Monday, 5 May 2014

The Murderous Laurence Shirley, 4th Earl Ferrers

Laurence Shirley, 4th Earl Ferrers (London, England, 18th August 1720 – London, England, 5th May 1760)


Copper engraving of Laurence Shirley, 4th Earl Ferrers, 1810
Copper engraving of Laurence Shirley, 4th Earl Ferrers, 1810

Today we greet a singular sort of criminal in the shape of Laurence Shirley, 4th Earl Ferrers. The scandalous Earl Ferrers holds the dubious honour of being the last member of the House of Lords to be hanged in England.

Ferrers had lived a life of hedonistic excess, fuelled by family money and privilege and his private life was far from happy. Tired of his maltreatment, Ferrers' wife, Mary, succeeded in the remarkable business of obtaining a legal separation from her husband on account of his intolerable cruelty. It was agreed that Mary's maintenance would be provided in the form of rental income from estate properties and the collection of this rent was placed in the trusted hands of John Johnson, a family retainer and steward of no small experience.

On 18th January 1760, which carrying out his usual business of collecting rent, Johnson was summoned to his master's home at Staunton Harold, Leicestershire. Here the Earl accused him of conspiring to defraud him and, as the argument became more heated, Ferrers shot Johnson. The old man survived and though a doctor named Kirkland was summoned, the Earl refused to let his victim leave. Once Ferrers had fallen into a drunken slumber, Johnson was taken home and died soon afterwards. 


The Earl assured the unfortunate man's family that he would provide for them on the condition that no prosecution was brought but by now the stage was set. Scandal around the crime was immediate and uproarious and when Ferrers' trial began in Westminster Hall, London was on tenterhooks.

Earl Ferrers shooting his steward, from the Newgate Calendar
Earl Ferrers shooting his steward, from the Newgate Calendar

The Earl defended himself against Attorney General Charles Pratt and pleaded not guilty on the grounds of insanity. Though it can hardly be doubted that there was insanity in his family, his eloquent defence was hardly indicative of a man of unsound mind and Ferrers was found guilty and sentenced to death. He was held at the Tower of London until the appointed day of execution, which was 5th May 1760.

On the fateful spring day, Ferrers dressed in his wedding suit and travelled in his own, very grand carriage, to Tyburn, where executioner, Thomas Turlis, awaited him and received a £5 tip for his troubles. Although reports of a silken noose were untrue, here the notorious Earl knelt to pray on a black silk cushion before calmly facing his fate. In deference to his elevated status, the scaffold had been engineered so that he might stand on a platform that would descend, leaving him at the end of the noose in an early version of the now-familiar drop method.


Just before noon Earl Ferrers took his place on the platform; his head was covered and the platform descended. It took Ferrers just under five minutes to die and as was his sentence he was eventually cut down and taken to Surgeon's Hall for dissection, his infamous career at an end.

6 comments:

  1. Love these true stories of desperate deeds from the past. Keep them coming!

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    1. I certainly will; lovely to see you here!

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  2. Glory! What a dismayingly cool customer. Think of the mental gymnastics involved in constructing that 'eloquent defence' to the charge of murder 'on the ground of insanity.' Rigging out the grand carriage and having an ostentatiously generous tip for the hangman shows remarkable sang froid. Thanks for a wonderful post!

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    1. Earl Ferrers was definitely a showman to the last, I think! A most cool customer, as you rightly say...

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  3. I wonder how CNN, Sky news etc would cover a trial like that these days

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