Birthright: The True Story that Inspired Kidnapped

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"No saga of personal hardship so captivated the British public in the eighteenth century as the turbulent life of James Annesley, the presumptive heir of five aristocratic titles and scion of the mighty house of Annesley. Kidnapped at twelve years of age by his uncle, "Jemmy" was shipped from Dublin to America in 1728 as an indentured servant. Only after twelve more years did he at last escape, returning to Ireland to bring his blood rival, the Earl of Anglesea, to justice in one of the epic trials of the century." How, in an age without DNA laboratories or fingerprint records, could a prodigal hope to prove his identity, let alone his legitimacy, after such a long absence - all the while defying accusations of being a "pretender," the bastard son of a maidservant, plus repeated attempts on his life? Bursting with an improbable cast of characters, from a brave Dublin butcher and a wily Scot to the king of England, Birthright evokes in vivid detail the volatile world of Georgian Ireland - complete with its violence, debauchery, ancient rituals, and tenacious loyalties.

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Editorial Reviews

“Starred Review. Ekirch out-kidnaps Stevenson in this thrilling, thoroughly documented story. A perfect mix of true crime and real-life adventure.”
The Times [London]
The story of Jemmy Annesley, kidnapped at 12 and shipped from Dublin to the American backwoods in 1728 by his wicked Uncle Richard, certainly recalls an early episode in the story of young David Balfour. But the tale of Annesley's picaresque adventures is excitingly dramatic in its own right and Professor Ekirch has researched it with academic relish as a real-life oddity that is no stranger than fiction.— Iain Finlayson
Publishers Weekly
The dramatic tale of James (Jemmy) Annesley inspired Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped and four other novels. Now Virginia Tech history professor Ekirch (Day's Close) presents the intriguing, complex true narrative of the 18th-century travails of the rightful earl of Anglesea. Ekirch describes young Annesley's near abandonment to the Dublin streets through the greed-induced maneuvering of his father, Baron Altham, and Altham's mistress. Upon Altham's death, Jemmy's Uncle Richard perpetuated the lie that the boy was illegitimate and, later, that he had died. In 1728 Richard had 12-year-old Jemmy kidnapped and transported to the colony of Delaware as an indentured servant. After 13 years of virtual slavery, Jemmy escaped and returned to the British Isles. His claim to gentlemanly birth was endorsed by numerous former acquaintances, but denied by a few key individuals. Eventually, his cause was championed by Daniel Mackercher, a self-made Scottish merchant who dedicated his life to the defense of Jemmy's birthright. Lengthy and sensational legal proceedings resulted in a less-than-timely vindication of the claim. Confusing because of excessive use of frequently changing noble titles, Birthright is nonetheless a fascinating read. 26 illus., 3 maps. (Jan.)
Kirkus Reviews
A contested inheritance, kidnapping, murder, revenge, a sensational courtroom trial-this true-life narrative by Ekirch (History/Virginia Tech; At Day's Close: Night in Times Past, 2005) sounds like an old-fashioned adventure tale. In fact, it "inspired at least five novels," including Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped. Heir to five estates in Ireland, 12-year-old James Annesley was snatched in 1728 on orders of his uncle Richard, the Earl of Anglesea, and transported across the Atlantic as an indentured servant in Delaware. With the boy out of the way, Anglesea promptly seized his lands. More than a decade later, Annesley escaped and made his way to London, where he set about reclaiming his fortune. Ekirch penetrates the cloud of witnesses at the various legal proceedings to create a fascinating picture of Ireland under its Protestant aristocracy, who were given to gambling, drinking, dueling and fighting lawsuits. Annesley's father, Arthur, the Baron of Altham, was a typical example, even turning his eight-year-old son out to placate his mistress. Opinion divided over whether Annesley was Altham's legitimate son or the product of a fling with a wet-nurse, but Altham was angelic compared with Anglesea, whose character, a contemporary noted, was "so bad that nobody will have [anything] to do with him." The ensuing trial employed the services of one out of every seven attorneys in Dublin, involved the largest estate ever contested in court, set a precedent for attorney-client privilege and lasted the longest of any proceeding in the British Isles to that date. Though Anglesea's subsequent legal stratagems prolonged resolution of the case past the death of its two principals, the judgmentof history has been that Annesley was vindicated. Ekirch provides the necessary context for understanding the characters and events in the tale, including changing courtship and child-rearing practices, the deference that tied poverty-stricken Catholic tenants to landlords and, most important, the kidnapping trade that authorities had difficulty eliminating. An engrossing familial and legal tale told with dash and clarity.
Iain Finlayson - The Times [London]
“The story of Jemmy Annesley, kidnapped at 12 and shipped from Dublin to the
American backwoods in 1728 by his wicked Uncle Richard, certainly recalls an early episode in the story of young David Balfour. But the tale of
Annesley's picaresque adventures is excitingly dramatic in its own right and
Professor Ekirch has researched it with academic relish as a real-life oddity that is no stranger than fiction.”
Toby Barnard
“This gripping book tells a remarkable true story. . . . Roger Ekirch expertly illumines eighteenth-century societies in the British colonies and the seedy underside of Georgian Dublin. His masterly, sympathetic and racy reconstruction of the adventures of Jemmy Annesley at last fleshes out the truth behind the tales told by Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson.”
Gordon S. Wood
“An extraordinary work of history by one of America’s most imaginative historians, a true story more fascinating than fiction.”
Sunday Times [London]
“Ekirch’s book brings the story brilliantly to life and vividly reconstructs the violent and debt-ridden world in which disreputable aristocrats operated.”
The Spectator
“A splendid story of low skullduggery and high politics, and Roger Ekirch deserves congratulation for disinterring it. As befits an eminent historian, his research is detailed and the evidence carefully weighed.”
Richmond Times-Dispatch
“More fascinating than the fiction spin-off. . . . In combining an inherently exciting tale with surprising facts, Ekirch has come up with one of the year's most intriguing history books.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393066159
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 1/25/2010
  • Pages: 258
  • Product dimensions: 5.80 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

A. Roger Ekirch is a professor of history at Virginia Tech and the award-winning author of At Day’s Close and of Birthright. He lives in Roanoke, Virginia.

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Table of Contents



Annesley Family Pedigree

Prologue 3

1 Family 14

2 Betrayal 39

3 Exile 62

4 Flight 80

5 Deliverance 97

6 Home 121

7 Redemption 141

8 Equity 166

9 Resurrection 188

Requiem 202

A Note on Legal Sources 207

Notes 212

Index 245

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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Posted February 22, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Well worth the time and money involved in reading it. A page turner at points, at others not so much.

    An interesting education on the workings of ye olde justice system in Great Britain.

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