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A Bloody Scene in Covent Garden


Covent Garden by Balthazar Nebot, 1737, public domain

It was past 11pm on the 7th April 1779, when Mary Anderson, a local fruit-seller, perhaps hoping to profit from the thirsty crowds exiting the theatres, found herself witness to one of the eighteenth century’s most infamous and talked about murders.  Here she describes events in her own words:

“I was standing at the post. Just as the play broke up I saw two ladies and a gentleman coming out of the playhouse; a gentleman in black followed them. Lady Sandwich’s coach was called. When the carriage came up, the gentleman handed the other lady into the carriage; the lady that was shot stood behind. Before the gentleman could come back to hand her into the carriage the gentleman in black came up, laid hold of her by the gown, and pulled out of his pocket two pistols; he shot the right hand pistol at her, and the other at himself. She fell with her hand so [describing it as being on her forehead] and died before she could be got to the first lamp; I believe she died immediately, for her head hung directly. At first I was frightened at the report of the pistol, and ran away. He fired another pistol, and dropped immediately. They fell feet to feet. He beat himself violently over the head with his pistols, and desired somebody would kill him.” [1]

The lady was rushed to the nearby Shakespeare Tavern, a surgeon was called and pronounced her to be dead – the ball of a gun having passed through the crown of her head and exited under her left ear [2]. The murderer, somewhat bloody from his self-inflicted wounds, was apprehended by Constable Richard Blandy and taken to the tavern where he was questioned by Sir John Fielding (the well-known blind magistrate and brother to the celebrated novelist Henry Fielding).  The murderer was committed to Tothills Prison Bridewell and thence to Newgate to await trial.

The Earl and his mistress

Martha Ray and Lord Sandwich, Town and Country Magazine, 1769

Martha Ray and Lord Sandwich, Town and Country Magazine, 1769 © National Portrait Gallery, London

The victim in this very public tragedy was Martha Ray the mistress of the 4th Earl of Sandwich, John Montagu.  The Earl of Sandwich had been so distraught upon hearing of his long-term mistress’ murder, he is  said to have locked himself in his room and wept. He is said to have never fully recovered from her loss.

Although a notorious rake and alleged member of Sir Francis Dashwood’s version of the Hellfire Club, Sandwich was also a diligent and industrious (if often unpopular) servant of the Crown and First Lord of the Admiralty. In fact, it was long hours at the admiralty that gave birth to the greatest convenience food ever – the Sandwich – when the Earl slapped some naval beef between two slices of bread, in order that he need not leave his desk [3]. Lord Sandwich was also of a distinctive appearance, an acquaintance, one Joseph Craddock, on seeing Lord Sandwich walking along a street, commented to his companion:

“I am sure it is Lord Sandwich; for, if you observe, he is walking down both sides of the street at once.” [4]

Compared to her noble lover, Martha Ray had humble beginnings. Ray’s father was a corset-maker in Covent Garden, and his young and charming daughter Martha was an apprentice milliner when Sandwich first set his practiced eye upon her.  Fresh-faced, intelligent and agreeable, Sandwich took her has his mistress when she was only 17.  The partnership stood the test of time, and through Sandwich, Ray was able to educate herself beyond what would have been possible for a working class woman at that time.  Musically gifted she soon became a well-known singer and musician (although rather proprietorially, Sandwich would not allow her to perform in public).

Martha Ray by Nathaniel Dance (1735–1811) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Martha Ray by Nathaniel Dance (1735–1811) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

One man who was captivated by Martha Ray and her talents was Richard Dennison Cumberland, who raved that she was:

“..a second Cleopatra – a woman of thousands, and capable of producing those effects on the heart which the poets talk of so much and of which we are apt to think Chimerical.”

However, not everything in the garden was rosy for Martha and Sandwich, despite the fact that for sixteen years they lived publicly like man and wife, Martha often found herself ostracised by the respectable wives of the Earl’s friends.  This was particularly pronounced when they  visited his country seat Hinchingbrooke in Hertfordshire.  Here local ladies recoiled from associating with a demi-mondaine – Sandwich after all was a married man.  It was at Hinchingbrooke that Lord Sandwich was fated to introduce to Martha, the man who would eventually become her murderer.

Although on the surface the couple’s relationship appeared happy – they had several children together, Ray shared Sandwich’s admiralty apartments and they went about together to concerts and parties – it seems at one time at least, Martha had investigated the possibility of striking out on her own, and making a professional career out of her singing.  Ever possessive, Sandwich appears to have quickly quashed this attempt at independence.

This attempt to break free may have been due to the fact that despite providing Ray with a generous allowance, Sandwich failed to make any financial settlements on Ray or her children – if Sandwich died before Ray she could find herself in dire financial straits. As a practical woman who had grown used to the finer things in life, and with a number of illegitimate children to support, Ray would naturally have been looking for some kind of guarantee of financial security.  She was also talented enough to support herself through her singing. It has been suggested that this wish for financial security, or perhaps respectability, may also have led to her dallying with the idea of marriage to a young man who had ardently pursued her since their first meeting at Hinchingbrooke….[5]

Hinchingbrooke, country home of the Earl of Sandwich c1787, public domain.

Hinchingbrooke, country home of the Earl of Sandwich c1787, public domain (?)

James Hackman, Soldier, Stalker and murderer

James Hackman, the sentimental killer,

James Hackman, the sentimental killer, public domain via wikimedia

James Hackman was born in 1752 in Gosport, Hampshire.  Described as of too impatient and volatile temper to go into trade [6] in 1772 his parents instead purchased a commission as Ensign in the 68th Regiment of Foot.  Sometime in 1775 he was heading up a recruiting party in Hertfordshire when he was invited to Hinchingbrooke by Lord Sandwich, here he met Miss Ray.

From the very first, the young man was utterly bewitched by the talented, charming and intelligent older woman.  In an age of sentiment and feeling, Hackman became utterly obsessed by Martha Ray, his unattainable goddess.

He was a frequent visitor to Hingingbrooke and seems to have begun pursing Ray with offers of marriage very early in their relationship.  Ray always rejected his offers – perhaps aware that a poorly paid soldier could not afford to keep her in the style to which she was accustomed.  Ray seems a practical and pragmatic woman, prepared to stand on her own two feet given the opportunity, however, as virtually no letters or written accounts exist from Martha Ray herself, it remains speculation as to whether she as an agreeable hostess, merely tolerated Hackman’s advances, or if she welcomed and encouraged them, or whether she feared them.

The day of the murder

On the day of the murder, Hackman, who had recently been ordained a minister of the Church of England (perhaps impatient that his army career often took him away from the object of his obsession),  had tried to approach Martha Ray by letter, but upon calling on her had been turned away by Ray’s companion and fellow singer Caterina Galli.  His letter was returned unopened.

Commemorative Engraving from May 1779, the murder scene is show beneath the portrait.

Commemorative Engraving from May 1779, the murder scene is show beneath the portrait © National Portrait Gallery, London

Later that day, he dined with his sister and brother-in-law telling them he would return later in the evening.  However, fired up by his earlier rejection, he instead set out to pursue Miss Ray.  At about 6pm he saw Lord Sandwich’s coach heading out with Miss Ray and Signora Galli, towards Covent Garden.  He pursued it.  The ladies were off to watch Love in a Village by Thomas Arne.  They may have been joined by male companions – friends of Lord Sandwich.  Driven to a frenzy by this perceived betrayal, Hackman rushed back to his lodgings, wrote two letters: one a suicide note to his brother-in-law, the other a love letter to Miss Ray.  He also loaded two pistols.

Just past 11, Miss Ray and Miss Galli were exiting the piazzas at Covent Garden and were being so jostled by the crowd they were unable to reach their coach.  A gallant Irish Attorney, John MacNamarra, stepped in to assist the ladies through the crowds.  Just as he handed Miss Galli into the coach and was about to assist Miss Ray, Hackman stepped out of the crowd and grabbed her arm.  As she turned to him he pulled out two pistols and shot her in the face.  He then tried unsuccessfully to shoot himself.

MacNamarra, who initially thought Ray had just fainted, later recalled his horror at the events:

“The sudden assault of the assassin, the instantaneous death of the victim, and the spattering of the poor girl’s brains all over his own face.” [11]

Hackman later claimed that he had only intended to punish Ray by making her witness his own suicide, but driven into a jealous frenzy at seeing her on the arm of another man, he turned the gun on her as well.


John Brewer in his fascinating book ‘Sentimental Murder’ explores how the story evolved over time.  Initially there was some consensus and agreement about the individuals involved in the event, Hackman’s camp and Sandwich’s camp both agreed to present all participants in the best light. However the sensational murder was a constant source of gossip and speculation, James Boswell visited Hackman in jail; Horace Walpole sniped about the age difference of victim and killer;  Dr Johnson speculated that the fact Hackman took two pistols proved he intended there to be two deaths.

Soon contemporary authors, such as Manasseh Dawes and Sir Herbert Croft began manipulating the story to fit the sentimental ideal of the day, they helped to create in Hackman a sympathetic figure, a paragon of sentimental feeling and a man overtaken by his emotions for a woman whom he had a sexual relationship with, but who had at best rejected him and at worst betrayed him.  Readers were invited to  feel pity for or even identified with the killer rather than the victim [7].  Later still Victorian writers tended to view the tragic outcome of the meeting of Hackman and Ray as the inevitable wages of a sinful life, symptoms of the louche and decadent Georgian age.  Martha became culpable for her own demise.  Yet it seems to me that it is entirely possible that Martha Ray was the innocent victim of a stalker.

Anatomy of a stalker

Stalkers are most commonly men in their thirties, and most frequently men who have had a previous romantic relationship with their victim.  Stalking has been described in such cases as an extension of domestic violence [8] this sub-type of stalker is most likely to fall within the ‘rejected stalker type.  If gossip and later writers were correct in their surmise that Ray and Hackman did have a brief romantic relationship in 1778, this could be a match for Hackman.

Another possible stalker type for Hackman is the ‘intimacy seeker’.  Intimacy seekers may be strangers to the victim, perhaps dazzled by celebrity, talent or beauty (Martha Ray certainly had all three in spade-fulls) and bent on pursing a romantic relationship with that person. This type of stalker can be delusional and suffer from erotomania – a belief that their victim actually reciprocates their feelings [9].  Hackman may only have been a periphery figure in Ray’s social world – the only firm evidence of their meeting is during 1775 and there is no clear evidence that they were ever intimate.  In fact all accounts seem to agree Ray consistently rejected Hackman’s marriage proposals.

Hackman, smitten with Ray, then pursued her at a distance, following her, observing her and writing to her. Unfortunately Ray’s correspondence does not survive so we can never know if she confidently brushed off Hackman’s pursuit, or whether she came to dread his missives, dread the black clad figure constantly dogging her footsteps.

He resorted to murder when he perceived she had betrayed him with another man.

Katherine Ramsland, writing for The Crime Library, gives a five point progression for stalkers which seems to fit with Hackman’s behaviour:

  1. After initial contact, the stalker develops feelings like infatuation, and therefore places the love object on a pedestal.
  2. The stalker then begins to approach the object. It might take a while, but once contact is made, the stalker’s behavior sets him up for rejection.
  3. Rejection triggers the delusion through which the stalker projects his own feelings onto the object: She loves me, too.
  4. The stalker also develops intense anger to mask his shame, which fuels the obsessive pursuit of the object. He now wants to control through harassment or injury.
  5. The stalker must restore his narcissistic fantasy.
  6. Violence is most likely to occur when the love object is devalued, as through an imagined betrayal.[10]

At his trial, Hackman provoked sympathy, his handsome and polite demeanor coupled with his tears of grief and contrition, all scored points with the sentimental ‘audience’ at the trial.

He claimed he only intended to kill himself, using his letter to his brother-in-law as evidence:

“My Dear Frederick, When this letter reaches you I shall be no more…….You know where my affections were placed; my having by some means or other lost hers,….has driven me to madness…May heaven protect my beloved woman, and forgive this act which alone could relieve me from a world of misery I have long endured.  Oh! If it should be in your power to do her any act of friendship…” [12]

and he justified his actions as those of a man driven to a temporary frenzy by love and jealousy:

“I protest, with that regard to truth which becomes my situation, that the will to destroy her who was ever dearer to me than life, was never mine till a momentary phrensy overcame me, and induced me to commit the deed I now deplore. The letter, which I meant for my brother-in-law after my decease, will have its due weight as to this point with good men.” [13]

Despite his fine appearance and genteel manners, and his ‘extenuating’ circumstances, he was found guilty of the murder of Martha Ray.  James Hackman: soldier, clergyman, stalker and murderer was hanged at Tyburn on 19 April 1779.

James Hackman may have had his just punishment under the law, but in the literature of the following two centuries he was often presented as more of tragic figure rather than a jealous murderer; his motives were explored and he was seen as a victim of his heightened sensibility and of a fickle woman.  Martha Ray, attractive, charming, intelligent and talented, almost becomes the villain of the tragedy or is depicted as at least partially responsible for her own death.  Sympathy is not with the victim of this crime but with the perpetrator.

Perhaps this is somewhat jaded view, but it sometimes seems that little has changed, society and the media all too often seem willing to provide a damning moral judgement on women when they are the victims of violent or sexual crimes.

Notes and sources

Akwagyiram, Alexis http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/3717696.stm [8]
Brewer, John (2005), A Sentimental Murder: Love and Madness in the Eighteenth Century, Farrar, Straus and Giroux
[3] [7] [11] [12]
Castleden, Rodney, Infamous Murderers: Maniacs filled with hatred and rage via googlebooks [6]
Craddock, Joseph, 1826, Literary and Miscellaneous Memoirs [4]
Muller, Robert , Ph.D. In the Mind of a Stalker, 2013, http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/talking-about-trauma/201306/in-the-mind-stalkerPsychology Today [9]
Ramsland, Katherine, ‘Stalkers:The Psychological Terrorist, http://www.crimelibrary.com/criminal_mind/psychology/stalkers/5.html [10]
Trial of James Hackman, http://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?ref=t17790404-3 [1] [2] [13]
Tim Hitchcock, Robert Shoemaker, Clive Emsley, Sharon Howard and Jamie McLaughlin, et al., The Old Bailey Proceedings Online, 1674-1913 (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 7.1, 24 March 2014
Wikipedia,  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martha_Ray [5]
Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Hackman