The Rev. James Hackman and the Murder of Martha Reay

Death of Martha Ray from contemporary broadsheet

Contemporary Woodcut of the Murder of Matha Reay outside the Covent Garden Theatre.

Part 1: The Events themselves

APRIL 7TH, 1779, SEEMED MUCH LIKE ANY OTHER DAY to the crowds around the Covent Garden Theatre in London. That evening’s performance had been a popular comic opera of the time, called “Love in a Village”. Since the night was fairly warm, a good many people were out and about, even at 11:15 p.m., making it difficult for ‘the quality’ now leaving the theatre to reach the carriages waiting for them.

John McNamara, walking nearby, noticed two elegant ladies struggling to get through the mass of people. He later explained that he went to clear a path for them, intending to hand each in turn into the carriage ready to take them home.

We take up the story in the words of Mary Anderson, a fruit seller whose pitch was close by[1]:

“Just as the play broke up I saw two ladies and a gentleman coming out of the playhouse; a gentleman in black followed them … When the carriage came up, the gentleman handed the other lady into the carriage; the lady that was shot stood behind. Before the gentleman could come back to hand her into the carriage, the gentleman in black came up, laid hold of her by the gown, and pulled out of his pocket two pistols; he shot the right-hand pistol at her, and the other at himself. She fell with her hand so [describing it as being on her forehead] and died before she could be got to the first lamp; I believe she died immediately for her head hung directly. At first I was frightened at the report of the pistol and ran away. He fired another pistol and dropped immediately. They fell feet to feet. He beat himself violently over the head with his pistols, and desired somebody would kill him.”

The two women were Martha Reay, or Ray, aged 35, the long-time mistress of the fourth Earl of Sandwich and mother of nine children by him, and her friend, a singer called Caterina Galli. The Earl was not with her. Now in his early sixties, he was a government minister, addicted to work[2] and heavily involved right then in dealing with the aftermath of the American Revolution.

This shocking murder, even for London, quickly became a media sensation when it was discovered that the man who had killed Martha was The Rev. James Hackman, nine years her junior and the newly-appointed rector[3] of the living of Wiveton in North Norfolk, near Cley-next-the-Sea.

The Immediate Aftermath of the Murder

The sound of shots brought a constable, Haliburton, to the scene. Hackman was taken into custody. Two surgeons who happened to be in the piazza examined Martha Reay’s body and pronounced her dead. She had died instantly. According to one report, Hackman was calm and rational when told the news that his murder attempt had succeeded:

“When he had so far recovered his faculties as to be capable of speech, he very calmly begged no questions might be asked of him; and then enquired with great anxiety concerning Miss Ray: on being told she was dead, he desired her poor remains might not be exposed to the curious multitude: adding, he had only to curse the pistol, or his hand, that prevented the same fate he designed for himself.”[4]

At around 3:00 a.m., the magistrate, Sir John Fielding [5], arrived, having been summoned from Brompton. He ordered Hackman taken to Tothill Fields Bridewell and put under suicide watch.

The same report in the Ipswich Journal says that the next morning, Sir John examined James Hackman in his private rooms, but Hackman was so often “entirely discomposed, and externally convulsed” with tears, it was hard to get much from him. As witnesses were called and their evidence presented, Hackman remained in a similar state, bursting into uncontrollable sobs whenever Martha Reay’s name was mentioned, and “eagerly wished to die.” Justice moved swiftly in those days. Without further hearing, Fielding at once sent Hackman to Newgate prison to await trial at the Old Bailey.

Hackman’s Trial

James Hackman’s trial opened at the Old Bailey at 9:30 am on April 18th, 1779 – just 11 days after the murder. Astonishingly, he pleaded not guilty. There was no doubt that he had fired the shot that killed Martha Reay, of course. His defence therefore centred on whether he had done it while of sound mind and thus fully responsible for his actions.

Who suggested this line to him is unclear. That his whole demeanour and attitude changed during his time in prison is certain. For much of his trial and what followed afterwards, it is impossible to escape the suspicion that Hackman was playing the role of the “pious penitent” – not showing his real emotions or his true motivation for his actions.[6]

The prosecution’s case consisted simply of factual evidence from witnesses to the shooting. When Mr. Justice Blackstone then called on Hackman to make his defence, the accused began by explaining that he did not deny what he had done, but had pleaded ‘not guilty’ to show he did not wish to cause his own death – an odd statement in view of his suicide attempt after shooting Martha Reay, plus the loud requests when that failed for someone to kill him. He also wanted to ensure he had a chance to plead his case. He then continued:

“I stand here this day the most wretched of human beings, and confess myself criminal to 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 that becomes my situation, that the will to destroy her who was ever dearer to me than life, was never mine till a momentary phrenzy [sic] overpowered me, and induced me to commit the deed I deplore.—The letter which I meant for my brother-in-law after my decease, will have its due weight as to this point, with good men.”[7]

Mr. Davenport, the defence counsel, clarified that Hackman’s defence was based on this claim of insanity and produced a letter from Hackman to his brother, asking that it be read out in court. While repeating Hackman’s misery and intention of suicide, however, it threw little light on whether or not he had planned in advance to kill Martha Reay.

The judge clearly did not not believe the defence of insanity, since he lectured the jury on the precise grounds that might allow such a defence to succeed, adding that:

“He was sorry to say, that the prisoner’s case bore much stronger against him. He had two pistols about him, which had the appearance of a double design. As to the plea of insanity, or phrenzy of the moment as the prisoner called it, it was not every start of passion, every tumultuous heat of the brain, which could be allowed as an excuse for the crime of murder. There must be a total deprivation of the senses, so that in no action of life he was capable of conducting himself.”[8]

The jury consulted “for a few minutes” and brought in a verdict of guilty. James Hackman was sentenced to be hanged at Tyburn the next Monday and his body given to the surgeons “to be anatomized”. Hackman, it seems, remained completely composed at the verdict, bowing to the court and the jury as he was taken away.[9]

The Execution of James Hackman

The execution drew quite a crowd, but it is clear that many of those present were more moved by what was by then being represented as a crime of overwhelming passion than eager to see a murderer punished. The report in the Norfolk Chronicle[10] perhaps best captures the general public’s response to Hackman and his crime:

“After having spent the preceding evening with the Rev. Mr. Porter, of Clapham, an intimate and valuable friend, till eight o’clock, in fervent prayer and solemn declarations concerning the fact; at eleven o’clock he [Hackman] went to bed: at one he fell asleep and slumbered till near three: at five he arose, dressed himself, and employed himself in prayer and meditation till a quarter past seven, when he drank a bason [sic] of tea.

Mr. Porter, at Mr. Hackman’s request, came to him at half-past seven, and Mr. Villette, the ordinary, being ready they all retired to chapel, where prayers were read, and Mr. Hackman received the Sacrament. Prayers were again resumed, and at nine o’clock they left the chapel … Mr. Hackman was led into the prest-yard, where the rope was fastened round his shoulders, and under his arms, with a small cord to bind them to his body, but the rope was not put round his neck, nor were his hands tied at the wrists. Every solemn preparation of this nature Mr. Hackman bore with the fortitude of a christian and a man. At ten minutes past nine he was brought out of Newgate and put into a mourning coach … Owing to the thronging of the populace the coach did not arrive at Tyburn till ten minutes before eleven. When the coach came there Mr. Hackman stepped out of the coach and was led to the cart by Mr. Villette and Mr. Porter, each holding one of his hands. [There followed another ten minutes of prayer in the cart].

When the executioner drew the rope from off his shoulders, Mr. Porter, with great tenderness and friendship, assisted in pulling off Mr. Hackman’s neckcloath [sic], whilst the rope was putting around Mr. Hackman’s neck. While the executioner, who to the surprise of everybody, behaved with great tenderness, was tying a small cord round the wrists, Mr. Hackman said, ‘My friend don’t be afraid of hurting me, do your duty’ and supported himself with a most becoming fortitude, tempered with serenity, and the same at devotion.

[Hackman asks for another period of prayer and private devotion, saying he will drop his handkerchief as a signal for the execution to take place. This period lasts another ten minutes.] … at which signal the cart was driven away from under him, and he launched into eternity, amidst the tears and prayers of an unusual number of spectators.”

In the next instalment of the story, I will be trying to understand how James Hackman came to become a clergyman at all; and whether his life up to that time can throw any light on the reasons for him murdering Martha and trying to kill himself.


  1. Old Bailey Proceedings Online: Trial of JAMES HACKMAN, April 1779 (www.oldbaileyonline.org).  ↩
  2. He was the person who invented the sandwich, usually said to be occasioned by wanting to stay longer at the gambling table. In fact, it seems more likely that he wanted to stay longer at his desk in The Admiralty.  ↩
  3. Hackman had been ordained deacon on February 24th, 1779, priest just four days later, and presented to the living of Wiveton on March 1st of the same year.  ↩
  4. Ipswich Journal, 17th April 1779.  ↩
  5. The famous “Blind Beak” of Bow Street Magistrates’ court, half-brother of Henry Fielding. Sir John and his half-brother were responsible for establishing the first systematic system of criminal enquiry in London, the Bow Street Runners.  ↩
  6. Modern writers have made the plausible suggestion that he had been coached in the role to show to the public and the court, quite possibly by James Boswell, Dr. Johnson’s biographer, who was then a struggling hack journalist. Boswell visited Hackman several times in prison and may even have travelled to Tyburn in the coach with him.  ↩
  7. Hampshire Chronicle, 19th April, 1779.  ↩
  8. Newcastle Courant, 24th April, 1779.  ↩
  9. Northampton Mercury, 19th April, 1779.  ↩
  10. Norfolk Chronicle, 24th April, 1779.  ↩

About William Savage

Independent researcher and author of mystery stories set in Georgian Norfolk.
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