I’ve kind of been waiting for this one. 🙂
Laurence Shirley, the fourth Earl Ferrers, came to my attention as I was looking for information on something else. I can’t remember what I was researching, but I stumbled upon a list of firsts and lasts. And while reading this fascinating list, I came upon the gruesome fact that Laurence Shirley, Earl Ferrers, “has the dubious distinction of becoming the last peer of the realm to be hanged as a common criminal.” (capitalpunishmentuk.org)
At the age of twenty, Laurence Shirley, left Oxford and set out for Paris, where he began a wild life of excess that would continue his whole life. In 1745 he inherited the title of earl from his uncle, who had died insane, and went to the main residence at Staunton Harold Hall in Leicestershire. In 1752 he married a 16 year-old girl, Mary Meredith. This marriage was far from happy. Ferrers was a drunkard and a womanizer (he had a mistress from 1743 and continued his relations with her throughout his marriage and after it) and prone to violent outbursts.
Apparently life with Ferrers got so bad that in 1758 Mary obtained a separation from her husband by Act of Parliament, extremely rare for the time. She would have needed to prove adultery and cruelty against Ferrers with strong evidence in order to secure the separation. The fact that she managed to do so speaks volumes about her married life. The courts also ruled that she receive rents from some of Ferrers property as compensation. These rents were collected by a trustee of the estate, an old steward named John Johnson.
In January 1760, Ferrers asked Johnson to visit him at Staunton Harold Hall. A violent
disagreement ensued and Ferrers shot Johnson, who died the next day. Ferrers was arrested for willful murder and sent to the Tower to await trial. Ferrers used an insanity defense and as there was history of it in the family it might have proved valid. However, it did not. His peers on the jury each found him guilty of willful murder resulting in the sentence of hanging by the neck until dead. Ferrers afterward said he had only used that defense at the insistence of his family.
The earl tried to get the method of execution changed to beheading–hanging being the fate of common criminals. Beheading, however, was reserved only for acts of treason. So Earl Ferrers’ execution by hanging was set for May 5th at Tyburn.
A new gallows was constructed for the event. Ferrers wore his wedding suit for the occasion: “a light colored satin one embroidered with silver, saying ‘he thought this at least as good an occasion for putting them on as that for which they were first made.’” (capitalpunishmentuk.org) The procession from the Tower to Tyburn took 2 3/4 hours because of the huge crowds who had turned out to witness the execution. Ferrers mounted the scaffold, prayed briefly, paid the executioner, and had the noose put round his neck. Though often reported that the noose was made of silk, this appears to be a myth. The executioner released the trap but the new apparatus did not function properly and it took the earl about four minutes to die. He was declared dead and sent to the Surgeon’s Hall for dissection. His body was put on display and three days later given over to the family for interment.
(If you would like a fuller account of the death of the Earl Ferrers, please visit capitalpunishmentuk.org)
And why, you may ask, have I been waiting to tell this particularly grisly story?
The details of Laurence Shirley’s crime and death formed the “back story” for my first historical romance, Only Scandal Will Do. My hero, Duncan Ferrers, is distantly related to the Shirleys but still feels the breath of scandal from the earl’s demise. Duncan ends up fighting duels because of Ferrers’s insanity plea and death and removes to Italy for a time to let the furor die down. My novel begins when he returns to England to find himself still under the pall of his relative’s actions. In an effort to cheer himself, he goes off for a night of carousing and…well, therein lies the tale. 🙂
I’ve been extraordinarily happy with the serendipity that led me to find the story of the death of Earl Ferrers. Have any of your stories been inspired by something you found through a fortunate accident?