A Sentimental Murder Love and Madness in the Eighteenth Century

John Brewer

Farrar, Straus and Giroux



Trade Paperback

352 Pages



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One April evening in London in 1779, Martha Ray, the pretty mistress of a famous British aristocrat, was shot dead by a young clergyman, who then vainly tried to take his own life. Protesting eternal love for the woman he had killed, he was arrested, tried, convicted, and hanged.

It seemed an open-and-shut case, a tragic love triangle. But why really had James Hackman shot Martha Ray? He claimed he suffered from "love's madness," but how well had he known her? And exactly how was the Earl of Sandwich, First Lord of the Admiralty, implicated in the event? London buzzed with the story, as hack journalists, Boswell included, sharpened their pens. The story had all the hallmarks of a great scandal—yet fiction and fact mingled confusingly from the beginning, and the case was never deemed appropriate material for real history.

John Brewer, one of our leading interpreters of eighteenth-century England, now offers an account of this violent little story that is as compelling as a thriller. His purpose is not so much to determine what happened during a few crucial moments as to understand the relationships among the three protagonists and their different places in English society, and to assess the shifting balance between storytelling and fact, between past and present, that inheres in all history.

What did people think this crime was about? At first they called it the tragic outcome of Hackman's unrequited love for the virtuous mother of a powerful politician's illicit children. But perhaps Martha Ray herself was deranged by passion, as a popular novel suggested. In Victorian times, the story became a morality tale about a decadent Georgian aristocrat and the wanton lower-class woman who consorted with him; by the 1920s, Ray was considered a chaste mistress destroyed by male dominance and privilege.
A Sentimental Murder gives us British cultural and literary history—and historiography—at a most engaging and thrilling level.


Praise for A Sentimental Murder

"[This book provokes] us to contemplate the complexities of historical truth, the subtle and often invisible workings of spin in history and in journalism, the interconnections of history and fiction."—Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post

"An exceptional book, stimulating, original, beautifully written, and full of wit."—Miranda Seymour, Literary Review

"A comprehensive . . . tour through the substantial body of literature that grew up around the [eponymous murder] case . . . Brewer's methods are as much those of a literary scholar as those of a historian, and he dissects his texts with expertise, sensitivity, and grace . . . [Thus the book's] greatest appeal will be to literary critics and historians. Yet at the same time, Brewer explicitly blurs the boundary that has come to separate some kinds of historical writing from others. This is a commendable and important undertaking, and one that deserves to be emulated widely."—Maya Jasanoff, The American Scholar

"Brewer's mastery of the cultural world of the eighteenth century is considerable. We get a Hogarthian picture of the aristocratic demimonde that the principals inhabited, and this alone is worth the price of admission. This is a history of histories, a micro-history 'from below' in the tradition of Natalie Davis. It is a far cry from the history Brewer was taught, that factual and objective truth lay in archives to be discovered by the diligent. Historians are now more aware of their own subjective reading of the past and are more receptive to seeing the same story from different points of view, including the literary. He calls this an experiment, and he succeeds. In his capable hands, A Sentimental Murder is an elegant and fascinating account that should have wide appeal."—Phillip T. Smith, Saint Joseph's University, History

"On April 7, 1779, a clergyman named James Hackman accosted Martha Ray, the mistress of the fourth Earl of Sandwich, after a play and shot her, then unsuccessfully attempted to kill himself. He was tried and convicted of murder and hanged on April 19. But that's not what this book is about. Brewer is interested not in the murder itself but in how the events were interpreted throughout history. A book of Hackman's 'letters' (actually forged) painted him as a victim of 'love's madness,' while the death of Ray brought the status of mistresses, or 'demi-reps,' into sharp relief. Later Victorian renditions used the murder as a means to denounce the decadence of Georgian society, while more recent historians and writers saw a romantic tragedy, with Ray as a woman torn between love and duty . . . Historians and lovers of the period will be fascinated. Recommended for academic collections."—Deirdre Bray, Middletown Public Library, Ohio, Library Journal

"A sensational 18th-century murder sets the author musing about things that annoy and challenge historians: What are facts? What is history? What are the differences between a novelist and a historian? Brewer begins with a fairly factual account of the crime. On April 7, 1779, James Hackman, a recently ordained priest in the Anglican church, waited outside the Covent Garden theater for Martha Ray, longtime mistress to the fourth Earl of Sandwich. When she emerged, Hackman 26shot Ray in the head at point-blank range, then wounded himself with another pistol. He was promptly arrested, tried, and hanged before the month was out. Brewer devotes only about 30 pages to this narrative, confessing that we can never really know Hackman's motives or the precise nature of Ray's involvement with him. He devotes the remainder of this provocative work to an examination of how the Ray murder has been treated in the ensuing 225 years. Examining the five daily newspapers published in London at the time, the historian shows that the case initially took shape as what he calls a 'sentimental story.' He then discusses contemporary pamphlets, such as The Case and Memoirs of James Hackman, which portrayed the killer as a spurned and thus pitiable lover. Brewer pauses to give us some background: Sandwich's lubricious career, Ray's sketchy biography, and the disturbing details of prostitutes' and courtesans' professional lives. He spends time with the 1780 publication Love and Madness, which comprised 65 bogus letters between Ray and her killer, before proceeding down the centuries to examine the psychological, political, and moral lenses through which subsequent generations viewed the story. Some surprising names appear, among them Erasmus Darwin and Williams Wordsworth, Godwin, and Thackeray. Brewer ends with a dazzling chapter on historiography that would work equally well as a stand-alone essay. Scholarly, stimulating, and significant."—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

Reviews from Goodreads



  • John Brewer

  • John Brewster is the author of many books, including The Pleasures of the Imagination, which won the Wolfson History Prize, and The Sinews of Power. He has held professorships at several American universities, including the University of Chicago; the University of California, Los Angeles; Harvard; and Yale. He currently teaches at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

  • John Brewer Copyright Caroline Forbes