A Sentimental Murder: Love and Madness in the Eighteenth Century

A Sentimental Murder: Love and Madness in the Eighteenth Century

by Brewer

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One April evening in 1779, Martha Ray, the pretty mistress of a famous aristocrat, was shot dead at point-blank range by a young clergyman who then attempted to take his own life. Instead he was arrested, tried and hanged. In this fascinating new book, John Brewer, a leading historian of eighteenth-century England, asks what this peculiar little story was all about.…  See more details below


One April evening in 1779, Martha Ray, the pretty mistress of a famous aristocrat, was shot dead at point-blank range by a young clergyman who then attempted to take his own life. Instead he was arrested, tried and hanged. In this fascinating new book, John Brewer, a leading historian of eighteenth-century England, asks what this peculiar little story was all about. Then as now, crimes of passion were not uncommon, and the story had the hallmarks of a great scandal--yet fiction and fact mingled confusingly in all the accounts, and the case was hardly deemed appropriate material for real history.

Was the crime about James Hackman's unrequited love for the virtuous mother of the Earl of Sandwich's illicit children? Or was Ray, too, deranged by passion, as a popular novel suggested? In Victorian times the romance became a morality tale about decadent Georgian aristocrats and the depravity of wanton women who consorted with them; by the 1920s Ray was considered a chaste mistress destroyed by male dominance and privilege. Brewer, in tracing Ray's fate through these protean changes in journalism, memoir, and melodrama, offers an unforgettable account of the relationships among the three protagonists and their different places in English society--and assesses the shifting balance between storytelling and fact, past and present that inheres in all history.

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Editorial Reviews

Jonathan Yardley
A Sentimental Murder does provoke us to contemplate the complexities of historical truth, the subtle and often invisible workings of spin in history and in journalism, the interconnections of history and fiction, and one truth we too often overlook: "Writing history is a part of history."
The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Historian Brewer (The Pleasures of the Imagination) uses an 18th-century English murder as the starting point for an intriguing exploration of the very nature of writing history itself. In 1779, Martha Ray, the mistress of the Earl of Sandwich, who was the inventor of the sandwich and First Lord of the Admiralty, was shot dead outside Covent Garden Theatre by James Hackman, a young clergyman, who then unsuccessfully tried to take his own life. While Hackman's guilt was never in dispute, the debate over his motivation continued far into the next century. Rather than attempt to "solve" this whydunit, Brewer examines the stories told about the killing, both in fiction and ostensible nonfiction. These narratives varied greatly depending on period, reflecting changing mores and attitudes. For example, the Victorians painted the earl as a decadent aristocrat to make the tale a morality play. In a fascinating parallel to today, Brewer notes how the murder dominated headlines, despite more pressing news such as the war with the American colonies, and shows how late 18th-century newspapers mirrored the Internet by "transmitting the disparate opinions of the public at large" rather than being an authoritative source of information. Agent, Georges Borchardt. (June 9) FYI: The Pleasures of the Imagination (1997) won the Wolfson History Prize. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
On April 7, 1779, a clergyman named James Hackman accosted Martha Ray, the mistress of the fourth Earl of Sandwich, after a play and shot her, then unsuccessfully attempted to kill himself. He was tried and convicted of murder and hanged on April 19. But that's not what this book is about. Brewer (history, California Inst. of Technology; The Pleasures of the Imagination) is interested not in the murder itself but in how the events were interpreted throughout history. A book of Hackman's "letters"(actually forged) painted him as a victim of "love's madness," while the death of Ray brought the status of mistresses, or "demi-reps," into sharp relief. Later Victorian renditions used the murder as a means to denounce the decadence of Georgian society, while more recent historians and writers saw a romantic tragedy, with Ray as a woman torn between love and duty. The author assumes a bit of familiarity with the time period, and the political machinations can be hard to follow, but historians and lovers of the period will be fascinated. Recommended for academic collections.-Deirdre Bray, Middletown P.L., OH Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A sensational 18th-century murder sets the author musing about things that annoy and challenge historians: What are facts? What is history? What are the differences between a novelist and a historian?Brewer (History/Cal. Tech.; The Pleasures of the Imagination, 1997, etc.) begins with a fairly factual account of the crime. On April 7, 1779, James Hackman, a recently ordained priest in the Anglican church, waited outside the Covent Garden theater for Martha Ray, longtime mistress to the fourth Earl of Sandwich. When she emerged, Hackman shot Ray in the head at point-blank range, then wounded himself with another pistol. He was promptly arrested, tried, and hanged before the month was out. Brewer devotes only about 30 pages to this narrative, confessing that we can never really know Hackman's motives or the precise nature of Ray's involvement with him. He devotes the remainder of this provocative work to an examination of how the Ray murder has been treated in the ensuing 225 years. Examining the five daily newspapers published in London at the time, the historian shows that the case initially took shape as what he calls a "sentimental story." He then discusses contemporary pamphlets, such as The Case and Memoirs of James Hackman, which portrayed the killer as a spurned and thus pitiable lover. Brewer pauses to give us some background: Sandwich's lubricious career, Ray's sketchy biography, and the disturbing details of prostitutes' and courtesans' professional lives. He spends time with the 1780 publication Love and Madness, which comprised 65 bogus letters between Ray and her killer, before proceeding down the centuries to examine the psychological, political, and moral lenses throughwhich subsequent generations viewed the story. Some surprising names appear, among them Erasmus Darwin and Williams Wordsworth, Godwin, and Thackeray. Brewer ends with a dazzling chapter on historiography that would work equally well as a stand-alone essay. Scholarly, stimulating, significant. (8 pp. b&w illustrations)

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Product Details

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.34(w) x 9.26(h) x 1.18(d)

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Love and Madness in the Eighteenth Century


Copyright © 2004 John Brewer
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-374-26103-2

Chapter One

Spring 1779

John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich, was a tall gangling man with 'strong legs and arms' and a ruddy appearance that led the novelist Frances Burney, when she first met him in 1775, to compare him with a rough-hewn Jack Tar: 'he is a tall, stout man & looks weather-proof as any sailor in the navy'. Portraits by Gainsborough and Zoffany reveal a large, hooked nose, thin, sensual lips and a long torso that makes his head seem unaccountably small. They also fail to conceal the clumsiness that led Sandwich's French dancing master to ask that 'your Lordship would never tell any one of whom you learned to dance'. 'Awkward' and 'shambling' were how his friends described him, one remarking to another as they spotted him from a distance, 'I am sure it is Lord Sandwich; for, if you observe, he is walking down both sides of the street at once'.

Sandwich had energy that more than compensated for his clumsiness. Despite his lack of polish, he had a reputation as a ladies' man. One anonymous female correspondent confided in him, 'you have it in your power to gain the affections of almost any woman that you study to please'. Women found him charming, and he pursued them relentlessly from his youth into middle age. In his sixties he admitted, 'I have never pretended to be free from indiscretion, and those who know me have been ... long accustomed to forgive my weaknesses, when they do not interfere with my conduct as a public man.'

For a peer, Sandwich was not wealthy, and from 1739, when he took his seat in the House of Lords at the age of twenty-one, he sought political office to increase his income. During a long career in government he served as Secretary of State, Postmaster General and as a diplomat, but the post that he saw as his own and for which he is best remembered was First Lord of the Admiralty, an office he held between 1747 and 1751 and again after his appointment by Lord North in 1770.

Waking on the morning of 7 April 1779 in the ample apartments in the Admiralty building that were one of the perquisites of his post, Sandwich faced a busy day of government business. The Admiralty gates in the Robert Adam screen that separated the offices from the street opened at 9 a.m., when four of the office clerks arrived to receive their instructions, began transcribing documents to captains and admirals, suppliers and politicians, and made neat copperplate copies in official letter books and ledgers. The eleven-hour day was one of the longest in any government office: all the clerks were in attendance between eleven in the morning and four in the afternoon, but a part of the staff kept the Admiralty open between nine and eleven, and between six and ten in the evening.

Though Sandwich had many political enemies, he was generally acknowledged to be a conscientious and industrious official. He was, as one contemporary put it, 'Universally admitted to possess eminent talents, great application to the duties of his office, and thorough acquaintance with public business ... In all his official functions he displayed perspicuity as well as dispatch.' Normally his working day began even before the Admiralty opened: 'he rose at an early hour, and generally wrote all his letters before breakfast', and he frequently had no respite before taking a late evening meal. On one occasion he complained, 'I am fatigued to death having been with my pen in my hand [for] ... thirteen hours.' The snack that bears Sandwich's name, and that was first made by slipping a slice of naval salt beef between two pieces of bread, was made to allow not, as legend has it, for longer hours at the gaming table, but more time at the office.

Admiralty business, of course, was not always so onerous, and the First Lord left much of the detailed work to his reliable and experienced Secretary, Philip Stephens, an official with more than twenty-five years' service for the Admiralty Board. But when the nation was at war and when parliament was in session, as it was in the spring of 1779, the office required constant attention. The nation was embroiled with its American subjects; France and Spain had just joined the rebellious colonists. Because of the weight of business the Admiralty had hired four additional clerks in the last year. The most recent appointment, Mr Hollinworth, had begun work the previous morning.

Yet there were additional reasons why the Admiralty was so frenetic on this warm spring day. For the Admiralty Board and especially Lord Sandwich were at the centre of a huge political row about the conduct of the American war. The parliamentary opposition, led by Charles James Fox in the Commons and the Duke of Richmond in the Lords, was determined to lay the blame for Britain's military failures at the door of the Admiralty, and had launched a determined attempt to drive Sandwich from office, if not to overthrow the government itself.

The squall had blown up more than a year earlier, when the war had been going particularly badly. Forced to maintain supply lines to Boston, New York and the Chesapeake, the navy was overstretched and undermanned. Encouraged by Britain's plight, and eager to revenge their previous defeats, France had pledged support to the Americans in the summer of 1778. One of Sandwich's spies, John Walker, had been sending him alarming reports for several years of a major French naval build-up. Despite Sandwich's warnings to his colleagues, too little was done too late. Better equipped, the French battle fleet threatened to outnumber the British and to make possible a French landing on the south coast of England.

Sandwich and his colleagues had been bitterly attacked for their conduct of the war and their lack of preparedness for its escalation. Their hopes (like those of most Britons) had been pinned on an early and decisive naval victory against France that would have seen off the threat to Britain's supply lines and trade, and dispelled the threat of invasion. But when the two fleets met off Ushant on 27 July 1778, the French repelled the English attack and inflicted great damage before retreating to Brest. The threat of French superiority remained, and was soon compounded by the prospect of Spain's entry into the war on the colonists' side. On 15 October Sandwich wrote to the prime minister, Lord North, 'The situation of our affairs is at this time so critical and alarming that my mind will not rest, without I collect my thoughts and put on paper the ideas I have of the danger we are in, and what exertions we can use to guard against the storm that is hanging over us.'

On the same day an article appeared in the opposition newspaper, the General Advertiser and Morning Post, blaming Rear-Admiral Sir Hugh Palliser, a member of the Admiralty Board and a close ally of Sandwich's, for failing to follow an order of the fleet's leader, Admiral August Keppel, a political ally of the Foxite opposition, to engage the French more closely. The article provoked a huge row, which turned officers against one another and divided the navy into bitter factions (contemporaries talked of the Montagus and Capulets). Keppel and Palliser, both MPs, squabbled on the floor of the House of Commons; both were eventually court martialled. Throughout the winter and early spring of 1779 the Foxite opposition kept up the pressure on the government, proposing motion after motion attacking its policy in general and Sandwich in particular. In February it looked as if, for Sandwich at least, the game was up. King George III and Lord North decided to remove him from the Admiralty as a way of appeasing government critics. Only the failure of negotiations for a replacement kept him in office. On 11 February a court martial acquitted Keppel and dismissed Palliser's charges against the admiral as 'malicious and unfounded'. That evening a crowd of opposition supporters smashed the windows of Sandwich's lodgings, frightening his mistress, Martha Ray, who was staying there. The crowd tore off the Admiralty gates, looted Palliser's house in Pall Mall and attacked the homes of other Admiralty officials.

The government was losing its grip. Lord North sank into a depression that made business difficult to transact - on one occasion Sandwich was sent by the king to cajole him out of bed - while government supporters, thinking the administration doomed, began to absent themselves from important debates in parliament. In April the opposition's demand for an inquiry into the state of the British and French navies and into the Admiralty's preparedness for war placed an additional burden on Sandwich's officials, who had to assemble documents and statistics to be used in his defence. In the following week a debate was scheduled in the House of Lords in which Lord Bristol, a leading spokesman of the opposition, was expected to call for Sandwich's dismissal. On the afternoon of 6 April Sandwich met with the king to discuss the government's strategy.

While Sandwich laboured in the Admiralty Board room, struggling to salvage his career, other events that were to have a profound effect on his future were unfolding in another part of London. How much he knew of their background is difficult to tell, though he certainly did not know about the events that took place that day while he was at work.

Some time after the Admiralty gates had opened, a handsome young man knocked at the door of Signor Galli, in Jarvis Street, off London's Haymarket. The Reverend James Hackman, a tall, thin figure with a high forehead and fine, almost effeminate features, had only a week before been ordained as a priest in the Church of England and given the living of Wiveton, in Norfolk. But that morning he was not bent on clerical business. He demanded to see a letter that Galli had first shown him two days earlier. But the Italian turned him away, telling him that it 'was out of his power. The letter being no longer in his possession.' The letter had been written by Martha Ray, the thirty-five-year-old mistress of the Earl of Sandwich, and in it she pleaded with Hackman to 'desist from his pursuit' of her, refused to see him and told him she wished to cease all connection with him. Hackman left disappointed, unable to confirm what he did not wish to believe.

Martha Ray had been the mistress of the Earl of Sandwich for more than sixteen years and had borne him nine children, of whom five were living: Robert, born in 1763; Augusta, whose date of birth goes unrecorded; Basil, born in 1770; and two other brothers, William and John, whose birth dates were 1772 and 1773. With such a family it was obvious that Sandwich's relationship with Ray was no casual affair. She was effectively his common law wife and was known as his public consort. A contemporary described Ray as 'not what we would call elegant, but which would pass under the denomination of pretty; her height was about five feet five inches; she was fresh-coloured, and had a perpetual smile on her countenance, which rendered her agreeable to every beholder'. Others, especially those who heard her sing, were more impressed. The young clergyman Richard Dennison Cumberland, who listened to Ray's performances at Hinchingbrooke, spoke of her 'personal accomplishments and engaging Manner', describing her as 'a second Cleopatra - a Woman of thousands, and capable of producing those effects on the Heart which the Poets talk so much of and which we are apt to think Chimerical'. Her surviving portraits bear out this description showing a prepossessed and elegantly dressed woman with bright eyes, a slight smile and an expression that betrays considerable strength of character. Certainly James Hackman, who had met her at Hinchingbrooke, had been smitten with her since their first acquaintance in 1775. Nor did it seem likely, despite Ray's pleas, that the young man would desist in his pursuit of her.

Later that same afternoon Hackman dined with his sister, her husband, the attorney Frederick Booth, and a cousin at the Booths' house in Craven Street, off the Strand, a few doors down from Benjamin Franklin's lodgings; he left after eating, promising to return to the family for supper. Striding up Craven Street, he turned left into the Strand, walked through Charing Cross and down Whitehall towards the Admiralty, where Ray and Sandwich had their lodgings. When he arrived he saw the Earl's coach at the Admiralty's door. He guessed (rightly, as it turned out) that Martha Ray was going out, and he walked the short distance back towards Craven Street, and stationed himself at the Cannon Coffee House at Charing Cross, so that he could watch the passing traffic. His wait was not in vain. Shortly before six o'clock, Sandwich's coach swept by, carrying Ray and her companion, Signora Caterina Galli, up the Strand and past its many fine shops, with their first-floor displays of luxuries, cloth and jewels, before turning north into Covent Garden. Hackman followed hastily on foot, watching the two women enter the Covent Garden Theatre at about a quarter past six.

On that Wednesday the theatre was crowded. The star attraction was Margaret Kennedy, a statuesque if somewhat clumsy actress with a fine voice, famed for 'breeches' roles in which she played male parts. The evening's receipts were to go to her benefit, and she was to sing the part of Colin in Rose and Colin, a short comic opera by Charles Dibdin, and the male lead - Meadows - in Thomas Arne's extremely popular opera, Love in a Village.

Caterina Galli and Martha Ray were more than casual theatre-goers. They might have chosen that evening to go to Drury Lane to see a much-acclaimed production of Shakespeare's Macbeth, but they preferred comic opera and Mrs Kennedy because of their love of music. Caterina Galli was herself a famous singer and music teacher. A pupil of Handel, she had starred in his operas and oratorios in the 1740s and 1750s, usually singing male roles. After a spell back in her native Italy, she returned to London for two seasons before retiring in 1776. Martha Ray, though she had never performed professionally, was also a singer of great accomplishment, with a passion, shared by Sandwich, for Handel. Ray had been tutored by a number of musicians at Sandwich's expense, and Galli, as well as being Ray's companion, had sung with her at private concerts arranged by the Earl. It seems likely that Sandwich hoped to attend the performance at Covent Garden that evening - he had earlier cancelled a dinner with friends at the Admiralty - but was prevented from enjoying himself because of the press of Admiralty business.

Mrs Kennedy and Love in a Village were apt objects of Martha Ray's attention. Mrs Kennedy, like Martha Ray, had achieved success through the attentions of a male admirer: she had been spotted by Thomas Arne, singing songs in a pub near St Giles, one of the least salubrious parts of London.


Excerpted from A SENTIMENTAL MURDER by JOHN BREWER Copyright © 2004 by John Brewer. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

John Brewer is the author of many books, including The Pleasures of the Imagination (FSG, 1997), which won the Wolfson History Prize. He teaches at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

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