On the evening of April 7th 1779, a young Hertfordshire woman was just about to enter her coach after an evening out at the Opera in Covent Gardens, when a man dressed in black, approached her and shot her dead. Taking out another pistol he attempted to kill himself, but failed, and was later sentenced to death for her murder.
The events of that night were to make headline news throughout the country, for the woman was the mistress of the infamous Earl of Sandwich and her assailant was a man of the church and a friend of both her and the Earl’s. Long after her death, theories would be put forward as to what exactly the relationship was between the murderer and his victim, and why he chose to kill her.
The woman was Martha Ray, who had been born in Elstree about 1745. Her father was a staymaker (involved in the making of corsets) and her mother had been a servant in a nobleman’s family. At the age of fourteen she was apprenticed to a dressmaker in Clerkenwell, and it was while there that she caught the attention of an associate of the fourth Earl of Sandwich.
We don’t have details of their early meetings or courtship, but we do know that before long the Earl had fallen in love with Martha. At the age of seventeen she became his mistress, living with him for the next seventeen years, and providing him with five children.
The pair appeared to live quite contentedly. Sandwich was enthralled by Martha’s voice and arranged for her to be trained by the finest music teachers of the time. She went on stage, while still receiving an allowance of three hundred pounds a year from the Earl and a house in Westminster. But Martha eventually began to worry about her position. She was aware that although her children were brought up as legitimate, should something happen to their father, they could be left penniless.
This is where James Hackman enters the story. Hackman was the son of a retired naval lieutenant, and was himself a captain in the army. Sandwich and Martha first met him through mutual friends, and he was soon a frequent visitor to their house. The attraction was most definitely Martha rather than Sandwich, for over the course of the next few years Hackman proposed marriage to Martha on several occasions. But opinions differ as to the nature of the relationship.
Some claim that they were lovers and that Martha was planning to leave Sandwich for him. With the worry of being left penniless hanging over her, Martha may well have been looking for a safety net, and for a more secure means of support. But then she did have a long history with Sandwich and five children to him. Another version has Martha as the innocent party, with Hackman stalking her and Martha politely refusing his advances. Taking into account the fact that she did refuse marriage to him several times, it is likely that this is more accurate.
Whichever version is true, Hackman was not prepared to give up easily and in 1779 he left the army, and joined the church. Perhaps he thought that having a stable income would persuade her to finally relent and become his wife.
But whatever Martha thought of Hackman’s career change, on April 7th 1779 she was still living with Sandwich. That evening she said goodbye to him, and went with her friend to see the comic opera “Love in a Village” at the Theatre Royal, Covent Gardens. At the end of the evening, as she was just about to get into her coach, a man dressed in black approached from nowhere and shot her in the forehead. The shot was fatal. Hackman then took out another pistol, and fired it at himself. But this time he was not so lucky, and he only managed to wound himself. He was arrested and imprisoned awaiting trial.
The trial date was set for April 16th.. Hackman claimed temporary insanity due to his love for the woman but this wasn’t enough to let him off, and he was executed at Tyburn before a large crowd. Her funeral took place in Elstree Parish Church. Sandwich, it was said, never recovered fully. He only allowed intimate friends to see her body and arranged for her to be buried in the clothes she was killed in.
Her relationship with the Earl of Sandwich meant that Martha’s murder received much media attention. The newspapers carried detailed reports of the murder, and of Hackman’s fate. As to what the relationship was between the two, this was something that was to continue to be debated. Hackman’s lawyer later wrote a book on the case, claiming that the pair had been lovers and that Martha was to blame for his downfall.
In 1780 Herbert Croft published ‘Love and Madness’ – a book containing what he claimed to be sixty love letters between the two, although many dispute their authenticity.
Forty one years after her death, Martha’s body was discovered by workmen under a pew in the church, and was placed in a vault in the chancel until 1924. The body had been embalmed and was perfectly preserved. In 1928 one of Sandwich’s descendants erected a tombstone for Martha at the church and this can be seen today.
So was Martha Ray to blame for her own downfall? Some people liked to think so, but any evidence put forward was very flimsy and of suspicious origins. It is more likely that, keen to explain the actions of an otherwise respectable man, it was easier to put the blame on poor Martha.
It is said that George Bernard Shaw’s play ‘Pygmalion’ was based loosely on the story of this Elstree women who mixed with the aristocracy. This play was later released as the musical ‘My Fair Lady’, but with Eliza Doolittle having a happier ending than Martha Ray.