A stirring account of a crime of passion that was a tabloid sensation in mad King George’s London.
The antiquarian story is rather less sensational now. Leading players include the Earl of Sandwich, First Lord of the Admiralty; his steadfast mistress, Martha Ray; and the Reverend Mr. James Hackman, besotted with unrequited love for Miss Ray. So great was his love that one evening in the spring of 1779, the young clergyman approached Ray in the piazza of Covent Garden and put a bullet through her skull. Then, with remarkable ineptitude, he tried to kill himself. (Suicide, in the mode of sorrowful young Werther, was a popular notion in the 1770s.) Historical researcher Levy only briefly outlines the lives and natures of the principals, giving more attention to Hackman’s trial, prevailing attitudes toward such crimes, and the concept of love as a manifestation of madness. Levy follows the murderer from Newgate to sessions at the Old Bailey. After a trial of scarcely 90 minutes, the verdict soon brought Hackman to the hangman at Tyburn. His defense of “momentary phrenzy” didn’t keep the redoubtable Mr. Justice Blackstone, an expert on temporary insanity, from pronouncing the fateful sentence, which included delivery of the shooter, postmortem, to anatomists for dissection. (This caused Hackman some concern regarding the feasibility of resurrection for his piecemeal body.) It was all of particular interest to raffish biographer James Boswell and other connoisseurs of crimes involving confused unfortunates and bewigged blackguards. Such offenses were often luridly recounted in contemporaneous prose and poetry, and we are given several appendices containing concomitant doggerel, essays, and letters devoted to the sad tale of Hackman, Sandwich, and Ray.
Less heartrending than it was of yore, the once-notorious murder now offers little mystery, but plenty of historical romance. (15 b&w illustrations)