Book Review: John Brewer’s A Sentimental Murder
John Brewer’s A Sentimental Murder: Love and Madness in the Eighteenth Century (Amazon) discusses the brutal public murder of Martha Ray by her admirer James Hackman in April 1779. The truth behind the story is hard to decipher. Some correspondence existed between Ray and Hackman, but the depth of their relationship must be left to speculation. Martha Ray was the constant mistress and companion of Lord Sandwich (after whom the snack is named); over the sixteen years of their relationship, Ray bore sandwich nine children, of whom five were living at the time of her death.
On the night of her death Martha Ray was attending the theatre with several friends, a couple of whom were males. Prior to that night, Hackman had sent her a letter asking for her hand in marriage, but she had denied him and requested not to hear from him again. Hackman followed the group to the theatre where he watched from a distance. As Ray was boarding her carriage to leave following the production, Hackman pulled at her dress, at which point she turned to find herself face-to-face with him. He promptly removed two pistols from his cloak, raised one to her head and pulled the trigger. He then attempted to kill himself with the second pistol but only grazed his brow. He was quickly arrested, tried several days later and condemned to death. He tried for a temporary insanity plea, but the judge would not hear it. During the period between the murder and his hanging, Hackman conducted himself very respectably. However, the story only began here.
Before Ray’s body was even cold, newspapers began publishing accounts of the occurrence involving the well-known mistress of the even more infamous Lord Sandwich, a controversial naval figure. The story did not soon die; well into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, new accounts and interpretations of the story were being published.
Brewer’s attempt in A Sentimental Murder is to present, in their chronological orders, all the manners in which the story appeared, filtering through them in an effort to separate the probable truth from the implausible. The first section of the book relays in detail the story presented here. Each successive section presents different angles of the characters’ lives (This seems sometimes overly exhaustive as even minor characters, such as Ray’s friend Galli, are closely examined and expounded upon.) and different accounts of the murder of Ray that later came out.
As can be seen the book is mostly a descriptive narrative of a series of events and the later tellings of the story. However, the last chapter is an analysis of where a story might or might not fit in academic history. He explains his method in recounting the stories as he did, not treating the stories as “sources of facts or evidences” but treating them as their own historical entities. Brewer ends his book with the following statement, which serves as a good example of the ambiguity of the entire final chapter:
“The historian cannot escape from providing a master narrative made up of others; all that he or she can do is expose it in order to invite criticism or acceptance. Writing history is a part of history. Yet it is this and more – both a historical and a literary act, which our writing should explore and display rather than overlook and conceal.”
The author does not contend that all the stories written were accurate or reliable; he only presents them as having been written and thus affecting the story in some capacity. An exhaustive forty-page “notes” and bibliography section is included at the end of the book. Brewer certainly did his homework to find most, if not all, existing accounts of Hackman and Ray’s story.
A Sentimental Murder is a very interesting read that is both well organized and well written. Brewer’s presentation of the material is the most logical for his purpose. Only the last chapter leaves more to be desired.