Who was twice executed in Ireland, 15th of December, 1761, for the Murder of Miss Knox, whom he pretended to marry
JOHN M'NAUGHTON, ESQ., was the son of a merchant at Derry, whose father had been an alderman of Dublin. To an outward form which was perfectly engaging he added the most genteel demeanour, so as to promise the very reverse of what was the real disposition of his soul, which was subject to every blast of passion. He was educated in Trinity College, Dublin. When of age he entered into a landed estate of six hundred pounds a year, in the county of Tyrone, which was left him by Dr M'Naughton, his uncle.
The first vice he fell into was gaming, by which he very soon did great injury to his fortune; and though he continued (as most novices do who play with sharpers) in a constant run of ill-luck, and was soon obliged to mortgage, yet his losses made no visible alteration in his temper. His pride kept him within due bounds there. All was placid with the polite M'Naughton, and he lost his money to the very last with that graceful composure that became the man who had a plentiful fortune to support it. But strong as his passion this way might be, it was not strong enough to secure him against the attacks of love, and falling a victim to the charms of a young lady he very speedily married her.
His very agreeable person and soft polite address assured his success with the ladies; but, as his character was generally known, the young lady's friends took all possible care to secure her effects, and the lover was too eager to gratify his passion, and too rash in his temper, to trouble himself about the disposition of fortune.
The unavoidable expenses of a wife and servants in Dublin (as he pursued his old course of gaming) soon increased his difficulties. A sheriff's writ was taken out against Mr M'Naughton for some large debt; and as he suspected the danger he kept himself as secure at home as possible, by which means the bailiffs could get no admittance. The creditor, or some other persons concerned, hearing this, had influence enough with the High Sheriff to prevail on him to go to Mr M'Naughton's house and take him prisoner.
As the sheriff went in a chair, and appeared like a gentleman, the servants admitted him, and showed him into a parlour, where their master was alone. The sheriff then told him he was his prisoner. On this M'Naughton flew into a rage, and, calling out for pistols, he frightened his poor listening wife to such a degree that (being near her time) she fell in labour, and died in childbed.
The High Sheriff was greatly blamed for this seeming officious behaviour; but this dreadful consequence threw Mr M'Naughton into such distraction that he made several attempts upon his life, and was obliged to be attended and watched for some months after. On his return from the country, after eighteen months' absence, he appeared greatly altered -- like a wretch worn out with grief -- so very susceptible was that frail man of the excess of every passion. But this fatal accident, which nearly cost him his life, was attended with one good consequence: it immediately cut off all expense; and that long retirement into the country was of some service to his troubled fortunes, and gave him an opportunity, on his return to Dublin, to appear there like himself, in some degree of splendour. There he renewed his old and, no doubt, contracted new friendships, and kept most faithfully to his favourite vice, gaming, which he pursued with great spirit.
Some few years before this, when Mr. M'Naughton had both character and interest in the world, he was appointed collector for the county of Coleraine; but the public money soon became a dangerous commodity in the hands of a gamester; and when there began to be a large balance against him, he not only lost that profitable employment, but was obliged to get one of his wife's relations to be security for him, and it is said that gentle man remained some time after in trouble on his account. The loss of that employment was the first mark of public discredit that befel this unhappy man.
About the period of his reviving from his troubles, he made his addresses secretly to Miss Knox, daughter of Richard Knox, Esq., of Prohen, in the county of Derry, a gentleman possessed of an estate of about fifteen hundred pounds per annum; and as by the marriage settlement five thousand pounds had been settled on the younger children, Miss Knox, having only one brother and no sister, was entitled to the whole of five thousand pounds, even though she disobliged her parents by marriage. We must add to this bait the beauty, sweetness of temper and other accomplishments of the young lady, which were remarkable. She was then about fifteen.
Mr M'Naughton, who was an intimate friend of her father, and a constant visitor, soon obtained a promise from the young lady to marry him if he could get her father's consent. But Mr Knox not only absolutely refused his consent, and gave his reasons for it, but showed his resentment by forbidding him his house.
Mr M'Naughton then begged Mr Knox would permit him to visit as formerly (as he said it would look strange to the world to be forbidden to visit a family all the neighbours knew he had been so intimate with), and solemnly promised, upon his honour, never more to think of or mention this affair; and added, that as he had not spoken of it to the young lady, Mr Knox need never do it, and so the affair would drop of itself. Thus were the father's eyes and ears once more scaled up by this artful man, who continued his addresses to the daughter, and told her Mr Knox had promised him his consent; but desired, however, that no further mention might be made of the affair for a year or two, till some material business was decided, which he would acquaint him with. Thus he deceived the young lady, who now more freely gave way to his passion, and again promised she would marry him as soon as that consent was obtained. Thus he remained some time, constantly watching his opportunity to complete his design.
One day, being in company with Miss Knox and a young gentleman (a very boy) in a retired room in the house, he pressed her to marry him, protesting he never could be happy till he was sure of her; and, with an air of sprightly raillery, pulling out a Prayer Book, he began to read the marriage service, and insisted on the young lady's making the responses, which she did, but to every one she always added, "provided my father consents."
A short time after this, Miss Knox going to a friend's house on a week's visit, Mr M'Naughton, being also an intimate there, soon followed her. Here he fixed his scene for action; here he claimed her, and, calling her his wife, insisted on consummation, which the young lady absolutely refused. She left the house, and went directly and informed her uncle of the whole affair. On this, Mr Knox wrote a letter to M'Naughton, telling him what a base, dishonourable villain he was, and bade him avoid his sight for ever. Upon the receipt of this letter M'Naughton advertised his marriage in the public newspapers, cautioning every other man not to marry his lawful wife. This was answered by a very spirited and proper advertisement from the father, with an affidavit of the whole affair from the daughter annexed.
Mr Knox then brought an action against him in the Prerogative Court to set aside this pretended marriage, which was found to be only a contract; for the breach of which the party can only be sued at common law, and condemned to pay costs and damages, Besides, it is probable that the young lady being under age rendered this contract void in itself. At this time Mr M'Naughton had absconded from his debts, and therefore could not appeal to the Court of Delegates, where the former decree was confirmed. In consequence of this decree, Judge Scott issued his warrant to apprehend him. When M'Naughton heard this, he wrote a most impudent, threatening letter to the judge, and, it is said, lay in wait to have him murdered, when he was last at the assizes there, but missed him, by the judge's taking another road. Upon this the judge applied to the Lord Chief Justice, who issued out another writ against him, that drove him to England.
Mr M'Naughton returned to Ireland in the summer of 1761, and by constantly hovering round Mr Knox's house obliged the family to be on their guard, and the young lady to live like a recluse. However, about the middle of the summer, she ventured to a place called Swaddling Bar, to drink the mineral waters there for her health , thither this unhappy man followed her, and was seen sometimes in a beggar's habit, sometimes in a sailor's. Thus disguised he was detected, and then swore in the presence of several that he would murder the whole family if he did not get possession of his wife; and yet so infatuated were they as to suffer him to get away once more to England, where he was supposed to be by Mr Knox at the time this fatal event happened. He remained in London till the month of October, and gamed, cheated, and borrowed money from all his acquaintances, and imposed on many by forged letters and false tokens from their friends.
It sounds something severe to speak thus harshly of a gentleman, particularly one under misfortune. But this truth must be observed. A man of worth and honour, brought to distress by unforeseen accidents, may, and often does maintain his integrity and good name, under a series of misfortunes; whereas the man, reduced to poverty and distress by gaming, or any other extravagant vice, too often descends to mean actions; and he who commits a mean action is in great danger of committing a base one.
About the 1st of November he was seen skulking in the country of Ireland, and two nights prior to the murder was known to sleep with three of his accomplices at the house of one Mr --, a hearth-money collector. The morning of the 10th, the day the fact was committed, they all came with a sackful of fire-arms to a little cabin on the roadside, where Mr Knox was to pass in his coach-and-six. From this cabin M'Naughton detached one of them to go to an old woman who lived at some distance on the roadside, under pretence of buying some yarn of her, but really to wait the coming up of Mr Knox's coach, and inquire whose it was. When it appeared in sight he asked that question, and was answered that it was Mr Knox, who, with his family, was going to Dublin. He then made her point to show him how they sat, which she did: Mr Knox, his wife, his daughter and maid-servant. As soon as he had got this information he ran off to inform M'Naughton that the coach was coming, and to make ready; that he had looked into the coach, and that Mr Knox was attended by only one servant and a faithful fellow, a smith, who lived near him, and was foster-father to Miss Knox. The character of foster-father is not much known or regarded in England, but in Ireland of no small notice. This man's wife was wet nurse, and suckled Miss Knox, from whence those poor people generally contract a faithful affection. The foster-father was one whom M'Naughton could never bribe, though most of the other servants had suffered themselves to be tampered with, and, when discovered, had been discharged. As soon as the coach came near the cabin, two of the accomplices, armed with guns, presented them at the postilion and coachman, which stopped the coach, while M'Naughton fired at the smith with a blunderbuss. Upon this the faithful smith, who luckily escaped the shot, presented his piece, which, unfortunately, missed fire, and gave M'Naughton and one of his comrades an opportunity to fire at the poor fellow, and both wounded him. Immediately upon this two shots were fired at the coach, one by M'Naughton himself, and another by one of his assistants; and finding that the passengers had drawn up the windows he ran round and fired into the coach obliquely, with a gun loaded with five balls, all which entered the body of the unhappy Miss Knox. The maid now let down the window, and screamed out her mistress was murdered. On hearing this, the only livery servant that attended the coach, properly armed, came from behind a turf-stack, where he had hid himself, and firing at M'Naughton, wounded him in the back; and about the same time Mr. Knox fired one pistol, which was the last of eight shots fired on this strange and dreadful occasion. Miss Knox was carried into the cabin, where she expired in about three hours.
The murderer and his accomplices fled; but the country was soon raised in pursuit of them, and, amongst others, some of Sir James Caldwell's Light Horse, who were directed to search the house and offices of one Wenslow, a farmer, not far distant from the scene of action. But though some of the family knew he was concealed there they pretended ignorance; so that M'Naughton might have escaped, had not the corporal, after they had searched every place, as they imagined, without success, and were going away, bethought himself of the following stratagem. Seeing a labourer digging potatoes in a piece of ground behind the stables, he said to his comrades in the fellow's hearing: "It is a great pity we cannot find this murderer; it would be a good thing for the discoverer; he would certainly get three hundred pounds." Upon which the fellow pointed to a hay-loft. The corporal immediately ran up the ladder and forced open the door; upon which M'Naughton fired at him and missed him. By the flash of the pistol the corporal was directed where to fire his piece, which, happily, wounding him, he ran in and, seizing him, dragged him out, when they instantly tied him on a car, and conducted him to Lifford jail. Here he remained in the closest confinement, entirely deserted by all his friends and acquaintances, as appeared on the day of his trial, which commencedon the 8th of December, 1761, when he was arraigned, with an accomplice, called Dunlap, before Baron Mountney, Mr Justice Scott and Counsellor Smith, who went down upon a special commission to try them.
M'Naughton was brought into court on a bier, rolled in a blanket, with a greasy woollen night-cap, the shirt in which he was taken being all bloody and dirty, and a long beard, which made a dreadful appearance. In that horrid condition he made a long speech, pointedly and sensibly, and complained in the most pathetic manner of the hard usage he had met with since his confinement. He said, 'they had treated him like a man under sentence, and not like a man that was to be tried. He declared he never intended to kill his dear wife (at saying which he wept); that he only designed to take her away; that he would make such things appear upon his trial, as should surprise them all.' But, alas! when his trial came on, all this great expectation which he had raised in the mind of every one, came to nothing.
The trial lasted five days. The first day, the 8th, was spent in pleadings to put off the trial, and the reply of the counsel for the crown.
During these debates, M'Naughton often spoke with most amazing spirit and judgment, and much more like an eminent lawyer than any of his counsel; and the result of that day was, that he should prepare his affidavit, which the court would take into consideration. Accordingly, on the 9th, he was brought into court again, and his affidavit read, in which he swore, that some material witnesses for him were not to be had, particularly one Owens, who he said was present all the time; but the judges, after long debates, were of opinion, that nothing sufficient was offered to put off the trial; however, to shew their indulgence, they would give him that day, and part of the next, to see if he could strengthen his affidavit by that of others. But when the new affidavit was produced on the 10th, it was unanimously and peremptorily resolved by the court, that he had not shewn sufficient cause to postpone his trial, and accordingly they gave him notice to prepare for it on the 11th, at eight o'clock in the morning.
The judges came on the bench at nine o'clock, and sat there till eleven at night, without stirring out of court. During the whole time of the trial, M'Naughton took his notes as regularly as any of the lawyers, and cross-examined all the witnesses, with the greatest accuracy. He was observed to behave with uncommon resolution.
His chief defence was founded on a letter he produced, as wrote to him by Miss Knox, in which she desired him to intercept her on the road to Dublin, and take her away; but this letter was proved a forgery of his own, which after condemnation he confessed.
He took great pains to exculpate himself from the last design to murder any one, much less his dear wife (as he always called her); he declared solemnly, that his intent was only to take her out of the coach, and carry her off; but as he received the first wound, from the first shot that was fired, the anguish of that wound, and the prospect of his ill success in his design, so distracted him, that being wholly involved in confusion and despair, he fired, he knew not at what, or whom, and had the misfortune to kill the only person in the world that was dear to him; that he gave the court that trouble, and laboured thus, not to save his own life (for death was now his choice), but to clear his character from such horrid guilt, as designedly to murder his better half, for whom alone be wished to live.
These were his solenm declarations, but the direct contrary was proved in court by several witnesses, whom be crossexamined with great spirit, and seemed to insinuate, were brought there to destroy him. And as the jury could only form their opinion on the testimony of the witnesses before them, who were examined on their oaths with the utmost care and solemnity, they brought him in 'Guilty'.
He heard their verdict without theleast concern, telling them, 'They had acquitted themselves with justice to their country'; and when Mr. Baron Mountney pronounced the sentence upon him and his accomplice Dunlap, who was found guilty with him, though he did it in so pathetic a manner, as very visibly affected every one, M'Naughton appeared with the same indifference as at the beginning of the trial, and only begged the court would have compassion on poor Dunlap. He said, 'he was his tenant; that he possessed a very profitable lease, which was near expiring; that he had promised him a renewal, if he would assist him in recovering his wife; that he had forced his consent to accompany him in that action. He therefore begged of the court to represent Dunlap as a proper object of mercy. For his own life, he said, it was not worth asking for; and, were he to choose, death should be his choice, since Miss Knox, his better half, was dead.'
But when the unhappy man's plan for seizing the young lady, and carrying her off, is properly considered, what a scheme of madness does it appear; and how surprising it is that he should get any wretches so blindly infatuated as to aid and assist him in so wild and dangerous an undertaking! Was not the sack full of fire-arms that were carried to the cabin (and perhaps all loaded there!) enough to alarm them that murder might ensue? Do not most families, who travel with an equipage and servants, go armed? and might not this be particularly expected of a family that had particular fears?
When the two armed parties met in open day, on such a desperate business, what but murder could be the consequence? and after the loss of two or three lives, suppose the assaulters had been conquerors, where must they have carried their prize? Would not the country have been raised? Would not they have been pursued? Besides, was not the young lady going to Dublin? A city that unhappy man was too well acquainted with. He knew it is situated near the sea; that a well-concerted plan laid there for carrying off the lady going home in a sedan chair from some visit, by bribing the chairmen, and having a boat ready on the quays, might, with some degree of probability, have been executed.
But without all doubt, he made all his accomplices and assistants believe, that his design was only to take the young lady away, whom he declared to be his wife; but the contrary appeared on the trial. There it was sworn by one of the evidences, Mr. Ash, that this unhappy wretch had vowed long ago, to murder Mr. Knox and his whole family; and this fact evidently appeared, that he had not made the least provision for carrying her off that day, nor once demanded her at the coach side.
Agreeable to the sentence, Mr. M'Naughton, with his accomplice Dunlap, were executed on Tuesday the 15th of December, 1761, near Strabane, in the county of Tyrone. M'Naughton walked to the place of execution, but being weak of his wounds, was supported between two men. He was dressed in a white flannel waistcoat trimmed with black buttons and holes, a diaper night cap tied with a black ribbon, white stockings, mourning buckles, and a crape tied on his arm. He desired the executioner to be speedy, and when the fellow pointed to the ladder he mounted with great spirit. The moment he was tied up he jumped from it with such vehemence that the rope snapped, and he fell to the ground, but without dislocating his neck, or doing himself much injury. When they had raised him on his legs again he soon recovered his senses. The executioner then borrowed the rope from Dunlap and fixed it round M'Naughton's neck; he went up the ladder a second time and, tying the rope himself to the gallows, jumped from it again with the same force, and appeared dead in a minute.
Thus died the once universally admired M'Naughton in the thirty-eighth year of his age, deserted by all who knew him, in poverty and ignominy.
M'Naughton not liking, he said, either the principles or doctrine of the clergyman who first went to prepare him for death, because it seems he made things too terrible to him, Mr. Burgoyne succeeded. As no carpenter could be found to make the gallows, the sheriff looked out for a tree proper for the purpose, and the execution must have been performed on it, had not the uncle of the young lady, and some other gentle men, made the gallows and put it up. The sheriff was even obliged to take a party of soldiers and force a smith to take off his bolts; otherwise he must have been obliged, contrary to law, to execute him with his bolts on. The spectators, who saw him drop, when the rope broke, looked upon it as some contrivance for his escape, which they favoured all they could by running away from the place, and leaving it open. The populace would not probably have been so well disposed towards him, had they known of his horrid designs of murder; but they had been persuaded that he only meant to get possession of his wife.