Horace Walpole was an inveterate gossip. But what he was gossiping about when he wrote to the Countess of Ossory was the subject of London gossip throughout the ensuing months: on 7 April 1779, Martha Ray, the mistress to the First Lord of the Admiralty, Lord Sandwich, got into a carriage after the performance of a play. A former soldier and present clergyman, James Hackman stepped out of the crowd and shot into her face, killing her instantly, he then attempted to kill himself but failed. He was hung ten days later after a brief trial before Sir John Fielding. The trial left much unresolved: why afterall did Hackman murder Ray, what were Ray's relations with her keeper, Sandwich, and how did the murder reflect the way that men and women related in the eighteenth century. Unsurprisingly these were issues that immediatly contemporaries began to speculate about as have biographers until this day. We may not be able to say much about the murder itself- we know little of Hackman before 1779 (save that he had probably met Ray in 1776 and that he professed to be in love with her- we have no definite account of them meeting between 1776 and 1779 at all)- but we can definitely as John Brewer has describe the reactions to the murder and demonstrate through them how a private tragedy became an indicator for centuries to follow of truths about the public realm.
Brewer wants to take us into the mindset of those that covered the events, not those that participate in them. He wants you to see how an event was understood at a particular time. This event for example became part of a cult of sensibility in 18th Century London. All the protagonists were seen as sensitive human beings. Ray was seen as a gracious mistress, Sandwich's grief for his mistress's death was observed and Hackman was understood as a fervant lover. Where Hackman failed though was in his strength of feeling- feelings overwhelmed him in the moment and confronted by his lover being handed into a carriage by another man, he unloaded lead into her face and killed her. Of course though that was not the only route that one might take to understand the case. Partisans of Sandwich were able to influence the newspapers- the eighteenth century journals relied on voluntary correspondents, many of whom were in the employ of those participating in the stories that they covered- and Sandwich had a network of journalists out to disseminate a truth about the events of April 1779. But that was not the only version and soon competing ones arose.
One competing version was that Ray was a conniving woman- a woman of easy pleasure who had manipulated both men to her evil ends and caused her own downfall. Sandwich himself was a well known libertine. Politically he had offended John Wilkes, the radical, and consequently was attacked almost constantly. But it was Ray and Hackman who attracted particular attention with different publications taking opposite sides- arguing the case either for Ray as the leader on, the false woman or for Hackman as the vile seducer. Some saw Ray's death as punishment justified for her sins: others saw Hackman as the true protagonist and suggested that he must have suffered from some kind of madness. In the midst of all this a forgery was published- one of the most impressive forgeries of the eighteenth century by Herbert Croft. Croft presented to the public the letters between Hackman and Ray- actually he himself wrote those letters. What he presented though was the idea of madness- that Hackman had murdered Ray in a spasm of madness, a creative kind of instability- for Croft bought the idea of artistic instability and indeed compared Hackman to Thomas Chatterton explicitly. The point of Croft's work was not lost on contemporaries- Erasmus Darwin for example used Hackman as an example of erotomania- though it fitted oddly with their perceived ideas about the world, erotomania was supposed to the be a disease of women and not men.
From Croft the nineteenth century largely derived its view of the incident- from Croft and one other source. The other source was Martha Ray's son, Basil Montague. His son also named Basil ended up being babysat by William and Dorothory Wordsworth and indeed in a poem, written at about the time that Basil jr. was with them, William Wordsworth refers to Martha Ray. The Thorn refers to Martha Ray less as a historical person than as an exempla of human suffering. For Wordsworth her name was a word which denoted an association in the readers' mind of suffering but did not refer to a particular historical case. By the time that lyrical ballads came out at the turn of the century, the world had largely moved on from the days of Martha Ray and what we find is that increasingly her life is used as an illustration- as in Wordsworth's poem. In other places it becomes an illustration of the corruption of the 18th Century compared to the virtuous 19th Century. The point is the same though, Ray's tale gradually faded.
It was revived when Croft's letters, reedited and ammended, were republished at the turn of the twentieth century. Most people, including scholars, presumed that there was a kernel of truth to what Croft had prepared. This is despite the fact that Croft himself told the world that the letters were entirely fictional- but the convention that in the eighteenth century meant that a fiction and fact were closer together- that Daniel Defoe for example might draw out the truths in Alexander Selkirk's life and present them as Robinson Crusoe- had died by the late 19th. The new edition inspired a great amount of thought surrounding Ray in particular: some authors took the line that Ray was caught herself tremulously between two masterful men (the account of Constance Hagberg Wright is almost schoolgirlish in turning every man into Mr Darcy). Here the murder is less important than the situation. That is the same as Elizabeth Jenkins's approach who likewise views the murder as revealing of a situation- in this case the social one- how should Ray leave her 'keeper' without risking the collapse of her fortunes.
We do not know much about Ray and Hackman- were they lovers or was the love a dream of Hackman's imagining? What was Ray's real attitude to Sandwich? We will probably never know- but the way that the story has changed in its telling demonstrates a lot about the way in which the centuries have affected the way that stories are presented and thought about. Brewer's telling of this is interesting- and there is more than I can hope to capture here- but particularly in the way he presents attitudes to news changing across the generations he has captured something really interesting. There is something fascinating about the way that a story first came to pass in the newspapers of the 18th Century, with anonymous letter writers providing unchecked copy and the fantasies of Herbert Croft and then the way that those fantasies and letters became the source material for supposedly 'scholarly' editions in the 19th Century and then for fictionalised treatments in the 20th Century. Such are the vagueries of fashion- not merely in what each generation writes as history, but in how each generation views the history that it writes.