Executed at Tyburn, 5th of May, 1760, for the Murder of his Steward, after a Trial before his Peers
Earl Ferrers shooting his steward
The execution of Earl Ferrers
LAURENCE, EARL FERRERS, was descended of an ancient and noble family. The royal blood of the Plantagenets flowed in his veins, and the Earl gained his title in the following manner. The second baronet of the family, Sir Henry Shirley, married a daughter of the celebrated Earl of Essex, who was beheaded in the reign of Queen Elizabeth; and his son, Sir Robert Shirley, died in the Tower, where he was confined during the Protectorate, for his attachment to the cause of the Stuarts. Upon the Restoration, the second son of Sir Robert succeeded to the title and estates, and Charles, anxious to cement the bonds which attached his friends to him, summoned him to the Upper House of Parliament by the title of Lord Ferrers of Chartley, as the descendant of one of the co-heiresses of the Earl of Essex; the title, which had existed since the reign of Edward III., having been in abeyance since the death of that unfortunate nobleman. In the year 1711, Robert, Lord Ferrers, was created, by Queen Anne, Viscount Tamworth and Earl Ferrers; and it appears that although the estates of the family were very great, they were vastly diminished by the provisions which the Earl thought proper to make for his numerous progeny, consisting of fifteen sons and twelve daughters, born to him by his two wives. At the death of the first Earl his title descended to his second son; but he dying without issue it went in succession to the ninth son, who was childless, and the tenth son, who was the father of the Earl, Laurence, the subject of the present sketch.
This nobleman was married in the year 1752 to the youngest daughter of Sir William Meredith; but although his general conduct, when sober, was not such as to be remarkable, yet his faculties were so much impaired by drink that, when under the influence of intoxication, he acted with all the wildness and brutality of a madman.
On this occasion it may not he improper to observe on that extravagance which is too frequently the consequence of inebriation. If a man did but consider how he reduces himself even below the level of a brute by drunkenness, surely he would never be guilty of such a low, such a pitiful vice!
At Derby races in the year 1756, Lord Ferrers ran his mare against Captain M--'s horse for L.50, and was the winner. When the race was ended, he spent the evening with some gentlemen, and in the course of conversation the captain (who had heard that his lordship's mare was with foal) proposed, in a jocose manner, to run his horse against her at the expiration of seven months. Lord Ferrers was so affronted by this circumstance, which he conceived to have arisen from a preconcerted plan to insult him, that he quitted Derby at three o'clock in the morning, and went immediately to his seat at Stanton-Harold in Leicestershire.
He rang his bell as soon as he awaked; and a servant attending, he asked, if he knew how Capt. M came to be informed that his mare was with foal. The servant declared that he was ignorant of the matter, but the groom might have told it; and, the groom being called, he denied having given any information respecting the matter.
Previous to the affront presumed to have been given on the preceding evening, lord Ferrers had invited the captain and the rest of the company to dine with him as on that day; but they all refused their attendance, though he sent a servant to remind them that they had promised to come. Lord Ferrers was so enraged at this disappointment, that he kicked and horse-whipped his servants, and threw at them such articles as lay within his reach.
The following will afford a specimen of the brutality of lord Ferrers's behaviour. Some oysters had been sent from London, which not proving good, his lordship directed one of the servants to swear that the carrier had changed them; but the servant declining to take such an oath, the earl flew on him in a rage, stabbed him in the breast with a knife, cut his head with a candlestick and kicked him on the groin with such severity, that he was incapable of a retention of urine for several years afterwards.
Lord Ferrers's brother and his wife paying a visit to him and his countess at Stanton-Harold, some dispute arose between the parties; and lady Ferrers being absent from the room, the earl ran up stairs with a large clasp-knife in his hand, and asked a servant whom he met, where his lady was. The man said, 'in her own room;' and being directed to follow him thither, lord Ferrers ordered him to load a brace of pistols with bullets. This order was complied with: but the servant, apprehensive of mischief, declined priming the pistols, which lord Ferrers discovering, swore at him, asked him for powder, and primed them himself. He then threatened that if he did not immediately go and shoot his brother the captain, he would blow his brains out. The servant hesitating, his lordship pulled the trigger of one of the pistols; but it missed fire. Hereupon the countess dropped on her knees, and begged him to appease his passions; but in return he swore at her, and threatened her destruction if she opposed him. The servant now escaped from the room, and reported what had passed to his lordship's brother, who immediately called his wife from her bed, and they left the house, though it was then two o'clock in the morning.
For a time his wife perceived nothing which induced her to repent the step she had taken in being united to him, but he subsequently behaved to her with such unwarrantable cruelty that she was compelled to quit his protection, and, rejoining her father's family, to apply to Parliament for redress. An Act was in consequence passed, allowing her a separate maintenance, to be raised out of her husband's estate; and, trustees being appointed, the unfortunate Mr Johnson, who fell a sacrifice to the ungovernable passion of Lord Ferrers -- having been bred up in the family from his youth, and being distinguished for the regular manner in which he kept his accounts, and his fidelity as a steward -- was proposed as receiver of the rents for her use. He at first declined the office; but subsequently, at the desire of the Earl himself, consented to act, and continued in this employment for a considerable time.
His lordship at this time lived at Stanton, a seat about two miles from Ashby-de-la-Zouch, in Leicestershire; and his family consisted of Mrs Clifford, a lady who lived with him, and her four natural daughters, besides five men-servants, exclusive of an old man and a boy, and three maids.
Mr Johnson lived at the house belonging to the farm, which he held under his lordship, called the Lount, about half-a-mile distant from Stanton. It appears that it was his custom to visit his noble master occasionally, to settle the accounts which were placed under his care; but his lordship gradually conceived a dislike for him, grounded upon the prejudice raised in his mind on account of his being the receiver of the Countess's portion, and charged him with having combined with the trustees to prevent his receiving a coal contract. From this time he spoke of him in opprobrious terms, and said he had conspired with his enemies to injure him, and that he was a villain; and with these sentiments he gave him warning to quit an advantageous farm which he held under his lordship. Finding, however, that the trustees under the Act of separation had already granted him a lease of it, it having been promised to him by the Earl or his relations, he was disappointed, and probably from that time he meditated a more cruel revenge.
On Sunday, the 13th of January, 1760, Earl Ferrers went to the Lount, and, after some discourse with Mr Johnson, ordered him to come to him at Stanton on the Friday following, the 18th, at three o'clock in the afternoon. His lordship's usual dinner-hour was two o'clock; and soon after that meal was disposed of, on the Friday, he went to Mrs Clifford, who was in the still-house, and desired her to take the children for a walk. She accordingly prepared herself and her daughters, and, with the permission of the Earl, went to her father's, at a short distance, being directed to return at half-past five. The men-servants were next dispatched on errands by their master, who was thus left in the house with the three females only. In a short time afterwards Mr Johnson came, according to his appointment, and was admitted by one of the maid-servants, named Elizabeth Burgeland. He proceeded at once to his lordship's apartment, but was desired to wait in the still-house; and then, after the expiration of about ten minutes, the Earl, calling him into his own room, went in with him and locked the door. Being thus together, the Earl required him first to settle an account, and then, charging him with the villainy which he attributed to him, ordered him to kneel down. The unfortunate man went down on one knee; upon which the Earl, in a tone of voice loud enough to be heard by the maid-servants without, cried: "Down on your other knee! Declare that you have acted against Lord Ferrers. Your time is come -- you must die." Then suddenly drawing a pistol from his pocket, which was loaded, he presented it and immediately fired. The ball entered the body of the unfortunate man, but he rose up, and entreated that no further violence might be done him; and the female servants at that time coming to the door, being alarmed by the report, his lordship quitted the room. A messenger was immediately dispatched for Mr Kirkland, a surgeon, who lived at Ashby-de-la-Zouch; and Johnson being put to bed, his lordship went to him and asked him how he felt. He answered that he was dying, and desired that his family might be sent for. Miss Johnson soon after arrived, and Lord Ferrers immediately followed her into the room where her father Jay. He then pulled down the clothes and applied a pledget, dipped in arquebusade water, to the wound, and soon after left him.
From this time it appears that his lordship applied himself to his favourite amusement -- drinking -- until he became exceedingly violent (for at the time of the commission of the murder he is reported to have been sober), and on the arrival of Mr Kirkland he told him that he had shot Johnson, but believed he was more frightened than hurt; that he had intended to shoot him dead, for that he was a villain, and deserved to die; "but," said he, "now that I have spared his life, I desire you would do what you can for him." His lordship at the same time desired that he would not suffer himself to be seized, and declared that if anyone should attempt it he would shoot him. Mr Kirkland told him that he should not be seized, and directly went to the wounded man. He found the ball had lodged in the body; at which his lordship expressed great surprise, declaring that he had tried that pistol a few days before and that it then carried a ball through a deal board nearly an inch and a half thick. Mr Kirkland then went downstairs to prepare some dressings, and my lord soon after left the room. From this time, in proportion as the liquor which he continued to drink took effect, his passions became more tumultuous, and the transient fit of compassion, mixed with fear for himself, which had excited him, gave way to starts of rage and the predominance of malice. He went up into the room where Johnson was dying and pulled him by the wig, calling him a villain, and threatening to shoot him through the head; and the last time he went to him he was with great difficulty prevented from tearing the clothes off the bed, that he might strike him.
A proposal was made to him in the evening by Mrs Clifford that Mr Johnson should be removed to his own house; but he replied: "He shall not be removed; I will keep him here, to plague the villain." He afterwards spoke to Miss Johnson about her father, and told her that if he died he would take care of her and of the family, provided they did not prosecute.
When his lordship went to bed, which was between eleven and twelve, he told Mr Kirkland that he knew he could, if he would, set the affair in such a light as to prevent his being seized, desiring that he might see him before he went away in the morning, and declaring that he would rise at any hour.
Mr Kirkland, however, was very solicitous to get Mr Johnson removed, and, as soon as the Earl had gone, he set about carrying his object into effect. He in consequence went to Lount and, having fitted up an easy-chair with poles, by way of a sedan, and procured a guard, returned at about two o'clock and carried Mr Johnson to his house, where he expired at about nine o'clock on the following morning.
The neighbours now began to take measures to secure the murderer, and a few of them, having armed themselves, set out for Stanton; and as they entered the yard they saw his lordship, partly undressed, going towards the stable, as if to take out a horse. One of them, named Springthorpe, then advancing towards his lordship with a pistol in his hand, required him to surrender; but the latter putting his hand towards his pocket, his assailant, imagining that he was feeling for some weapon of offence, stopped short, and allowed him to escape into the house. A great concourse of people by this time had come to the spot, and they cried out loudly that the Earl should come forth. Two hours elapsed, however, before anything was seen of him, and then he came to the garret window and called out: "How is Johnson?" He was answered that he was dead. But he said it was a lie, and desired that the people should disperse -- and then he gave orders that they should be let in and furnished with victuals and drink, and finally he went away from the window, swearing that no man should take him. The mob still remained on the spot, and in about two hours the Earl was descried by a collier, named Curtis, walking on the bowling-green, armed with a blunderbuss, a brace of pistols and a dagger. Curtis, however, so far from being intimidated by his bold appearance, walked up to him; and his lordship, struck with the resolution he displayed, immediately surrendered himself, and gave up his arms, but directly afterwards declared that he had killed the villain, and gloried in the act. He was instantly conveyed in custody to a public-house at Ashby, kept by a man named Kinsey; and a coroner's jury having brought in a verdict of wilful murder against him, he was on the following Monday committed to the custody of the keeper of the jail at Leicester.
Being entitled, however, by his rank to be tried before his peers, he was, about a fortnight afterwards, conveyed to London, in his landau, drawn by six horses, under a strong guard; and, being carried before the House of Lords, he was committed to the custody of the Black Rod, and ordered to the Tower, where he arrived at about six o'clock on the evening of the 14th of February. He is reported to have behaved, during the whole journey and at his commitment, with great calmness and propriety. He was confined in the Round Tower, near the drawbridge: two wardens were constantly in the room with him, and one at the door; two sentinels were posted at the bottom of the stairs, and one upon the drawbridge, with their bayonets fixed; and from this time the gates were ordered to be shut an hour sooner than usual.
During his confinement he was moderate both in eating and drinking: his breakfast was a half-pint basin of tea, with a small spoonful of brandy in it, and a muffin; with his dinner he generally drank a pint of wine and a pint of water, and another pint of each with his supper. In general his behaviour was decent and quiet, except that he would sometimes suddenly start, tear open his waistcoat, and use other gestures, which showed that his mind was disturbed.
Mrs Clifford and the four young ladies, who had come up with him from Leicestershire, took a lodging in Tower Street, and for some time a servant was continually passing with letters between them; but afterwards this correspondence was permitted only once a day.
Mrs Clifford came three times to the Tower to see him, but was not admitted; but his children were suffered to be with him some time.
On the 16th of April, having been a prisoner in the Tower two months and two days, he was brought to his trial, which continued till the 18th, before the House of Lords, assembled for that purpose, Lord Henley, Keeper of the Great Seal, having been created Lord High Steward upon the occasion.
The murder was easily proved to have been committed; and his lordship then proceeded to enter upon his defence. He called several witnesses, the object of whose testimony was to show that the Earl was not of sound mind, but none of them proved such an insanity as made him not accountable for his conduct. His lordship managed his defence himself in such a manner as showed an uncommon understanding: he mentioned the fact of his being reduced to the necessity of attempting to prove himself a lunatic, that he might not be deemed a murderer, with the most delicate and affecting sensibility; and, when he found that his plea could not avail him, he confessed that he made it only to gratify his friends; that he was always averse to it himself; and that it had prevented what he had proposed, and what perhaps might have taken off the malignity at least of the accusation.
The Peers having in the usual form delivered their verdict, of guilty, his lordship received sentence to be hanged on Monday, the 21st of April, and then to be anatomised; but, in consideration of his rank, the execution of this sentence was respited till Monday, the 5th of May.
During this interval he made a will, by which he left one thousand, three hundred pounds to Mr Johnson's children, one thousand pounds to each of his four natural daughters, and sixty pounds a year to Mrs Clifford for her life; but this disposition of his property, being made after his conviction, was not valid, although it was said that the same, or nearly the same, provision was afterwards made for the parties named.
In the meantime a scaffold was erected under the gallows at Tyburn, and part of it, about a yard square, was raised about eighteen inches above the rest of the floor, with a contrivance to sink down upon a signal given, in accordance with the plan then invariably adopted; the whole being covered with black baize.
On the morning of the 5th of May, at about nine o'clock, his lordship's body was demanded of the keeper of the Tower, by the sheriffs of London and Middlesex, and his lordship, being informed of it, sent a message to the sheriffs, requesting that he might be permitted to be conveyed to the scaffold in his own landau, in preference to the mourning-coach which was provided for him. This being granted, his landau, drawn by six horses, immediately drew up, and he entered it, accompanied by Mr Humphries, the Chaplain of the Tower, who had been admitted to him that morning for the first time. On the carriage reaching the outer gate, the Earl was delivered up to the sheriffs, and Mr Sheriff Vaillant entered the vehicle with him, expressing his concern at having so melancholy a duty to perform; but his lordship said he "was much obliged to him, and took it kindly that he accompanied him." The Earl was attired in a white suit, richly embroidered with silver; and when he put it on he said: "This is the suit in which I was married, and in which I will die." The procession, being now formed, moved forward slowly, the landau being preceded by a considerable body of Horse Grenadiers, and by a carriage containing Mr Sheriff Errington, and his under-sheriff, Mr Jackson, and being followed by the carriage of Mr Sheriff Vaillant, containing Mr Nichols, his under-sheriff, a mourning-coach-and-six, containing some of his lordship's friends, a hearse-and-six for the conveyance of his body to Surgeons' Hall after execution, and another body of military. The pace at which they proceeded, in consequence of the density of the mob, was so slow that his lordship was two hours and three-quarters in his landau, but during that time he appeared perfectly easy and composed, though he often expressed his anxiety to have the whole affair over, saying that the apparatus of death and the passing through such crowds were worse than death itself, and that he supposed so large a mob had been collected because the people had never seen a lord hanged before. He told the sheriff that he had written to the King to beg that he might suffer where his ancestor, the Earl of Essex, had been executed, and that he had had greater hopes of obtaining that favour as he had the honour of quartering part of the same arms, and of being allied to his Majesty; but that he had refused, and he thought it hard that he must die at the place appointed for the execution of common felons.
When his lordship had arrived at that part of Holborn which is near Drury Lane he said he was "thirsty, and should be glad of a glass of wine-and-water;" upon which the sheriffs, remonstrating with him, said that a stop for that purpose would necessarily draw a greater crowd about him, which might possibly disturb and incommode him, yet, if his lordship still desired it, it should be done. He most readily answered: "That's true --I say no more -- let us by no means stop."
When the landau advanced to the place of execution his lordship alighted from it, and ascended the scaffold with the same composure and fortitude of mind he had exhibited from the time he left the Tower. Soon after he had mounted the scaffold, Mr Humphries asked his lordship if he chose to say prayers, which he declined; but upon his asking him if he did not choose to join with him in the Lord's Prayer he readily answered he would, for he always thought it a very fine prayer. Upon which they knelt down together upon two cushions covered with black baize, and his lordship, with an audible voice, very devoutly repeated the Lord's Prayer, and afterwards, with great energy, ejaculated "Oh, God, forgive me all my errors -- pardon all my sins!"
His lordship, then rising, took his leave of the sheriff and the chaplain; and, after thanking them for their many civilities, presented his watch to Mr Sheriff Vaillant, of which he desired his acceptance, and requested that his body might be buried at Breden or Stanton, in Leicestershire.
The executioner now proceeded to do his duty, to which his lordship, with great resignation, submitted. His neck-cloth being taken off, and a white cap, which he had brought in his pocket, being put upon his head, his arms secured by a black sash, and the cord put round his neck, he advanced by three steps to the elevated part of the scaffold, and, standing under the cross-beam which went over it, which was also covered with black baize, he asked the executioner: "Am I right?" Then the cap was drawn over his face, and, upon a signal given by the sheriff (for his lordship, upon being before asked, declined to give one himself), that part upon which he stood instantly sank down from beneath his feet, and he was launched into eternity, the 5th of May, 1760.
The accustomed time of one hour being past, the coffin was raised up, with the greatest decency, to receive the body; and, being deposited in the hearse, was conveyed by the sheriffs, with the same procession, to Surgeons' Hall, to undergo the remainder of the sentence. A large incision was then made from the neck to the bottom of the breast, and another across the throat; the lower part of the belly was laid open and the bowels taken away. It was afterwards publicly exposed to view in a room up one pair of stairs at the Hall; and on the evening of Thursday, the 8th of May, it was delivered to his friends for interment.
The following verse is said to have been found in his apartment:--
"In doubt I lived, in doubt I die,
Yet stand prepared the vast abyss to try,
and, undismay'd, expect eternity."
The case of lord Ferrers demands our serious attention. He was born to great hopes and high expectations, and was confessedly a man of superior abilities; but the unhappy indulgence of his passions led to his ruin. Hence, then, the due government of the passions ought to be learnt; for what is the man, who permits their unbounded gratification, but something lower than a brute?
Lord Ferrers appears to have been uninfluenced by the mild doctrines of Christianity. If these had held their proper weight on his mind, it would have been impossible that he could have acted as he did: but when Religion fails to produce its natural, its genuine effects, the man ceases to appear as such, and becomes an object of compassion, if not of contempt!