- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 26, 2004


By John Brewer

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $25, 340 pages, illus.

On April 7, 1779, James Hackman, a young clergyman, shot Martha Ray, the mistress of the Earl of Sandwich, outside of the Covent Garden Theatre and then shot himself. Whatever his intentions were, Hackman did not succeed in ending his own life, but left his fate to the local authorities.

Within a few short weeks, he was tried and sentenced to hang. “Eighteenth century justice was swift,” John Brewer writes in “A Sentimental Murder: Love and Madness in the Eighteenth Century.” On April 19 of the same year, Hackman, a fallen man of the cloth, died at the end of a rope.

After the punishment, like that of all murderers, “[Hackman’s] body was sent to Surgeon’s Hall for dissection.” And given the evidence of Mr. Brewer’s fascinating book, they’ve been dissecting him ever since. For over 200 years, details of the crime involving three people in the public eye have been scrutinized again and again, recast to suit the biases of tastes and time and immortalized by poets, journalists, novelists, historians, dramatists and literary critics.

This is all the more remarkable because it was not an unsolved crime. A young woman died. Her murderer was apprehended and there was no evidence that anyone else was involved.

But much mystery surrounds Ray and Hackman. Between the time of their meeting in 1775 and the time of Ray’s death, not much is known about their relationship. As Mr. Brewer writes, “Stories have a hiatus. Unless it was filled, the tale of Hackman’s crime would never be complete, much less understood.

“Into the empty space rushed all sorts of speculation: were they meeting secretly? Did they have an affair? Did they want to get married? Did Hackman press his intentions on an unwilling Ray? Were they intriguing together against the Earl of Sandwich? … [Almost] every version of the events of 1779 written over the next two hundred years … offers different answers to these questions.”

Mr. Brewer adds, however, that the accounts of the events in question were for the most part of the same kind. “[They] all took the form of particular types of story — sentimental tales of suffering, romantic stories of heightened male sensibility, scurrilous stories of libertine desire and female manipulation, tales of criminal turpitude, medical tales of love’s madness, stories of female romance, tales for the moral reflection on the dilemmas of women or speculation on the nature of history.”

As the author notes, the crime itself did not last more than “a few seconds” but the commentary was boundless. In this riveting, scholarly account, he makes it clear that his aim is not to look for more clues about the crime. Rather it is his intention to show how the events have been rendered and interpreted down the ages.

He claims to have ignored the story at first, seeing it “through Victorian eyes as a simple moral tale.” He saw “snapshots of an earlier age, clinching evidence that the Georgians were sexier but less civilized, more glamourous but much less moral than their Victorian counterparts.”

But the very nature of the Victorian characterization of the crime — “the Victorian commentators worried over the story like a dog over a bone” — caused him to dig deeper and go further. The result is his animated and satisfying cultural history. Crime buffs and thrill seekers will not want to tarry here.

Mr. Brewer’s narrative follows the various reworkings of the murder case, the first of which was “The Case and Memoirs,” crafted by Manasseh Dawes, the lawyer who helped defend Hackman in court.

Dawes persuaded Hackman to “avail himself of the plausible plea of temporary insanity.” Though this did not work, it set the tone for much of the psychological speculation that would follow all of the principals in the years to come. Dawes became “the chief apologist in the press for the murder,” aligning himself with Sandwich and his supporters who sought to establish Ray’s innocence.

“But Hackman and Sandwich differed over what Ray’s innocence consisted of. For Hackman it was that she had not taken a new lover; for Sandwich it was that she had not been carrying on an illicit affair with Hackman.”

For Dawes, this debate would recede once he switched gears entirely and found a new scapegoat —”Martha Ray herself, whom he depicted as a skilled manipulator of men.”

Mr. Brewer takes care to analyze each of the players in turn — the mad or not Hackman, the bad or not Ray and the earl who somehow manages, even with his rakish and libertine ways revealed, to remain stoically above the fray.

One cannot help but wonder whether the participation of Sandwich’s heirs in this book project helped sustain the earl’s reputation, but perhaps that is too cynical. There is much evidence included here showing that while he may have been a cold and imposing character, he did not mistreat Ray or their five illegitimate children.

Clearly the most interesting parts of the book are those in which leading men of the day weigh in with their assessments of the crime. William Wordsworth incorporated the event in a curiously unforgiving way into his “Lyrical Ballads.” Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles Darwin, brought his role as a physician to bear on the case, rendering a diagnosis of “love’s madness.”

The subtitle of this book, “Love and Madness in the Eighteenth Century,” reflects such an equation, one that appears to have dominated the times. Though Darwin was circumspect in its application, a hack named Herbert Croft was less so. In 1780, he wrote a book entitled “Love and Madness” that claimed, falsely, to offer a series of letters between the two lovers.

Though Croft dedicated his book to Samuel Johnson, the “‘great Cham of English literature,’” Johnson did not approve of Croft’s work, “telling Boswell that he disliked its mixture of fact and fiction.”

So we are left to sort out the facts from the fictions of this crime that still manages to captivate. There could not be a better place to start than with Mr. Brewer’s fine book.

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