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Fatal Triangle

How a dark tale of love, madness and murder in 18th-century London became a story for the ages

Unseasonable heat and humidity on the evening of April 7, 1779, did not stop Londoners' usual pursuit of business and pleasure. Over in Whitehall, the first lord of the admiralty, the Earl of Sandwich, discussed with his harried colleagues the prosecution of the American war. A key strategist in bringing the 13 colonies to heel, Sandwich was a tall, rather clumsy man in his 60s known as a libertine, a passionate fan of the sport of cricket and a great patron of music, especially the work of George Frideric Handel. He was also a hardworking and ruthless politician. The snack that bears Sandwich's name, which was first made by slipping a slice of salted beef between two pieces of bread, was invented not, as legend would have it, to allow the earl longer hours at the gaming table but more time at the office. On this particular evening Sandwich's late-night labors—he had originally planned to go to the theater—were prompted by a pressing threat to his political career. The war in America was going badly, George III's administration was in disarray, and it looked as if Sandwich might be sacrificed to appease government critics.

Across town at the Covent Garden Theatre, where Sandwich had hoped to spend a more amusing evening, ladies and gentlemen, merchants and lawyers were pouring through the lobby for a benefit performance of the popular comic opera Love in a Village. These two events, seemingly unconnected and so different in character, were to be brought together by a terrible crime of passion perpetrated that night.

Among the evening's theatergoers was Martha Ray, Sandwich's 35-year-old mistress. Ray, the daughter of a corset maker, had been a milliner's apprentice before falling in with the earl. At this point, she had been Sandwich's mistress for more than 16 years, the mother of five of his six children, and his public consort. A contemporary described her as "not what we would call elegant, but which would pass under the denomination of pretty; her height was about five feet five inches; she was fresh-coloured, and had a perpetual smile on her countenance, which rendered her agreeable to every beholder." One admirer described her as "a second Cleopatra—a Woman of thousands, and capable of producing those effects on the Heart which the Poets talk so much of and which we are apt to think Chimerical."

While the earl labored over naval manifests and how to justify the war's growing expense (he survived the immediate crisis and remained first lord of the admiralty until 1782), Ray and her companion, the Italian singer Caterina Galli, took their seats close to the royal box, where they not only enjoyed one of the best views of the stage but were easily seen by the rest of the audience. The two women would be joined during the course of the evening by a number of male admirers with whom they would chat and flirt while the performance was in progress.

Across the theater in the pit, a tall, handsome young man in his 20s, dressed entirely in black, watched the earl's mistress. The Rev. James Hackman—according to the St. James's Chronicle, a "Person of Abilities,...descended from a very reputable family, distinguished for Taste and Delicacy of Sentiment"—was deeply infatuated with Ray and heartbroken at her rejection of his offers of love and marriage. Turning his back on this fashionable scene, he hastened to his lodgings close by the theater to retrieve two loaded pistols and to compose a note to his brother-in-law:

My Dear Frederick
When this reaches you I shall be no more, but do not let my unhappy fate distress you too much. I have strove against it as long as possible, but it now overpowers me. You know where my affections were placed; my having by some means or other lost hers, (an idea which I could not support) has driven me to madness.... May heaven protect my beloved woman, and forgive this act which alone could relieve me from a world of misery I have long endured. Oh! if it should be in your power to do her any act of friendship, remember your faithful friend.

Stuffing the note in one pocket together with one of the pistols, he put another letter—his rejected proposal of marriage—in his other pocket with the second weapon.

His pockets full of sentiment and violence, Hackman then returned to Covent Garden. He seems to have entered the theater several times during the evening (a full night's entertainment lasted nearly five hours), retreating to the nearby Bedford Coffeehouse to strengthen his resolve with glasses of brandy and water. His friends claimed that he then attempted to shoot himself on two occasions, first in the lobby, where he was prevented by the crowd from getting close enough to Ray to be sure that she would witness his death, and then on the steps of the theater, where he was pushed away from her by a man carrying the sedan chair of one of the theater's wealthy patrons.

At about a quarter past eleven, Ray and Caterina Galli came out of the theater, where the large crowd jostled them and prevented them from reaching their waiting carriage. John Macnamara, a handsome young Irish attorney, saw the two women, who, as a friend of Macnamara's put it, "seemed somewhat distressed by the crowd, whereupon he offered his service to conduct them to their carriage, which was accepted, and Miss Ray took hold of his arm." Threading their way through the swirl of parting spectators and down the steps of the theater, Galli entered the carriage first. Ray followed, putting her foot on the carriage step as Macnamara held her hand. At that moment, a figure in black dashed forward and pulled Ray by the sleeve; she turned to find herself face to face with Hackman. Before she could utter a word, he pulled the two pistols from his pockets, shot Ray with the one in his right hand, and shot himself with the other.

As the crowd shrank back, Macnamara, unsure of what had happened, lifted Ray from the ground and found himself drenched in blood. Years afterward he would recall (somewhat hyperbolically) "the sudden assault of the assassin, the instantaneous death of the victim, and the spattering of the poor girl's brains over his own face." According to author and gossip Horace Walpole, Hackman "came round behind [Ray], pulled her by the gown, and on her turning round, clapped the pistol to her forehead and shot her through the head. With another pistol he then attempted to shoot himself, but the ball grazing his brow, he tried to dash out his own brains with the pistol, and is more wounded by those blows than by the ball." Hackman writhed on the ground, "beating himself about the head...crying, Ôo! kill me!...for God's sake kill me!'"

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