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 judgment of 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.