February 19, 2004

Crime and Punishment in 18th-Century England

In my next life, if all goes well, I plan to become a historian of 18th-century English crime. The subject is so fascinating, and so entertaining, that it narrowly beats out the other historical sub-field that I'd devote myself to if I weren't already interested in Soviet history: Byzantine studies. (How could you not love studying an empire whose rulers included Constantine V Copronymus, who earned his epithet as the result of an unfortunate event at his christening?)

There are moments, however, when I'm afraid that 18th-century English crime studies will be passe by the time my next life begins. After all, it seems that I see a review of another fascinating book on that subject every time I look at the website of an English literary journal, and there may not be enough sensational cases left by the time I begin my next career. Just today, for instance, I read a Times Literary Supplement review of a book on yet another sensational case--this one involving the Earl of Sandwich, an Anglican priest, and the eighteenth-century malady of erotomania.

The book reviewed in the current TLS, John Brewer's A Sentimental Murder, tells the story of how an Anglican priest named James Hackman killed Martha Ray, the long-time mistress of the First Lord of the Admiralty (and the mother of nine of his children.) This wasn't just any First Lord of the Admiralty, however; it was John Montagu, the Earl of Sandwich, who mentored Samuel Pepys, sponsored Captain Cook, and lent his name to everyone's favorite lunch-time food. (Captain Cook, it's often claimed, was such a sycophant that he named island after island after Montagu, until the Admiralty ordered him to stop; the Hawaiian islands were originally known as the Sandwich Islands, for example.)

Here's how the review describes the case:

The happy liaison between the Earl and Miss Ray was brutally shattered on April 7, 1779. As the lady left Covent Garden Theatre, she was shot by a certain James Hackman and died almost immediately. The murderer then turned a gun on himself, but botched the job. Even more unfortunate was the fact that, only a week before becoming a murderer, Hackman had been ordained as an Anglican clergyman. The motive for the killing was clear and freely admitted by Hackman. For four years, he had entertained a hopeless passion for Miss Ray, and had finally been overcome by it. He was hanged twelve days later.

Such an episode inevitably provided the newspapers with headlines for a month, and in this glare of publicity everyone seemingly behaved well. Sandwich forgivingly offered to use his influence to have the capital sentence commuted. Hackman gallantly declined the offer, insisting that he deserved death. On the scaffold, he behaved with such becoming courage that many in the huge crowd of spectators were moved to tears. Even the hangman showed a certain delicacy. When asked to repeat Hackman’s last words, the executioner huffily maintained that he “thought it a point of ill manners to listen on such occasions”. Nevertheless, word got around that the final phrase had been “dear, dear Miss Ray”. As with all sensational murders the principals were quickly idealized or demonized. Conspiracy theories and discussions about motive abounded. Oddly enough, it was Hackman’s reputation that came out of all this speculation the whitest.

I was amused, moreover, by the review's conclusion:

Having established the story and its context in A Sentimental Murder, John Brewer then changes intellectual gear to investigate how each generation moulds the past for its own comfort and edification. In the late eighteenth century, Hackman was of interest to compilers of medical textbooks like Erasmus Darwin, who saw him as a fine example of “erotomania”, or love-madness. He was all the more interesting in that it was a malady normally suffered by women. At the same period, Martha Ray is used to romantic effect in Wordsworth’s poem “The Thorn”. In the nineteenth century, the case was written up as a squalid example of the wicked Georgian values that the Victorians had put aside. A generation later, the fate of Hackman, Ray and Sandwich was delivered into the hands of historical novelists, a fate possibly worse than death.

Regular readers of this blog may remember that this isn't the first time I've linked to an article on 18th-century English crime. Several weeks ago I linked to this Guardian review of James Sharpe's new book on the highwayman Dick Turpin; I plan to read Sharpe's book sometime, since it sounds like a fascinating account of crime, crime prevention, and historical memory. Just this Sunday, moreover, I linked to this Guardian review of a book on "the London Monster," a criminal who terrorized England's capital in the 1780s. (If you haven't read it yet--and you're interested enough to have read this far--go read the review now. It has lots of fun details about crime and crime-fighting! I find it oddly intriguing that the Monster was an artificial flower-maker named Rhynwyck Williams, who was finally convicted after the authorities figured out which crime they should charge him with.)

The main reason I've linked to these articles is that they tell a series of fascinating--even hilarious--stories. How could anyone not want to rush out and read these books after seeing what the TLS and The Guardian have to say about them? What's more, I'm struck by how intrigung these stories are, and I think that social history case studies like this could be an excellent introduction into academic history for college students. College students shouldn't merely be exposed to entertaining anecdotes, of course--they should be shown how fun stories are intimately tied to larger historical issues--but I think that cases like these could be a fantastic foundation for a college course. Back when I was an undergrad at Swarthmore, a professor in the department designed a U.S. history course called "Murder in a mill town," and I think he had a great idea.

I do wish, however, that writers were more interested in giving readers a better idea of why sensational crimes were important and interesting--and not just why they were entertaining. The Guardian notes that Jan Bondeson's book on the London Monster was "a little light on psychological and historical analysis," for example, and could have done a better job tying the case to the turmoil caused by the French Revolution or to the 18th-century cult of sensibility. The Times Literary Supplement, however, barely even mentions the broader significance of Brewer's book. I assume that he had a more developed theory--his book is called A Sentimental Murder and the review alludes to a "cult of sentiment," after all--but the TLS doesn't do a very good job of telling us what that deeper explanation is. Is it too much to hope that newspapers will move beyond the entertaining factoids found in history books to explain what they tell us about the past?

Posted by Ed at February 19, 2004 04:55 PM

My second-favorite name from the Byzantine empire is that of Alexius V Ducas Murzuphlus, so named for his prodigious eyebrows.

Posted by: susan at February 19, 2004 05:49 PM
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