John Brewer. A Sentimental Murder: Love and Madness in the Eighteenth Century. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2004. x + 340 pp. $24.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-374-26103-0; $27.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-374-52977-2.
Martin Levy. Love and Madness: The Murder of Martha Ray, Mistress of the Fourth Earl of Sandwich. New York: William Morrow, 2004. xiii + 240 pp. $17.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-06-055974-8.
Paul Kleber Monod. The Murder of Mr. Grebell: Madness and Civility in an English Town. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004. xi + 294 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-300-09985-0.
Reviewed by Victor Stater (Louisiana State University)
Published on H-Albion (February, 2005)
Murder and History in the Eighteenth Century
Raymond Chandler's most famous invention, the hard-boiled L.A. detective Philip Marlowe, used to say "Crime is a sucker's road, and those who travel it wind up in the gutter, the prison, or the grave." These three books, describing two eighteenth-century murders, demonstrate the reality of Chandler's dictum: two murders, two executions--four violent deaths. But the stories of the killing of Allen Grebell, a magistrate of the Cinque Port town of Rye, and Martha Ray, mistress of the fourth Earl of Sandwich, do more than merely illustrate film noir clichés. In the hands of three able historians, these crimes illuminate important aspects of eighteenth-century British society: politics, both national and provincial, elite and popular culture, and, in the case of John Brewer's work, the nature of historical writing. Each one of these books has a different goal, though all three take as their central focus a notorious murder. Each makes a serious contribution.
Paul Monod's The Murder of Mr. Grebell is microhistory at its best--illustrating, through the close examination of a single historical moment, a far broader picture. As Monod says, the Grebell case "is emblematic of the social and political relationships that existed in many parts of the kingdom" (p. 1).
On March 16, 1743, John Breads, a downwardly mobile butcher/innkeeper/carrier, attacked and stabbed to death Allen Grebell, scion of Rye's oligarchy, as he walked late at night through the local churchyard. Breads may have mistaken Grebell for James Lamb, Rye's mayor, who had once fined him for cheating his customers. Grebell was, as it happens, Lamb's near neighbor and brother-in-law, and Monod suggests that Breads's blow was aimed as much at Rye's oligarchy as at the man in a scarlet cloak. In any event, Breads was quickly captured and tried--by James Lamb. He was convicted and hanged. The law found Breads's crime particularly heinous, and so his corpse was gibbeted, left hanging in an iron cage for all to see. Local cunning women stole bits of him for their potions, but even today the morbid may gaze upon the wages of sin in Rye, where a fragment of the murderer's skull remains on display.
At one level, this was an open and shut case: Breads did not deny his crime, claiming he had been driven to act by "a parcel of devils" (p. 54). The trial would hardly stand as a legitimate one today--Mayor Lamb's role involved, to put it mildly, a conflict of interest. Many, including Monod, would argue that Breads was mad. Even so, there is no mystery about whodunit.
But there is a mystery in the Grebell case--why did Breads kill a man who had evidently done him no wrong? And what does this murder tell us about Rye, and, more broadly, about eighteenth-century England? Monod tackles these mysteries with great skill, and what emerges is a fascinating account of the evolution of provincial society between the reigns of Elizabeth I and George III. Monod begins in the late-sixteenth century, in the waning days of Rye's glory as a prosperous seaport. Between the 1570s and 1660s, the town's population dwindled by two-thirds, and records indicate that between two-thirds and three-quarters of the population was too poor to pay hearth taxes. During this period Rye was a hotbed of religious dissent and social tensions. The town had an unusually large number of witchcraft accusations--a sure sign that poverty and religious conflict had undermined the values of "good neighborhood" that had assured stability for previous generations.
The eighteenth century saw the re-establishment of stability in Rye, but the new order rose upon a different foundation. John Breads, born to a family with connections to radical religion, belonged to a part of Rye society marginalized by a new oligarchy. The town's rulers had, by the 1740s, made their peace with Anglicanism, even though many were themselves from dissenting families. They had also learned to love central government, abandoning the relative independence of the seventeenth century. Rye's leaders delivered their parliamentary seats to ministry candidates without a contest for over a century. The political docility of the town draws attention to an important change in the provinces, for which Rye stands as an exemplar--the much increased importance of Westminster in underwriting prosperity and providing support for local power brokers. For much of the eighteenth century Rye had two principal industries: smuggling and public works. Smuggling provided a livelihood for both criminals and those charged to root them out--a task they never accomplished. Perhaps as important were the decades-long efforts to revive Rye's silted harbor. Sold to Parliament as a strategic necessity in the face of French aggression, in reality the 200,000 pounds-plus project represented a lucrative well of patronage for ministers. The Harbor Acts designed to make Rye a viable port once again never succeeded in their ostensible purpose, but they gave the oligarchy access to the Crown's deep pockets. Rye's dominant families were not shy about using their new found resources. Contracts, purchase orders, and patronage flowed copiously into the purses of the Lambs and Grebells--even John Breads picked up crumbs from his betters' tables as a carter. The price for this largesse was allegiance to the ministry of the day, but the reward was increasing prosperity for the entire community.
Monod begins with a tragedy, but he uses the events of that March night to describe the evolution of a new kind of society in provincial England: less independent of London, both culturally and politically, but more prosperous; less committed to the values of good neighborhood, but more individualistic. His book is fascinating and a fine example of how valuable a microhistory can be in shining a light upon the past.
The other two works considered here both focus upon the same violent episode--the murder, on April 7, 1779, of Martha Ray. Ray was a figure of prominence in London, a well-known soprano who played an important role in the revival of G. F. Handel's music. She was also notorious as the long time mistress of John Montagu, fourth Earl of Sandwich, first lord of the Admiralty. Her death, at the hands of an army-officer-turned-cleric, fascinated British society.
Martin Levy, in Love and Madness: the Murder of Martha Ray, Mistress of the Fourth Earl of Sandwich, provides a straightforward and compelling account of the doomed couple and Ray's killer, James Hackman. He has quarried the archives, uncovering documents casting light upon Hackman's career and personality, down to his tailor's bills. The picture that emerges is one of an unstable young man in search of a purpose in life. Martha Ray, a tradesman's daughter, lived a precarious, if luxurious, existence. Forever plagued by the fear that her protector might tire of her and cast her aside, she died no more certain of her place in society than Hackman.
Hackman came from a background not much different than that of Breads--he was born in the provincial town of Gosport, the son of a naval officer. The elder Hackman spent a lifetime in the navy, but only rose to the rank of lieutenant. While certainly better off than Breads, James's prospects were limited, at best. A brief stint as a mercer's apprentice was succeeded by seven years in the army. It was as an officer in an unfashionable infantry regiment that Hackman met the woman who would become his fatal obsession, Martha Ray.
Billeted not far from the Sandwich's country seat at Hinchingbrooke, Hackman evidently made Ray's acquaintance casually. She was the reigning female at Hinchingbrooke, and had been for fifteen years. Like Hackman, her background was obscure. Born in about 1745, her father was a mercer who abandoned his family when she was ten. Her affair with Sandwich began when she was about seventeen, in 1761, and she lived with him from that point on, bearing him five children who survived infancy.
Like many men of his rank, the fourth earl of Sandwich was a latitudinarian where marriage vows were concerned. Unlike many of his peers, however, Sandwich could at least point to mitigating circumstances. His wife, from whom he separated in 1755, was insane. While Sandwich had undoubtedly led a rakish life in his youth, by 1779 he was sixty and lived quite uxoriously. He sponsored Martha's singing, established her in his home, and lived most affectionately with her.
Martha's relations with Hackman remain mysterious. Many at the time believed they were lovers; after all Sandwich was almost thirty years older than Martha, and, moreover, his promises to make her a firm settlement after his death somehow never materialized. Whatever the truth, apparently Hackman believed that he might persuade her to abandon her keeper. With a posting to Ireland looming, he sold his commission, and in a turnabout that seems stranger today than it was at the time, he took Holy Orders.
It was, then, as the Reverend James Hackman that he hoped to make an honest woman of Martha Ray--although one wonders what his ordinary, the Bishop of Norwich, thought about his subordinate's romantic scheme. But Hackman's plan foundered upon Martha's refusal to play her assigned role: she rejected his proposal. And so it was that as a priest of barely two month's standing, he lay in wait for his beloved as she left a Covent Garden theater, a pair of pistols in his hands. It seems that a murder-suicide was the plan, but if so, part two of the operation failed. While he killed Martha instantly with a ball through the head, Hackman's second weapon either misfired, or he lost his nerve and failed to pull the trigger.
The crime created a sensation--it was a godsend for publishers of broadsides and cheap pamphlets, combining all of the elements guaranteed to promote sales--sex, violence, and an earl. The reaction also well illustrates the cloying sentimentality of the late-eighteenth century, as Hackman became the object of romantic sympathy denied Breads a generation earlier. His trial, barely a week after the murder, was held amidst gales of hysterical weeping as all of fashionable London swooned to hear the details of the romantic tragedy. James Boswell and John Wilkes, among others, sat raptly in the audience, tearfully admiring Hackman's resigned nobility.
Guilt was undeniable, and the trial ended in ninety minutes. On April 19, 1779, twelve days after the murder, Hackman went to Tyburn. For all of his exquisite sensibility, and the sympathy it elicited from London society, the law, at least, remained unmoved. Like John Breads, in death Hackman's remains were dishonored, being turned over to the surgeons' company for dissection--a procedure that drew its own ghoulish, jostling crowd of spectators.
Levy's book is well-researched and grippingly told. He provides the context for Hackman's crime, describes the political and social world in which it occurred, and has produced a fine narrative of a sensational event that mesmerized the nation.
At first glance, one might be forgiven for assuming that having enjoyed Levy's exceptionally fine retelling of the Ray-Hackman story, reading John Brewer's book, A Sentimental Murder: Love and Madness in the Eighteenth Century would be superfluous--after all, not only does it describe the Ray murder, its title even reproduces the same phrase, "Love and Madness." But this is not the case; Brewer has written a very different book. The project began as a traditional narrative--as does Levy's--but in the end Brewer's focus shifted. What emerges is a broader view, in which the facts of Hackman's crime are but elements. As the author says, "I want to explore the relations between history and fiction, story telling and fact, past and present" (p. 1).
The details of Martha Ray's death are dispatched quickly--by page thirty-four she and her murderer have both been consigned to their graves. In this regard, Levy's account offers more detail, and is far more deeply researched. But Brewer's interest is less in the story itself than in the ways it was retold and understood in later generations. For contemporaries, the murder was a tragic tale, an example of the fatal intersection of love and madness. Newspaper accounts were sympathetic to both Hackman and Martha Ray; James was described as an inexperienced young man of good family (a debatable point, in fact), and Martha was an "elegant lady" (p. 53) whose moral failings went unmentioned. The jarring element in these sentimental raptures came when some turned the crime to political account, blackening the name of Lord Sandwich. In describing the contemporary reaction, Brewer offers an interesting picture of the eighteenth-century popular press. Although he does not make the point, the resemblance between London papers of the 1770s, dependant upon the contributions--often anonymous--of private correspondents, and the twenty-first century blogosphere is striking.
The murder inspired a number of popular accounts, attuned to the sentimental eighteenth-century reader. Manasseh Dawes, a young barrister who aided in Hackman's defense (with a notable lack of success), wrote his own largely fictional account of the murder, The Case and Memoirs of the Late Reverend Mr. James Hackman. It went through at least nine editions within weeks of the crime, turning a profit that must have dwarfed any legal fees Dawes earned on the case itself. Deliberately stoking the emotions of his readers ("the prisoner by his defence drew tears from all parts of the court," quoted, p. 65), Dawes ensured a brisk sale, while at the same time advancing his anti-ministerial politics, depicting Sandwich as an immoral villain.
The depiction of the crime as a sentimental tragedy reached its apogee in 1780 when Herbert Croft, a Grub Street hack, published Love and Madness: A Story Too True. Purporting to be the correspondence of the two lovers, the letters, which all but one were written by Croft, told of a tragic passion, of a couple in the grips of an irresistible force. Perfectly suited for its audience, Love and Madness sold thousands of copies and permanently fixed the outlines of the story.
Brewer is at his best describing the cultural context of these accounts--the role of the press, politics, sentimental literature, and the often unstated, but real, influence of sex and gender in the eighteenth century. Later chapters describe the changing nature of the story, as succeeding generations mined it for their own purposes. The Victorians, not surprisingly, interpreted the case as an example of their grandparents' moral bankruptcy. Sandwich's immorality corrupted the young Martha, who in turn led the unworldly innocent Hackman to his doom. The wages of sin are death. By the 1920s, however, a new version emerged. Retellings of Ray's story by Constance Wright and Elizabeth Jenkins are pervaded by a romantic nostalgia for an eighteenth century unconstrained by Victorian morals.
In his conclusion, Brewer reflects upon the nature of historical writing, briefly describing its evolution from the Victorians' works of high moral purpose, focusing upon acts of state, to the emergence in the second half of the twentieth century of social historians for whom the intimate details of daily life are the true stuff of history. He offers this work as "a new form of historical writing" and "as an experiment, to see if it will work" (p. 292). I think the answer is yes--Brewer's method does work. But so too does Monod's microhistory, with its detailed and fascinating account of an evolving provincial society. And Levy's history--narrative firmly grounded in archival sources, effectively presented in lucid prose--retains its power undiminished by experiment or historiographical fashion. These books demonstrate the variety and possibilities of history. Each takes a different approach, and each provides the reader a fascinating picture of past time, colored, as all histories must be, by our own interests and predispositions, but none the less valuable for it.
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Victor Stater. Review of Brewer, John, A Sentimental Murder: Love and Madness in the Eighteenth Century and
Levy, Martin, Love and Madness: The Murder of Martha Ray, Mistress of the Fourth Earl of Sandwich and
Monod, Paul Kleber, The Murder of Mr. Grebell: Madness and Civility in an English Town.
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