter, whose hand he squeezed as he muttered the solemn invocation to Heaven, not to forsake a sinner of so enormous a degree, in the trying hour of death.

Mr. Hackman was conveyed from Newgate in a mourning coach, attended by the Rev. Mr. Porter Mr. Villette, the ordinary of Newgate, and Mr. Leapingwell, a Sheriff’s officer.

He reached Tyburn about a quarter before eleven o’clock. When he arrived at the fatal tree, a cart lined with black was under the gallows ready to receive him. Mr. Porter and Mr. Villette ascended it by a pair of steps, and he followed them unsupported. As soon as he had got into it he walked forward, and fell on his knees, (a position seldom used by persons in his circumstances at Tyburn, as they always pray standing) and the Clergymen did the like, one on each side of him, where they remained praying for about fifteen minutes, then got up, when the rope was put about his neck, and tied to the gallows.

In this manner he remained praying between the two Divines for ten minutes more, when the Rev. Mr. Porter embraced him, and Mr. Villette took his leave, and both left the cart. The convict[‘]s cap being pulled over his face, he told the executioner to leave him to himself for a few minutes, and he would drop his handkerchief as a signal when he was ready, which he did after a few minutes pause, and was thereupon launched into eternity.

His whole behaviour was manly, but not bold: his mind seemed to be quite calm, from a firm belief in the mercies of his Saviour.

He wore not hat, not any bandage on his face where he gave himself the wound, that the public curiosity might not be interrupted in looking at him; saying, “that he wished to be made a public spectacle of, and hoped his death might be of service to mankind.”

He was no ways convulsed, nor was their [sic] any motion of the body that tended to shew it experienced any pain. Nothing more was to be seen than what proceeded from the jerk on quitting the cart.

The mob was more numerous than on any other occasion since the death of Dr. Dodd. It was expected Mr. Hackman would suffer at Covent-garden, and preparations were made by some speculating carpenters, who met with a mortifying disappointment.

After hanging the usual time, his body was put into a hearse, and taken to Surgeons-hall in the Old Bailey, where it was prepared for the inspection of the public.

Mr. Harkman expressed a wish to his friends, that the ceremony of anatomizing his body might be dispensed with; and that his corpse might be treated in the same manner as that of Lord Ferrers.

Mr. Hackman intimated to a particular friend, that if his remains could be deposited near those of Miss Ray he should feel inexpressible happiness in the hour of death.

A man who was standing near a dray in Oxford-street to see Mr. Hackman pass, was thrown down under one of the horses by the crowd; the horse being frightened, stamped on the man, and beat out his brains.

* Allegedly so that the Earl wouldn’t have to leave his beloved gambling table to dine.

** There is a wonderful bon mot that has enlivened compendia of anecdotes through the years, consisting of more or less the following exchange:

First speaker: You will either die on the gallows or of some social disease.

Second speaker: That depends upon whether I embrace your principles or your mistress.

Though it’s been variously attributed, it appears that the retort was originally delivered by the comic Samuel Foote to Lord Sandwich — about Martha Ray.

† Notable among the five children of Sandwich and Martha Ray: jurist Basil Montagu.

Sandwich’s wife also bore him a legitimate son, who eventually succeeded to the father’s Earldom; the title still exists today.

‡ Hackman had to be talked off simply pleading guilty but in the end he hung his trial hopes on arguing that he intended to kill himself, in Martha’s presence, and was overwhelmed by a momentary “phrensy”. A letter in his pocket meant to be delivered posthumously to his brother-in-law supported this claim; the fact that he brought two guns to meet her rebutted it.

Trial judge William Blackstone pointed out to Hackman’s jurors that the composure of the accused before and after the crime did not suggest a madman and that accepting Hackman’s claim of only an instant’s insanity could present a very slippery slope indeed for future murder prosecutions.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Public Executions,Sex,Soldiers

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1628: John Felton, assassin of the Duke of Buckingham

2 comments October 28th, 2011 Headsman

The rack, or question, to extort a confession from criminals, is a practice of a different nature: this being only used to compel a man to put himself upon his trial; that being a species of trial in itself. And the trial by rack is utterly unknown to the law of England; though once when the dukes of Exeter and Suffolk, and other ministers of Henry VI, had laid a design to introduce the civil law into this kingdom as the rule of government, for a beginning thereof they erected a rack for torture; which was called in derision the duke of Exeter’s daughter, and still remains in the tower of London: where it was occasionally used as an engine of state, not of law, more than once in the reign of queen Elizabeth but when, upon the assassination of Villiers duke of Buckingham by Felton, it was proposed in the privy council to put the assassin to the rack, in order to discover his accomplices; the judges, being consulted, declared unanimously, to their own honour and the honour of the English law, that no such proceeding was allowable by the laws of England.

William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, vol. iv (via Harper’s)

Although the jurisprudence of 17th century England with its proscription of legal torture* still stacks up favorably next to that of Berkeley law professors, it certainly did not stand in the way of assassin John Felton‘s execution on this date in 1628.

Felton, an army officer passed over for promotion, stabbed to death nobby royal favorite George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham at Portsmouth — a private grievance fused to a widespread public one. Reams of laudatory verse churned out in the two months between crime and punishment suggest the popular opprobrium for the duke.**

Or you, late tongue-ty’d judges of the land,
Passe sentence on his act, whose valiant hand
Wrencht off your muzzels, and infranchiz’d all
Your shakl’d consciences from one man’s thrall?
But O! his countrie! what can you verdict on?
If guiltie; ’tis of your redemption.

Felton’s victim, the Duke of Buckingham — portrayed in 1625 by Rubens.

Villiers, “handsomest-bodied” scion of the minor gentry, had parlayed his comeliness into power as the favorite (and possibly the lover) of King James I. He had, as Alexandre Dumas put it in The Three Musketeers (in which adventure Buckingham is an important character) “lived one of those fabulous existences which survive, in the course of centuries, to astonish posterity.”†

Buckingham latched himself to the king’s 20-something son and heir Charles I and became a dominant influence in foreign policy as well as wildly unpopular in England. He raised Protestant hackles with Machiavellian statecraft like angling for a Spanish queen and aiding the French against the Huguenots, and since he exercised a share of the royal power he vigorously upheld the rights of the crown as against those of the commons. An opponent once compared him to Sejanus.

Indeed, Buckingham helped the youthful Charles, king since March of 1625, set the tetchy tone for his relationship with Parliament that would define his rule and ultimately cost the monarch his own head. When Parliament demanded Buckingham “be removed from intermeddling with the great affairs of State” as a condition for coughing up any more money, Charles haughtily dissolved Parliament rather than give up his favorite.

That forced the king into sketchy expedients like the “forced loan” and, when the money disputes continued after Buckingham’s death, the king’s eventual legislature-free Personal Rule that set up the Civil War.

So one can see how the sudden 1628 murder of this resented courtier, to whom was imputed every fault and abuse of Charles himself, would have been celebrated. “Honest Jack” — the assassin’s widely-honored nickname — was likewise credited with every perceived virtue of the Parliamentarian party. Juridically, the man was doomed — but in the popular eye,

[t]he passage of Felton to London, after the assassination, seemed a triumph. Now pitied, and now blessed, mothers held up their children to behold the saviour of the country; and an old woman exclaimed, as Felton passed her, with a scriptural allusion to his short stature, and the mightiness of Buckingham, “God bless thee, little David!” Felton was nearly sainted before he reached the metropolis. His health was the reigning toast among the republicans.

In fact, the man who had recently tutored future literary giant (and future Cromwellian agent) John Milton was sentenced by the Star Chamber have an ear cut off for drinking Felton’s health. (The sentence was remitted thanks to some pull with Archbishop William Laud.)

While he’s sometimes described — or dismissed — as merely a disgruntled careerist, the assassin’s own ideological commitment ought not be downplayed. Whatever Felton’s personal pique, the assassination was unambiguously political: our killer had returned from war wounded and melancholy and proceeded to marinate in the era’s anti-monarchical currents. In time, Felton came to understand — surely in concert with many of his countrymen now forgotten by time — that there was a greater good to be served by the sin of murder.

He had left behind in his trunk a few propositions that underscored his state of mind: “There is no alliance nearer to any one than his country” and “No law is more sacred than the safety and welfare of the commonwealth.” He justified himself at trial in similar terms, and did so without desiring to escape the extremities of the law that his crime demanded.

Felton had really expected to be killed in the act of the assassination himself. To that end, he had left a note pinned in his hat that is as good an elegy for him as any a republican ballad. “That man is cowardly and base and deserveth not the name of a gentleman that is not willing to sacrifice his life for the honor of his God, his king, and his country. Let no man commend me for doing it, but rather discommend themselves as to the cause of it, for if God had not taken away our hearts for our sins, he would not have gone so long unpunished.”

While Felton played his part in the generations-long struggle to subordinate king to parliament, the most immediate beneficiary of this affair was not so much the Commons as it was the noble rival who usurped the late Buckingham’s power — the Earl of Strafford.

* Certain though we are of the human rights commitment of Felton’s prosecutors, the man himself made sure of it by dint of a deft bit of interrogatory jujitsu. Menaced with the prospect of torture, he cheerfully resigned himself to it — “Yet this I must tell you by the way,” he added. “That if I be put upon the rack, I will accuse you, my Lord of Dorset, and none but yourself.”

That’s the way to convince judges not to torture you.

** An entirely less negative remembrance commemorates Buckingham and “accursed” Felton at the Portsmouth Cathedral.

† Felton also appears in The Three Musketeers, committing the murder of Buckingham at the instigation of the seductive fictional villain Milady de Winter just days before the musketeers execute Milady herself.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Gibbeted,Hanged,History,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Public Executions,Soldiers

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