Nobleman and murderer
Born 1720 Died 1760
Laurence Shirley, the fourth of his line to hold the title of Earl Ferrers is remembered for one thing, and one thing only, for being the last peer of the realm to be hanged as a common criminal.
1. The madness of Laurence the fourth
Born on the 18th of August 1720 he was the son of Laurence Shirley and Anne Clarges, his father being the fourth and youngest son of Robert Shirley, 1st Earl Ferrers. Thanks to the inability of any of the other of the 1st Earl's sons to produce any male issue of their own, our Laurence Shirley duly inherited the title of Earl Ferrers with the death of his uncle Henry on the 6th August 1745. With the title came the family home at Staunton Harold Hall in Leicestershire, together with some valuable estates in Northamptonshire, Derbyshire and Leicestershire.
The 4th Earl Ferrers soon began to attract a reputation for mental instability, and many began to wonder whether he was quite right in the head. There certainly was insanity in the family as his uncle and predecessor, Henry Shirley, 3rd Earl Ferrers was quite mad, although whether the 4th Earl was actually insane might be doubted, it was more the case that he was prone to such rages that he appeared to have lost his senses.
It seems that when sober he was apparently a fine fellow, but unfortunately he had a taste for drink, and when drunk was prone to exercise his violent temper on those nearest at hand. He was known to have brutally assaulted his servants on a number of occasions. He once attacked a groom named Peter Williams with a sword (the Earl's horse had just lost a race) and stabbed another with a knife, beat him unconscious with a candlestick, and then kicked him in the groin with such force that he was incontinent for several years afterwards. (This last assault being the result of a dispute over a barrel of oysters.) There was also the occasion on which the Earl's brother and his wife payed him a visit when, as a result of some perceived insult, he resolved to shoot his brother. When one of his servants ventured to dissuade the Earl from such extreme measures, he threatened to blow his own brains out, and would have done so had the pistol not misfired on that occasion.
Given such evidence one might well have felt some sympathy for the sixteen year old Mary Meredith, sister of William Meredith of Henbury in Cheshire, who had the misfortune to be married to the Earl on the 16th September 1752. It seems fairly apparent that his wife also became the target of his drunken rages, although in Mary's case she was at least able to engineer an escape, as she took the quite extraordinary step of obtaining a legal separation from her husband by means of an Act of Parliament of the 20th June 1758 on the grounds of his cruelty towards her.
2. The shooting of John Johnson
It was this legal separation effected by the Act of 1758 that triggered the sequence of events that rapidly brought about the 4th Earl's untimely end.
As part of the court imposed settlement the Ferrers estates were vested in trustees in order to secure an income for his estranged wife. The Earl Ferrers however secured the appointment of his old family steward, John Johnson as the receiver of rents, acting on the belief that Johnson could be prevailed upon to act in his interests rather than follow the trustees' instructions. It seems however that the Earl was to be disappointed in this regard as Johnson (who was understandably reluctant to take on the role in the first place) diligently fulfilled his legal duties. This inevitably led to friction between the two men, and in particular the Earl became unhappy that Johnson had paid across the sum of £50 to his wife without his express approval. On Sunday the 13th January 1760, Ferrers paid a visit to Johnson and invited him to attend a meeting at Staunton Harold Hall on Friday the 18th to discuss the matter. In preparation for this meeting the Earl ensured that his mistress, Margaret Clifford, the children and all the male servants were absent. (Said facts being later taken as clear indication of premeditation on the part of the Earl Ferrers.)
According to the testimony of a servant named Elizabeth Burgeland, the meeting between the two men eventually took an unpleasant turn as the Earl ordered Johnson to get down on his knees, and with the words; "Declare that you have acted against Lord Ferrers. Your time is come -- you must die"; drew a pistol from his pocket and shot him. Johnson's wound was not immediately fatal and a Doctor Kirkland from Ashby-de-la-Zouch was called for to attend to his injuries. Very naturally Doctor Kirkland wanted to remove Johnson to a location where his wounds could be better treated, but Ferrers threatened to shoot Johnson in the head if any attempt was made to move him, insisting that "He shall not be removed; I will keep him here, to plague the villain." It was only when the Earl finally went to bed, at sometime between eleven and twelve o'clock that evening, that Doctor Kirkland was finally able to take Johnson back to his own house. Unfortuantely for all concerned Johnson died at about nine o'clock on the following morning.
News of Johnson's death soon spread around the neighbourhood and a mob gathered in front of Staunton Harold Hall with the intention of effecting an arrest. The Earl Ferrers was having none of it, and defiantly appeared at the window to berate the assembled crowd, and gave every indication that he intended to remain at liberty. A little later however, the Earl appeared "walking on the bowling-green, armed with a blunderbuss, a brace of pistols and a dagger". As he did so he was approached by a collier by the name of Curtis who walked right up to the Earl and demanded that he surrendered himself, at which point the Earl rather surprisingly complied and was taken to a nearby public-house at Ashby to spend the night. On the following Monday the coroner's jury brought in a verdict of wilful murder against him and he was committed to Leicester jail.
3. The trial of the Earl Ferrers
Of course, as a peer of the realm charged with a felony, the only court that had the power to try him was the House of Lords itself, and so on the 14th of February the Earl Ferrers was committed to the custody of Black Rod and transferred to the Tower of London where he took up residence in the Round Tower.
The trial opened at Westminster Hall on the 16th April 1760 with the Lord Henley, the Keeper of the Great Seal, acting as the Lord High Steward for the occasion. Such was the weight given to the charge of murder against a member of the aristocracy that both the Attorney-General, Sir Charles Pratt, and the Solicitor-General, Sir Charles Yorke, led for the prosecution whilst, as was customary at the time, the Earl was obliged to conduct his own defence.
The prosecution brough forth Doctor Kirkland, Sarah Johnson and the three women servants who were present at the Hall at the time of the murder as witnesses. Their combined testimony conclusively demonstrated that the Earl Ferrers had indeed shot and killed John Johnson. For his part the Earl Ferrers did not deny the self evident facts of the case, but rather entered a defence of insanity, although as he himself admitted, he only did so in order to "gratify the wishes of his friends and family", and was personally unconvinced of the argument. To no one's surprise the assembled peers returned a unanimous verdict of guilty on the 18th April, and the 4th Earl of Ferrers was duly sentenced to hang.
4. The Execution of the Earl Ferrers
At the time the Murder Act 1752 specified that the execution should have taken place within two days of sentence but, in deference to the Earl's status, the actual hanging was deferred and it wasn't until the 2nd May that George II duly signed the Writ of Execution setting the date for the 5th May.
On the morning of his execution the Earl decided to wear his wedding suit, a light coloured satin affair embroidered with silver, on the grounds that this was "at least as good an occasion for putting them on as that for which they were first made". He then set out on his journey to Tyburn in his landau escorted by a troop of cavalry, forming a procession which took three hours to reach their destination.
It is said that his last words were "Lord have mercy upon me, and forgive me my errors", although according to Horace Walpole, the hangman botched the job as it took four minutes for him to die. Despite the fact that a number of authoritative sources such as Burke's Peerage assert that he was hanged with "a silken cord rather than a common hempen rope, as was his privilege as a peer", others dismiss this as nonsense and insist that he was hanged with same rope as any other common criminal.
In any event his body was left to hang for the customary hour before being taken down and transported to Surgeon’s Hall for the equally customary dissection. There a "large incision was then made from the neck to the bottom of the breast, and another across the throat; the lower part of the belly was laid open and the bowels taken away." His remains were then left on display until the evening of Thursday the 8th May, when they were claimed by his friends and family and buried at St. Pancras church. There he remained until the 3rd June 1782 when the body was removed and re-interred in the family vault at Staunton Harold.
Tradition states that the following lines, believed to be written by the Earl himself, were found in his cell after he'd left for Tyburn;
In doubt I lived, in doubt I die,
Yet stand prepared the vast abyss to try,
and, undismay'd, expect eternity.
- The Newgate Calendar - LAURENCE, EARL FERRERS
- Laurence Shirley, Earl Ferrers
- Earl Ferrers from Capital Punishment U.K.
- George Edward Cokayne, Vicary Gibbs, et al, The Complete Peerage (St Catherine's Press, 1910-1959)
- The entry for FERRERS from Burke's Peerage and Baronetage 107th Edition