Ex-Classics Home Page

Newgate Calendar - FRANCIS DAVID STIRN


Convicted of Murder, but Poisoned Himself in Newgate, 12th Sept, 1760

Public conversation on the fate of Lord Ferrers, was not at an end, when the remarkable case of another malefactor interposed. This was the unhappy fate of Francis David Stirn, by birth a German; a man of erudition, and unfortunately possessed of passions great as that unhappy lord. The circumstances which gave rise to this melancholy tale, are as singular as the last, and will be contemplated with nearly equal interest, by the reader.

Francis David Stirn was born in the principality of Hesse Cassel, about the year 1735. His father was a minister, and his brother is now a metropolitan minister at Hersfeldt, having the superintendance over the Calvinist clergy of a certain district. At a proper age he was sent to a public grammar-school in Hesse Cassel, where he made a considerable progress, and was then removed to a college at Bremen, which is endowed with professorships, as a university. While he was here, he preached some probationary discourses, according to the custom of the place, and though he was scarce twenty years of age, became tutor to the son of one Haller, a doctor of laws, and burgomaster of the city. But he soon forfeited the favour both of Mr. Haller and his wife, by a suspicious and supercilious disposition, which broke out into so many acts of indecorum, that he was dismissed from his employment. He was then taken home by his brother, who soon after placed him at the university of Hintelin, belonging to Hesse, where he pursued his studies from the year 1756 till the middle of the year 1758. During this time he improved his knowledge in the Latin and Greek classics to an uncommon degree; he also acquired a very considerable skill in the Hebrew, and became a great proficient both in vocal and instrumental music, dancing, fencing, and other polite accomplishments.

About this time, the French having made an irruption into Hesse, and impoverished the inhabitants by raising exorbitant contributions, his brother was no longer able to support him, and therefore sent him to England with very strong recommendations to a friend, who is in a station of great honour and interest. This person received him kindly, and promised to procure him an appointment that should be agreeable to his friends: but as no opportunity immediately presented he offered himself as an assistant to Mr. Crawford, who keeps a school in Cross-street, Hatton Garden, and was received, upon the recommendation of the Reverend Mr. Planta, who had himself lived with Mr. Crawford in that station, and left him upon his having obtained a place in the Museum. It was also proposed that he should assist the German minister at the chapel in the Savoy, where he preached several probationary discourses; but as he made use of notes, he was not approved by his auditory; Stirn, however, with the suspicion natural to his temper, imputed his disappointment to some unfriendly offices of Mr. Planta, and some unaccountable combination between him and the people.

He then turned his thoughts towards a military life, in which some offer of advantage seems to have been made him; but his friends here were so well apprized of his infirmity, that, knowing it would be impossible for him to submit to the subordination established in any army, they earnestly dissuaded him from it, that he might not incur the censure of a court-martial, or bring himself into other inextricable difficulties. He then formed a design of entering into one of our universities; and having communicated it to his friends, he obtained the interest of several clergymen of considerable influence: but some new sally of his jealous and ungovernable temper, disgusted his friends and disappointed his expectations. But instead of imputing his disappointment to himself, he threw out many threats against those whom he had already offended by his petulance and ill behaviour.

In the meantime, he continued in Mr. Crawford's family, where he gave frequent and mortifying instances of his pride and indiscretion; one of which is too remarkable to be omitted. He set out one day with Mr. Crawford, and a Prussian gentleman, to dine with Mr. V, a Dutch merchant at Muswell-hill; in his way thither he quitted their company, and, by crossing the fields, got to the house before them. When he came there, he took such offence at something Mr. V said, in some trifling dispute which happened between them, that he called him Fool, and proceeded from one outrage to another, till Mr. V ordered his servants to turn him out of doors, which was done before his companions, Crawford and the Prussian, got there. Yet Stirn, when they came back in the evening, fell into another fit of rage against them, and charged them with having got to Mr. V's before him, and concealed themselves in another room, to enjoy the injurious treatment which Mr. V was prepared to offer him; insisting that he had heard them rejoicing and laughing at his disgrace.

While he lived with Mr. Crawford, he became acquainted with Mr. Matthews, a surgeon in the neighbourhood, who advertised the cure of fistulas, and disorders of the like kind. Matthews is said to have insinuated to Stirn, that, though Crawford professed great friendship to him, yet his intention was only to keep him in a state of poverty and dependence, and to render his abilities subservient to his own advantage, without giving him a valuable consideration, telling him, that it was in his power to provide much better for himself. From this time, Stirn's behaviour to Mr. Crawford was very different from what it had been before, and Mr. Crawford was proportionably less satisfied; so that, though he still continued with him, yet Crawford says, that he now kept him merely from the regard he had to him and his family. Soon after this, Matthews made him a proposal to come and live with him, offering him an apartment ready furnished, and his board, upon condition that he should teach Mrs. Matthews and her daughter music, and Matthews himself the classics. This proposal Stirn inclined to accept; but Mr. Crawford, hearing of it, endeavoured to persuade Matthews to retract it, telling him, that Stirn had failings which would render him a very troublesome inmate. Matthews, who seems to have had neither a good opinion of Crawford, nor good-will to him, immediately told Stirn that he had been attempting to persuade him to go back from his proposals, and mentioned also the reasons he gave for so doing. This threw Stirn into a rage, and he expressed his resentment to Crawford in strong terms, and a boisterous behaviour. Stirn soon after accepted Matthews's proposal, and Matthews offered to secure him a continuance of what he had offered for twelve months, by writing; but Stirn refused the obligation, saying, that his honour was sufficient. Crawford having failed in persuading Matthews not to receive Stirn, now endeavoured to prevail upon Stirn not to go to Matthews; and, therefore, though he says he would not have kept him so long, but in regard to Stirn himself and his friends, he now offered to raise his salary, that he might keep him longer, at greater expense. But this offer was refused, and Stirn took possession of his apartment at Matthews's house; a very little time, however, was sufficient to show that they could not long continue together.

Stirn's pride, and his situation in life, concurred to render him so jealous of indignity, and so ingenious in discovering oblique reproach and insult in the behaviour of those about him, that, finding one evening, after he came home, some pieces of bread in the dining room, which had been left there by a child of the family, he immediately took it into his head, that they were left there as reproachful emblems of his poverty, which obliged him to subsist on the fragments of charity. This thought set him on fire in a moment; he ran furiously upstairs, and knocking loudly and suddenly at Mr. Matthew's chamber-door, called out, Mr. Matthews! He was answered by Mrs. Matthews, who was in bed, that Mr. Matthews was not there; but he still clamorously insisted on the door's being opened, so that Mrs. Matthews was obliged to rise, and having put on her clothes, came out, and asked him what he wanted, and what he meant by such behaviour; he answered that he wanted Mr. Matthews, and that he knew he was in the room. It happened that at this instant Mr. Matthews knocked at the street door, and put an end to the dispute with his wife. The moment Mr. Matthews entered the house Stirn in a furious manner charged him with an intention to affront him by the crusts; Mr. Matthews assured him that he meant no such thing, and that the bread was carried thither by the child: Mrs. Matthews also confirmed it, and Stirn was at length pacified. He seems to have been conscious of the strange impropriety of his conduct, as soon as he had time for reflection; for the next morning he went to Mr. Crawford, and expressed a most grateful sense of Mr. and Mrs. Matthews's patience and kindness in suffering, and passing over, his fantastic behaviour.

It is however probable, that, from this time, they began to live together upon very ill terms; Matthews soon after gave him warning to quit his house, and Stirn refused to go. What particular offences had been given on each side does not appear; but they had been carried to such lengths, that Crawford consulted Mr. Welch, a Middlesex justice, about them, on Stirn's behalf. What directions he received are not known; but, on Wednesday the 13th of August, Stirn having been then in Mr. Matthews's family about two months, Matthews went to a friend upon Dowgate hill, whose name is Lowther, and telling him that Stirn had behaved so ill he could no longer keep him in his house, and that he had refused to quit it, requested his advice and assistance to get rid of him. Mr. Lowther then went with Mr. Matthews to Mr. Welch, who finding there was no legal contract between them, told Matthews he might turn Stirn out when he pleased, without notice. Matthews then determining to turn him out that night, Mr. Welch desired he would be cautious, and advised him to get a couple of friends to be with him; and when Stirn came in, first to desire him to go away peaceably, and, if he refused, to lead him out by the arm. Matthews then said, he was a desperate man, and if he should offer any rudeness to him, would make no scruple of stabbing him. He was then advised to take a peace officer with him.

And having now received sufficient instructions, he went away with his friend, determined to put them into execution. While Matthews and his friend were at Mr. Welch's, Stirn was making his complaint to Mr. Crawford, whom he met at Bartlets-Buildings Coffee-house, near Holborn. He told him, with great emotion, that Mr. Matthews had villainously and unjustly charged him with having alienated the affection of his wife, and, by her means, having had access to his purse. Mr. Crawford, who appears to have known that Matthews had warned Stirn to be gone, and that Stirn had refused to go, advised him, as the best way of removing Matthews's suspicions, immediately to quit his house. Upon this he started up in a violent rage, and told him, if he spoke another word, he would and muttered something else to himself, which Mr. Crawford could not hear. But the next moment he told him, that he and Mr. Chapman (a surgeon in the neighbourhood) had conspired with Mr. Matthews to ruin his character, and oblige him to quit England with infamy. After some farther altercation, he sat down, and appeared somewhat more composed; but on a sudden, started up again, with new fury in his look, and said, his honour was wounded, his character ruined, and his bread lost; that, under such circumstances, he could not live; and that, if Matthews scandalously turned him out of his house, which he seems to have threatened, he would be revenged. Mr. Crawford attempted some farther expostulation, but finding it in vain, and it being now near 11 o'clock, he accompanied him to Mr. Matthews's door, and there left him. But though he was in a temper that made expostulation hopeless, yet, he says, he left him, as he thought, in a disposition to do as he advised him.

Matthews, in the meantime, had got two friends, of which Mr. Lowther was one, and a constable; and having removed all that belonged to Mr. Stirn out of his room, into the passage, they were waiting for his coming in; Matthews having determined to turn him into the street at that time of the night, and leave him to get a lodging were he could. When Stirn knocked at the door, it was opened to him by Lowther; and upon entering the passage, and seeing his clothes and other things lying in it, he cried out, with great passion, "Who has done this!" Matthews replied, "I have done itYou told me, you would not leave my house but by force, and now I am determined you shall go." Stirn then reproached Matthews with being a bad man, and told him that he was a coward, and would not have dared thus to insult him if he had not procured persons to abet him and assist him. Some farther words passed on both sides; after which, Matthews desired Stirn to take a glass of wine, there being then wine and glasses upon the table; and said, "let us part friendly." Stirn then said, he would not go till he had played his last tune; and there being a spinnet in the room, he went and struck it five or six times: then he said, "I want but half a guinea; you may do what you will with my clothes and books." Matthews replied. "if you will tell me what you want with a half a guinea, and have not so much, I will lend you the money." Stirn then put his hand in his pocket, and taking out some money, looked at it, and said, "No, I have as much money as I want, I have spoke to a man today who will write my life and yours." "Have a care," said Matthews, "what you say; you have before said enough for me to lay you by the heels;" "Why, what have I said before," said Stirn. "Why, you have said," replied Matthews, "that Crawford might thank his God he had got rid of you in the manner he had; but that you would have your revenge of me." Stirn then desired Matthews to give him his hand, and Matthews stretching it out, Stirn grasped it in both his, and said, "I have said so, and here is my hand, I will have revenge of you." After this, a good deal of opprobrious language passed between them, and then Stirn went out of the house with the constable, though not in his custody.

Where this forlorn and infatuated creature passed the night, does not appear; nor is anything related of the transactions of the next day, Thursday the 14th, except that Mr. Chapman endeavoured to procure a meeting of the parties with himself and Mr. Crawford that evening, to bring about a reconciliation, but without success, Mr. Matthews being unfortunately from home, when he called to make the appointment. It appears, however, from divers circumstances which happened afterwards that, on that day, Stirn bought a pair of pistols, and that, having loaded them, he sent Mr. Matthews a challenge, which Matthews refused to accept; and it is probable, that from this time, he resolved upon the murder, no other means of revenge being left him.

On Friday morning, the fifteenth, Mr. Crawford, hearing that Stirn was in great anxiety and distress of mind, gave him an invitation to dinner. This invitation he accepted, and behaved with great propriety and politeness till after the cloth was taken away; but just then he started up, as if stung by some sudden thought, and uttered several invectives against Matthews; saying, that none but an execrable villain could impute to him the horrid character of a thief and adulterer. He said this, without any mention having been made of his own situation, or of Mr. Matthews's name, and soon after went away. About half an hour after five, the same evening, as Mr. Crawford was going down Cross-street, Stirn overtook him. Crawford at this time discovered such an expression of despair in his countenance, that he suspected he had formed a design to destroy himself, especially as it was said he had made an attempt of that kind six months before. Stirn turned the conversation principally upon the point of honour, and the proper means of maintaining it. Crawford, who saw him greatly moved, so as frequently to start, and change colour, turned the discourse to religion; but observing he gained no attention he hoped to soothe his mind by mentioning the prospect he still had of doing well, but Stirn then hastily interrupted him: Who, says he, will entertain a person under the horrid character of an adulterer and a thief! No, Sir, I am lost both to God and to the world. Mr. Crawford then told him, that if he should fail of success here, he would assist him with money to return to his brother. "To my brother!" says Stirn, in an agony; "neither my brother nor my country can receive me under the disgrace of such crimes as are imputed to me." As he pronounced these words, he burst into tears; and Mr. Crawford, not being able longer to support the effect of such a conversation upon his mind, was obliged to take his leave.

Mr. Crawford, in order to recollect himself, went out into the fields, where he could not help musing on what had passed; and finding his suspicions, that Stirn intended to destroy himself, grow stronger and stronger, he determined to return, and endeavour to find him out a second time.

It happened that about half an hour after eight o'clock he met with him at Owen's coffee-house, where the conversation upon his quarrel with Matthews was renewed though with much more temper than before; yet Stirn often started, saying, he expected that everyone who opened the door was Matthews. While he was at Owen's Coffee-house, he called for a pint of porter and some potatoes, which he devoured ravenously, though he had supped before, and drank a pint of porter, and three gills of wine. About ten o'clock he got up, and said, he would go to Mr. Pugh's; Pugh keeps an alehouse, the sign of the Pewter-platter, in Cross-street, Hatton Garden, next door to Crawford's school, where Crawford, Matthews, Chapman, and other persons in the neighbourhood, frequently met to spend the evening.

Mr. Crawford endeavoured to persuade him to go home to his lodgings, upon which Stirn, without making any reply, catched him by the hand, and pressed it with such violence as almost to force the blood out at his fingers' ends. They went together to Mr. Pugh's door, where Mr. Crawford left him, and went home. Stirn went into the neighbour's room, at the Pewter-platter, where he found Matthews, who had been to see Foot's farce, called the Minor, in the Hay-market, and with him, Mr. Chapman and Mr. Lowther; several other persons were in the room, but not of the same company. Stirn sat down at the same table with Matthews and his friends; but Chapman perceiving by his gestures and countenance, that he was in great agitation, called him out, and admonished him, not to do anything that might have disagreeable consequences either to himself or others. After this Stirn returned alone into the room, and Chapman went home. Stirn walked about the room by himself, and in the meantime Mr. Crawford came in, having heard who were in company, and fearing some fatal effect of Stirn's passion, which he hoped he might contribute to prevent.

Stirn, after some time, applying himself to Mr. Matthews, said, "Sir, you have accused me of theft and adultery." Matthews denied the charge; but said, if his wife's virtue had not been more to be depended upon than his honour, he did not know what might have been the consequence. After some mutual reproaches, Matthews called him a dirty fellow, and said he ought to be sent into his own lousy country: Stirn, after this, took two or three turns about the room, without reply, and then took a small piece of paper out of his pocket, and held it some time in his hand, with a design that Matthews should take notice of it; but Matthews not regarding it, he held it in the candle till it was burnt; he then walked about the room for a few minutes more, and Crawford observing uncommon fury and desperation in his looks, desired the company to drink his health; Mr. Lowther immediately did so, and, as he thinks, so did Mr. Matthews too; after which Stirn still walked about the room, but in a few minutes came and stood at Mr. Crawford's elbow, Mr. Lowther sat next to Mr. Crawford, and Mr. Matthews next to Mr. Lowther. He then went and stood between Mr. Lowther and Mr. Crawford and having continued there about a minute, or a minute and a half, he drew out the two pistols he had procured for the duel, wrapped up in a piece of paper, and stretching his arm across the table before Mr. Lowther, he discharged one of them at Matthews's breast, who gave a sudden start, and then falling forward, died instantly, without a groan. Stirn, almost at the same moment, discharged the other at himself; but, by some accident, the ball missed him, without doing any other damage. As soon as the smoke was dissipated, and the company recovered from their first astonishment and confusion, Stirn was seen standing as it were torpid with amazement and horror. As soon as he saw the attention of all that were in the room turned upon him, he seemed to recollect himself, and made towards the door; but a person in the room, whose name is Warford, seized him, and after some struggle pulled him to the ground. Lowther immediately went up to him, and Stirn cried out, "Shoot me, shoot me, shoot me, for I shall be hanged." Somebody then saying, Matthews is dead, Stirn replied, "I am not sorry, but I am sorry that I did not shoot myself."

After his commitment he obstinately refused all kinds of food, with a view to starve himself, that he might avoid, the infamy of a public death by the hands of the executioner: he persisted in this abstinence till the Friday following, the 22d of August, being just a week, drinking only a dish or two of coffee, and a little wine; this conduct he endeavoured to justify, by saying, that his life was forfeited both by the law of God and man, and that it was not lawful even for the government to pardon him; and what does it signify, says he, by whose hands this forfeit is paid. The ordinary indeed told him, in answer to this argument, that his life was not in his own power, and that as he did not, and could not, give it to himself, so neither had he a right to take it away; it is indeed pity that upon this occasion the ordinary was master of no better argument, for the argument which he used against Stirn's right to take away his own life, would prove, that his life could not be lawfully taken away by any other; for if Stirn had not a right to take away his own life, because, he did not, and could not give it to himself, the hangman, as he could no more give life than Stirn, had no more right to take it away. He was, however, urged to eat, by arguments addressed to his passions; for he was told, that he would incur more infamy by suicide than by hanging, as his body would be dragged like that of a brute, to a hole dug to receive it in a cross-road, and a stake would be afterwards driven through it, which would remain as a monument of disgrace. These arguments, however, were without effect, for he never eat any solid food, till he had, by the assistance of some who visited him, procured a quantity of opium sufficient to answer his purpose by a nearer way.

On Wednesday the 10th of September having then in some degree recovered his strength, he was brought to the bar and arraigned; he was then decently dressed in a suit of black cloth, but, contrary to the general expectation, he pleaded not guilty, and requested that his trial might be put off till Friday the 12th, which was granted. On the 12th he was brought to the bar again, but, instead of his suit of black, he appeared in a green night gown; he had been advised to feign himself mad, but this advice he rejected with disdain. During his trial, which lasted about four hours, he was often ready to faint; he was therefore indulged with a seat, and several refreshments; when sentence was passed upon him he quite fainted away, but being recovered by the application of spirits, he requested the court that he might be permitted to go to the place of execution in the coach with the clergyman; upon which the court told him, that was in the sheriff's breast, but that such a favour, if granted, would be contrary to the intention of the law, which had been lately made to distinguish murders by exemplary punishment; upon this he made a profound reverence to the court, and was taken back to prison.

About six o'clock, the same evening, he was visited by the ordinary, who found in the press-yard a German, who said he was a minister, whom Stirn had desired might attend him: The ordinary therefore took him up with him to Stirn's chamber, he having been removed from the cells by the assistance of some friends. They found him lying on his bed, and as he expressed great uneasiness at the presence of the ordinary and a prisoner that had been set over him as a guard, they withdrew and left him alone with his countryman; soon after this, an alarm was given that Stirn was extremely ill, and supposed to have taken poison; he was immediately visited by the sheriff, and Mr. Akerman the keeper of the prison, who found him in a state of stupefaction, but not yet convulsed; a surgeon was procured, and several methods tried to discharge his stomach of the poison, but without effect; he was then let blood, which apparently rendered him worse.

About nine o'clock he was pale and speechless, his jaw was fallen, and his eyes were fixed, and about five minutes before eleven he expired. It does not appear what reason Matthews had for charging Stirn with an attempt upon his wife, but Stirn solemnly declared in his last moments that there was none. He expressed many obligations to Mr. Crawford, who often visited him in prison with great kindness and humanity; and perhaps if he had been in a situation more suitable not only to his hopes, but to his merit and his birth, he would have been less jealous of affronts, and, conscious of undisputed dignity, would have treated rudeness and slander with contempt, instead of pursuing them with revenge.

He spent his life in perpetual transitions from outrage and fury, to remorse and regret; one hour drawing his sword upon his dearest friends, to revenge some imaginary affront, and the next lamenting his folly, and entreating their pardon with contrition and tears. How many are they whose keen sensibility, and violence of temper, keep them nearly in the same situation, though they have not yet been pushed to the same excess; let such remember, that no human being can say to the passions of the mind, any more than to the waves of the sea, "hitherto shall ye go, but here shall ye be stayed."

If, by this mournful example, some of these shall be warned gradually to weaken their vehemence of temper, by restraint, instead of giving it new force by habit, neither Stirn nor Matthews will have died in vain; they will have reason to say, upon this occasion, "that God, in the midst of judgment has remembered mercy; and, that by the stripes of others they have been healed."


"O shame to all that God design'd below!
"Shame to the wretch who flies from human woe!
"Shame to the wretch who aims th' empoison'd dart
"At the proud feeling of a gen'rous heart!
"Yet slaves there be, who in misfortune's bowl
"Mix bitter draughts, to agonize the soul;
"Whose bosoms gladden at another's woe;
"And joy to see the grief-swoln eyes o'er flow."


Previous   Next