Soldier, Clergyman, Murderer
Born 1752 Died 1779

"there is no act so contrary to reason that men will not commit when under dominion of their passions"

James Hackman was the son of a former naval lieutenant named William Hackman, born most probably towards the end of the year 1752 as he was baptised on the 13th December at the Holy Trinity Church in Gosport, Hampshire. He was originally apprenticed to a mercer, but as this did not suit him, his parents bought him an ensign's commission in the 68th Regiment of Foot in 1772. In 1776 he was promoted to lieutenant but resigned his commission later that year in order to enter the church. Ordained deacon on the 24th February 1779, and priest four days later, he was appointed to the living of Wivetton in Norfolk on the 1st March, although it seems likely that he never set foot in Wiverton.

The reason for this sudden change in career appears to be related to the visit that James had paid in 1775 to the home of John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich at Hinchingbrooke as a member of a recruiting party. There he first met Martha Ray, the Earl's long standing mistress, an acquaintance which James made every effort to renew thereafter. Although the exact nature of the relationship between Martha and James is unclear, it is certain that James was infatuated with her and had proposed marriage. Martha certainly appears to have rejected his proposal of marriage, although whether this was because of her own feelings or simply because she felt unable to free herself from the Earl of Sandwich's clutches is a matter of conjecture.

In any event James became the rejected lover and took to following Martha Ray around London. On the 7th April 1779 he followed her to the Covent Garden Theatre where, together with her friend the Italian singer Caterina Galli, she had gone to see a performance of Love in a Village. James was also one of the audience but at some point during the evening he left the theatre and went home, collected two pistols, and returned to wait at the nearby Bedford Coffee House.

At about a quarter past eleven that evening, Martha Ray and Caterina Galli left the theatre and found a large crowd gathered in front of the theatre. An Irish lawyer by the name of John Macnamara offered to escort them to their carriage, and then led them through the crowd. Caterina Galli was the first to enter and Martha had one foot on the carriage step when James Hackman appeared. According to Horace Walpole, it was at that moment that James "came round behind, pulled her by the gown, and on her turning round, clapped the pistol to her forehead and shot her through the head. With another pistol he then attempted to shoot himself, but the ball grazing his brow, he tried to dash out his own brains with the pistol, and is more wounded by those blows than by the ball." James then threw himself to the ground and began "beating himself about the head" with the butts of his pistols whilst crying, "Oo! kill me!...for God's sake kill me!"

John Macnamara carried Martha Ray's body to the Shakespeare Tavern nearby whilst James Hackman was arrested by a passing constable and taken into custody. His subsequent trial at the Old Bailey on the 16th April 1779 naturally drew a large crowd and a fee of one guinea was charged for admission to the public gallery. James Boswell echoed the feelings of many when he described the affair as "one of the most remarkable that has ever occurred in the history of human nature".

Despite the prima facie strength of the case against him, James Hackman pleaded not guilty to the charge of murder, his defence being one of temporary insanity. James claimed that he had only intended to commit suicide. As he explained to the court in a speech (quite possibly written for him by James Boswell);

I stand here this day the most wretched of human beings, and confess myself criminal in a high degree; yet while I acknowledge with shame and repentance, that my determination against my own life was formal and complete, 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 judge, Mr Justice Blackstone was not impressed and in his summimg up ruled that murder did not require "a long form of deliberation" and argued that the letter found in James' pocket addressed to his brother-in-law Frederick showed "a coolness and deliberation which no ways accorded with the ideas of insanity".

The jury took the hint and James Hackman was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death. He was hanged at Tyburn on the 19th April 1779 where it is said that he "behaved with great fortitude; no appearances of fear were to be perceived, but very evident signs of contrition and repentance". His body was afterwards taken to Surgeons' Hall for public dissection in accordance with the Murder Act 1752. One Henry Angelo who viewed the dissection later wrote that the experience had put him off pork chops for life.

"Illicit love now reigns triumphant"

The press have always liked a good murder, and the murder of Martha Ray was a particularly juicy murder, with the victim being the mistress of such an illustrious peer as the 4th Earl of Sandwich, a senior figure in the government of George III.

The murder was of course a very public fair, being carried out before the eyes of a crowd of eyewitnesses and within hours the first newspaper accounts appeared and the story remained on the front pages long after James Hackman met his end. The initial press accounts where largely sympathetic to all three of the main actors as the press relished the story itself without wishing to draw any moral lessons. However James Hackman had his supporters the aforementioned James Boswell among them, who viewed him as a victim of aristocratic corruption. James Hackman's lawyer Mannaseh Dawes, published his own account of the case under the title Case and Memoirs of the late Rev. Mr. James Hackman. He blamed Martha Ray for leading his ex-client on, and the Earl of Sandwich for participating in an illicit and immoral affair which only served to corrupt the morals of the public in general and his former client specifically.

Less than a year after James Hackman's execution a journalist by the name of Herbert Croft published Love and Madness: A Story Too True, which claimed to reproduce the letters that had passed between James and Martha Ray. James Hackman was portrayed as a romantic hero and the work became an immediate bestseller. But despite being hugely influential in defining what the public believed to be the truth of the affair, the work was a complete fake and entirely a work of fiction. Although now categorised as a novel, the 'evidence' was used as a stick to beat the Earl of Sandwich by his political opponents; the London Evening Post proclaimed him as the "villest of men".

During the 19th century the story was revived as an exemplar of the debauchery, extravagance and sheer wickedness of the Georgian Age. To the Victorians James was a killer, Martha Ray was a whore and John Montagu was a moral reprobate and the retelling of the tale served the purpose of emphasising the 'moral progress' that had been made since those dark days. At the end of the 19th century Gilbert Burgess published his The Love Letters of Mr. H and Miss R 1775-1779 which was nothing more than an edited version of Herbert Croft's work. Despite being no less fictional than the original, it was cited as a factual source by a number of late twentieth century female authors eager to rescue the life of Martha Ray from the bounds of patriarchy and who constructed a version of the tale to suit their own particular agenda.

Thus the tale of the unfortunate love triangle between James Hackman, Martha Ray and the 4th Earl of Sandwich has continued to fascinate and has been re-interpreted by succeeding generations to suit the needs of the age.


  • The entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography for James Hackman by Philip Rawlings
  • <
  • The Newgate Calendar
  • The Proceedings of the Old Bailey Ref: t17790404-3
  • John Brewer, Presence of Mind: Fatal Triangle Smithsonian Magazine May 2005
  • Brewer's Rogues, Villians and Eccentrics by William Donaldson (Phoenix, 2004)