In the latest blog for the Georgian Lords, Dr Robin Eagles re-examines the trial and execution of Laurence Shirley, 4th Earl Ferrers, the last British peer to be hanged for murder.
Long before he came to the scaffold on 5 May 1760, Laurence Shirley, 4th Earl Ferrers, had made quite a name for himself as a notorious member of the House of Lords. Ferrers had not expected to inherit the peerage, being the son of one of the 1st Earl’s younger sons. However, the death of his mentally unstable uncle in 1745 handed the title to him, along with extensive lands. According to the family historian, it was a distinction:
his ungovernable temper (at times amounting almost to insanity) rendered him unworthy to inheritStemmata Shirleiana
In 1758 Horace Walpole reported to his friend Horace Mann, how Ferrers had been the subject of gossip for the last year as he was believed to be attempting to murder his countess. He had been ordered to keep the peace by the Lords, only to break it time and again. He then ignored an order to attend the chamber, preferring instead to go to the Hertford assizes, where he appeared as a witness against a highwayman who had attempted to rob him. Ferrers had apparently drawn a pistol to defend himself, but was trembling so badly that the highwayman snatched the gun out of Ferrers’ hand, telling him he knew well that it was not his only one. Ferrers’ ability to testify was then challenged on the grounds that he was excommunicated. The highwayman was acquitted.
By the time he came to be tried for his own life, then, Ferrers was well known to the Lords but for all the wrong reasons. A contemporary had apparently said of Ferrers years before that he would not be thought mad enough to be ‘shut up’ till he had murdered someone, and he would then be found too mad to be executed.
The action that finally brought Ferrers to be tried in Westminster Hall was the cold-blooded murder of his steward, John Johnson, on 18 January 1760. After Ferrers and his countess separated, Ferrers had entrusted much of the running of his estates to agents, like Johnson, but he had become increasingly convinced that they were acting against him. He summoned Johnson to a meeting, separated him from the rest of the servants and shot him.
Ferrers was quite open with those who came to give the dying man help that he had meant to do it and that he in no way repented trying to kill someone he characterized as ‘a villain’. However, having botched the attempted assassination he decided he might as well show clemency to the unfortunate man. Johnson was carried up to a bedroom in Ferrers’ house, a surgeon was called for, and Ferrers even demonstrated the angle at which he had fired the pistol to help the surgeon attempt to remove the bullet. It all proved in vain and, after lingering for several hours, Johnson died of his injuries.
After Johnson’s death Ferrers was arrested and carried off to Leicester gaol. He was then removed to the Tower of London to await his trial before the House of Lords on 16 April.
Westminster Hall was normally flanked by stalls selling books, pamphlets and other goods, with the four law courts of chancery, exchequer, king’s bench and common pleas located in the four corners. Transforming it into a court for a state trial like Ferrers’ meant the stall keepers being forced to shut up shop for the duration, while scaffolds were erected so that spectators could be accommodated. Unlike many parliamentary occasions, this was one that was open to a large number of people. Royal chaplain, Edmund Pyle, recorded it as ‘a most august sight’.
At the heart of proceedings, though, were the Lords themselves, presided over by the recently promoted Lord Henley, who served as lord high steward for the duration. At 11am on the 16th a great procession of judges and officials filed into Westminster Hall, followed by the Lords in pairs. After the charge had been read out, Ferrers was brought in with a gaoler bearing an axe before him. During the trial the blade was turned away from him, signifying his innocence until conviction. The prosecution then proceeded upon the case, summoning witnesses to establish the course of events.
When he was finally called on to give his defence, Ferrers appeared embarrassed and reluctant to proceed. After some hesitation, he presented witnesses testifying to the ‘lunacy’ of his uncle, the 3rd earl, and of another relative, Lady Barbara Shirley. He now argued (at the prompting of his own family), that he had also been temporarily insane at the time of the murder. As the trial entered the second day, though, the questioning gradually unpicked Ferrers’ version. While some witnesses concurred that he was known to be prone to tantrums, others contradicted the impression, suggesting instead that Ferrers was quite normal, if given to heavy bouts of drinking.
At the close of the trial each lord, from the most junior to the most senior, stood in turn to declare whether or not they believed Ferrers to be guilty or not guilty ‘upon mine honour’. The result was never in much doubt and on 17 April one by one Ferrers’ erstwhile colleagues rose to condemn him. On the 18th the court reconvened when he was sentenced to be hanged and his body submitted for dissection in Surgeons’ Hall.
In deference to his rank, Ferrers was said to have been hanged with a rope made from silk. Accounts of his execution do not mention this, though it is clear that far more ceremony was accorded him than most of the unfortunates who ended up at Tyburn. On the day of his execution, he was allowed to travel from the Tower in his own coach, wearing the suit he had worn on his wedding day, though he was denied a last request to stop at an inn for a drink before reaching the scaffold. The place of execution itself was swathed in black cloth in deference to Ferrers’ position. Such carefully staged solemnity was upset at the end by a contretemps between the executioner and his assistant, after Ferrers accidentally handed five guineas to the latter by mistake.
This was the last occasion when a peer of the realm was hanged for murder, but it was also the first time that a new device was used at the gallows. In the past, those convicted were turned off a cart or ladder; Ferrers was the ‘guinea pig’ for the ‘new drop’, whereby the floor was removed from underneath his feet.
At the time, much was made of the equity of the law: Ferrers had not escaped execution and, like any other common criminal, his body was handed over for dissection. But even in death, rank clearly did matter. While a minimal level of probing was carried out on the earl’s corpse, he was not fully dissected, and was handed over promptly for burial at St Pancras. To ensure that an annoyed populace did not dig him up, the grave under the tower was said to have been dug unusually deep.
Howell’s State Trials, xix.
Elizabeth Hurren, Dissecting the Criminal Corpse: Staging Post-Execution Punishment in Early Modern England (2006)
E.P. Shirley, Stemmata Shirleiana, or the Annals of the Shirley Family (1873)