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She was born at Elstree in 1746, the daughter of a staymaker. At just 13 she went into apprenticeship as a milliner in Clerkenwell. Thereafter, for 34 years, fate dealt Martha Ray a kind hand, for she was destined to become part of the aristocracy, to live in a country mansion fit for a queen, and to entertain on the stage in fashionable London. But then, at eleven o’clock one night in Covent Garden, as she emerged with friends from the theatre, a man she knew but had rejected stepped forward and shot her dead.
One day, Martha came to the attention of John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, who would go on to twice hold the esteemed position of First Lord of the Admiralty, no less. Martha was about sixteen then. Lord Sandwich was a married man who had been living apart from his wife for seven years due to her deteriorating mental health; indeed she had been declared insane. He took it upon himself to see that Martha received a good education, and sent her to France where she would learn the social graces – so important in those days – and to improve her voice still further and learnt to play a musical instrument, the harpsichord.
Lord Sandwich was 44 years old, and was described as ‘a tall, stout man, furrowed and as weatherproofed as any sailor, joviality marked in every feature’. Fine, except his ineptness was a feature in the British failure in the American war of Independence. He was an active member of the so-called Hellfire Club, also known as ‘The Monks of Medmenham’, patronised by the aristocracy, and even royalty, and renowned for its ‘hard drinking and womanising habits of wealthy rakes’.
When Martha was 17 she became Lord Sandwich’s mistress. Far from having a clandestine affair with Martha, he brought her to the family home at Hinchingbrooke, in Huntingdonshire. He wanted Martha to be his wife in everything but name, a position that would have suited her, no doubt. But he could not marry Martha. Divorce in those days was costly and would have seriously damaged his high-level career. So Martha lived the life of a Lady, entertaining friends and slotting in nicely to a grand lifestyle. She had five children, which, it has to be said, the good Lord treated as well as his own, legitimate family.
The couple were happy, except that Martha had a problem. Lord Sandwich was 24 years her senior; if her should die before her, which was likely, she could, and probably would, be cast out from her grand mansion, along with her children, probably penniless and to fend for herself. Martha was understandably insecure, and consequently sought to become the wife of the peer, even threatening to go on the stage where she could have made a living on her own – as she could. Lord Sandwich refused to divorce his wife, and things ticked along until an eventful day in 1775 when a soldier, Captain James Hackman, came to visit.
Hackman had joined the army at 19, and was in the county on a recruiting drive. Invited to Hinchingbrooke, he met Martha and was at once besotted with the woman seven years his senior. He knew, of course, that she was the mistress of the noble Earl, and that she had five children, but he asked her to marry him nonetheless. She turned him down, pledging loyalty to Lord Sandwich and reputedly saying she would ‘never marry a knapsack’. Hackman, unfortunately for him, found himself posted off to Ireland. But he didn’t give up, and let it be said his intentions towards the woman he loved were honourable; he wanted her to be his wife and he embarked on a course of action which, he hoped, would win her over: he joined the church.
On 28th February, 1779, James Hackman attained Priesthood and was sent to Wiveton, in Norfolk. Now, he reasoned, Martha would say yes to his proposal of marriage. He reasoned also that their marriage would take place with the blessing of Lord Sandwich, for would not a peer of the realm be bound to give his blessing to this noble institution, and to the making of his Martha into a respectable woman? Again he proposed to Martha; again she turned him down.
Four years after first meeting Martha Ray, James Hackman, still besotted and unable to take no for an answer, then took matters into his own hands. He travelled to London to try and persuade her to meet him, and sent a note through her friends, Senor and Senora Galli, to Martha. In it, he begged her to meet him for only five minutes. Later, he would say he never intended to harm her, which may or may not be true. In any event, Martha refused, instructing him to leave her alone. It seems Hackman then intended to kill himself at least, for he wrote to his brother-in-law, saying ‘…may heaven protect my beloved woman and forgive this act which alone could release me from a world of misery I have long endured’.
On the evening of Wednesday, 7th April, 1779, Martha Ray went to Covent Garden theatre to see the play, ‘Love in a Village’. That same evening James Hackman was seen drinking brandy in the nearby Bedford Coffee Tavern. Around 11 o’clock she left in the company of her friend Signora Galli, and both women were escorted by Lord Coleraine. Hackman was among the crowd, watching. It seems that Martha took the arm of an unknown man, which was probably too much for Hackman, and as Martha prepared to step into her waiting carriage he shot her in the head, killing her instantly.
But Hackman wasn’t finished, for he carried another pistol which he pointed to his own head in an apparent attempt to shoot himself. Instead, the bullet glanced off, wounding him only slightly. As he fell to the ground he struck himself repeatedly in the head with the butt of his pistol, whereupon he was seized and handed over to the Bow Street Runners.
‘I could have borne anything but this’, said Lord Sandwich when Martha’s coach turned up at the Admiralty without Martha and he was told the news. One week later, Martha was interred at Elstree, and four days after that James Hackman, still only 27, stood trial for his life at the Old Bailey for her murder. Incredibly, he pleaded not guilty. Not surprisingly the court was packed. It seems the court was told that, far from spurning Hackman’s approaches to her, Martha had on occasion met with him in secret without Lord Sandwich’s knowledge. If this is true, it may be no wonder that Hackman was so besotted, and it may be no wonder he pursued her affections.
Be that as it may, Hackman told the court, ‘I stand here the most wretched of human beings and confess myself a criminal to a high degree. I acknowledge that my determination against my own life was formal and complete. The will to destroy her who was dearer to me than life was never mine until a momentary frenzy overcame me’. He said he intended to kill only himself, and that he shot Martha ‘in a momentary frenzy’. On sight of the unknown man who offered her his arm at the carriage, presumably.
But if he intended taking only his own life, why two pistols? In case he missed first time? (As he did!). The jury didn’t even bother to retire. They found him guilty of murder. James Hackman would hang in just three days.
Now, Lord Sandwich, for all his failings, was a kindhearted man. He sent Hackman a message to his prison cell, saying that he forgave him, even though he had ‘robbed him of all comfort in the world’. And further, he would use his influence to prevent the execution taking place. But Hackman didn’t want to live. Instead, he accused Signora Galli of deliberately inciting him by telling him Martha had a ‘new admirer’, and it must have been this man he’d seen offering Martha his arm. Word got out about this, and Signora Galli had leave the stage, which caused her such financial difficulties Lord sandwich – who else? – had to help her out.
At Tyburn, the crowds turned out to watch the hanging, of course. Hackman spent ten minutes in prayer, before dropping his handkerchief as a sign to the hangman, Jack Ketch, that he was ready to die. Ketch, renowned for his cruelty, kept Hackman waiting as, in his own good time, he picked up the handkerchief before driving the cart forward, leaving James Hackman to swing at the end of the rope. Hanging was a slow, lingering process in those days (unlike later, when they dropped through trapdoors to a more rapid and instant demise). Lord Sandwich, to his credit, brought up the children Martha had borne. A rake, perhaps; a caring, devoted man, certainly