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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

With the help of a bystander, Macnamara, shocked but with great composure, carried Ray's lifeless body across the square and into the nearby Shakespeare Tavern, where she was laid on a table in a private room. Meanwhile, a passing constable had arrested Hackman and confiscated his pistols and the two letters in his pockets. Sir John Fielding, a magistrate (and the blind half brother of novelist Henry Fielding), was summoned, and he arrived at the Shakespeare at three o'clock in the morning. He committed Hackman to prison, to be held for questioning the next day.

A little more than a week later, Hackman went on trial for murder at a packed session of the Old Bailey courthouse. His lawyers entered a defense of temporary insanity. They argued that Hackman had yielded to a sudden and "irresistible impulse" prompted by a fit of jealousy at seeing Ray on the arm of another man. "I protest, with that regard for truth which becomes my situation," Hackman passionately testified, "that the will to destroy her who was ever dearer to me than life, was never mine, until a momentary phrenzy overcame me, and induced me to commit the deed I deplore." But the court, most likely persuaded by the existence of Hackman's second pistol, did not hesitate to find him guilty. Eighteenth-century justice was swift. Hackman was executed a few days after the trial before a vast crowd of onlookers. His last words, it was reported, referred to his "dear Miss Ray."

Hackman's crime prompted an orgy of speculation. There was never any doubt that Hackman had killed Ray—a large crowd of rich and fashionable theatergoers had witnessed the bloody deed—but why had he done it? Were Ray and Hackman actual lovers, or was Hackman an 18th-century John Hinckley stalking the Georgian equivalent of Jodie Foster, pressing his unwanted attentions on a public figure?

The newspapers quickly established that the couple had first met in 1775 at Hinchingbrooke, Lord Sandwich's country seat, but there was almost no public knowledge of what, if anything, had happened between that meeting and the murder four years later.

The tale of Ray, Hackman and Sandwich intrigued me both as a historian of the 18th century and a lover of detection. Surely it would be possible to crack the secret, to learn what lay at the heart of this love triangle and why Hackman had resorted to such terrible violence. As I probed, I came to conclude that the story's very inconclusiveness, its openness to interpretation, contributed to its fascination and helped explain why the case had been reopened, reexamined and reworked in many different forms—in prose and verse, history, biography, medical science and fiction. What began for me as the history of an event turned into a history of storytelling. The first newspaper accounts appeared within hours of the murder. The papers' coverage was based on information provided by the murderer and by Lord Sandwich, both of whom suppressed as much as they revealed. Eighteenth-century newspapers (there were 13 in London and more than 40 in the provinces) relied more on spies, paid informants and interested parties than on reporters. Sandwich, for example, enjoyed a special relationship with the Morning Post. (Its editor had a pension from the king's secret funds.)

So first accounts offered a highly sympathetic telling of the case in which all three protagonists—Sandwich, Ray and Hackman—were portrayed as victims. Sandwich was a reformed rake deprived of the woman he loved, Ray was murdered at the hands of a young man who would not take no for an answer, and Hackman was an upstanding young man driven to a mad act by the power of love. The plot and its characters came right out of the sort of sentimental novel that was being published in huge numbers in the 1770s and in which everyone was a victim.

But after Hackman was executed, his friends went on the offense. They portrayed the perpetrator as a gullible young man lured out of his depth and into a corrupt, high-living world of "lucre, rank and fortune," as Hackman's lawyer, Mannaseh Dawes, put it in his Case and Memoirs of the late Rev. Mr. James Hackman. It was a world where Sandwich and then Ray—"a capricious and an ungrateful woman"—misled Hackman, leading him on to his terrible crime. The story of Hackman's crime became an indictment of the political and social world inhabited by the earl and his mistress and, by extension, of the prosecution of the fratricidal conflict with America. As one journal put it, "Illicit love now reigns triumphant, pervading all degrees, from the peer...to the peasant."

Within a year of Ray's death, a London bookseller, well known for his support of the Americans' cause and his opposition to the government that Sandwich served so ardently, published a book entitled Love and Madness: A Story Too True, which claimed to be the correspondence of the murderer and his victim. In it, Hackman is cast as a romantic hero struggling with the demons of love. Love and Madness quickly became a bestseller and remained in print into the 19th century. But the book was a fake. In fact, the letters were the work of a journalist, Herbert Croft, who deftly recast a story that actually had many actors and intertwined plots into one with a sole tragic protagonist: Hackman. Most readers didn't seem to care that the letters weren't real. The book was hugely influential and helped enshrine Hackman in medical literature as an exemplary case of erotomania, or love's madness.

In the victorian era the story changed yet again. A succession of memoirs and letters of 18th-century life (the most famous were those of Horace Walpole) included accounts of Ray, Hackman and Sandwich. Reviewers and critics pounced on the threesome as typical of the depravity of the Georgian age, what the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray called its "awful debauchery and extravagance." In these, Hackman had become an assassin, Ray a wretched whore, Sandwich a public disgrace. From the vantage point of the mid-19th century, the story exemplified 18th-century wickedness, as well as evidence of the moral progress that had been made in the intervening years. As one reviewer smugly wrote in the Edinburgh Review about the memoirs of George Selwyn, the notorious 18th-century gossip, "We are happy to say that the comparison, suggested by these volumes, between the manners and morals of the last century and our own, is highly satisfactory."

By the end of the 19th century the three lovers had been resurrected by Gilbert Burgess' The Love Letters of Mr. H and Miss R 1775-1779. This bowdlerized and edited version of Croft's Love and Madness was presented as a collection of historical documents. Critics applauded it as "natural and credible," extolling "the awful eloquence which bursts out of supreme human anguish when the victim tries to temper his pain with expressing it."

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