Review of A Sentimental Murder: Love and Madness in the Eighteenth Century by John Brewer, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004.
John Brewer, an academic historian, believes that historical writing should accept that facts have no independent existence except in the context of a narrative. In this book, he explores the various accounts and retellings of the murder of Martha Ray by James Hackman on the steps of the Covent Garden Theatre in London on 7 April 1779. Ray was the mistress of the Earl of Sandwich, first Lord of the Admiralty, and the person after whom the snack made by slipping salt beef between two pieces of bread was named. Legend has it that the convenience of the sandwich allowed more time at the gaming table, but its usefulness for the Earl was apparently to spend longer at the office. As he was an important government minister, this tragic personal story is connected with history in the traditional sense of a description of events in the public sphere.
Brewer's emphasis on the difficulty of distinguishing fact from fiction is affirmed by the publication of a book within a year of the murder by Herbert Croft entitled Love and madness. This book plausibly claimed to contain the love letters of Ray and Hackman. It was, however, a fabrication, even if based on a broadly factual outline. Love and madness was subsequently treated by some writers as containing genuine correspondence, even disregarding Croft's confession that he had written the material himself.
Brewer's book is a narrative of the series of moments from the date of the incident to his own book when the story was retold, explicitly exploring each story's context at the time. He is successful in this novel experiment. The murder itself is placed in the context of the cult of sensibility of the 18th century. Nonetheless, there are essential elements of the murder story that almost all commentators agree on. Hackman wrote a suicide note after he was told by Ray to 'desist from his pursuit of her'. He shot Ray with one pistol in his right hand, and shot himself with the other, but the ball only grazed his brow. He wounded himself trying to dash his brains out on the ground with the pistol, asking to be killed.
Suicide appears to have been Hackman's intention, and commonly follows murder, at least in England. Murders which are followed by suicide are most likely to be committed in anger by aggrieved people who decide to kill the person responsible for their suffering as well as themselves. Death by shooting is commoner among victims of murder-suicide than other murders. In many ways Ray's murder is therefore 'typical' from the psychiatric point of view. Brewer does not comment on the psychiatric aspects of murder. His focus on historical context to help understand the event makes sense. Comparing it with other murders may have implications for his sense of history. This murder seems to have the significance it does because of its connection with the public figure of Sandwich, not because of anything particularly unique, or sentimental, about its personal tragedy.
D B Double, MA MRCPsych,
Norfolk & Waveney Mental Health Partnership NHS Trust,
Norwich, NR6 5BE, UK.