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A Sentimental Murder

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A Sentimental Murder
Love and Madness in the Eighteenth Century. By John Brewer. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York: 2004. Pg. x, 340. Illustrations.) Papberback Edition ISBN: 0-374-52977-9.

Reviewed by Simone Bonim - June 14, 2005

People's fascination with the rich and famous is nothing new. Nor our crimes of passion, sensational murder trials, or scandal driven journalism. One such sensational murder, which involved all the necessary elements to garnered the public's attention occurred on the 7th of April 1779. This scandalous murder included all the necessary details to make it sensational - a passionate love triangle, a high-ranking aristocrat, a clergyman, and, of course, a beautiful woman. With A Sentimental Murder - Love and Madness in the Eighteenth Century John Brewer has penned a readable and extremely fascinating account of the murder, its causes, and its aftermath, both in terms of those involved and in how it was reported and sensationalised by the media in England and beyond.

The basics of the story are quite simple. The story takes place in England. Martha Ray, a former singer and actress, was the long term mistress of the Earl of Sandwich, to whom she had borne nine children. On the 7th of April 1779, Martha Ray was shot to death by James Hackman, a young clergyman who professed to love Ray. After killing the woman he claimed to love, Hackman tried to commit suicide. He failed in this endeavor and was apprehended, tried, and executed for the murder of Ray.

The news of the murder of Lord Sandwich's mistress circulated widely, and an entire body of mythology grew up around the events surrounding Ray's death, Sandwich's feelings for her, and Hackman's trail. In A Sentimental Murder, Brewer separates the truth from the fiction surrounding this event. He also examines how these events were reported at the time, and how it tended to overshadow 'real' news, such as accounts of the American Revolution / War with the Colonies that was still ongoing. Similar to how modern stories about the rich and famous have a tendency to be reported on more broadly than hard news stories. Brewer also examines how the story was altered in consequent tellings, moving steadily out of the realm of history and firmly into that of fiction.

Written in an engaging narrative style, A Sentimental Murder will fascinate fans of true crime fiction, as well as historians and journalist. At its foundation, this is a historically accurate and telling account that examines the mores of late eighteenth century British society, and how sensational events and people involved were portrayed in the media. Using the events of this story as a fulcrum, Brewer, an eminent historian of the eighteenth century, interweaves a discourse on the nature of history, how historical events are recorded, and how they are received by various audiences.

Related Reviews:

The Floating Brothel, By Sian Rees.
The extraordinary story of an eighteenth-century ship and its cargo of female convicts.

The Bewitching of Anne Gunter: A Horrible and True Story of Deception, Witchcraft, Murder, and the King of England, By James Sharpe.
A case study of Anne Gunter's claim of demonic possession and the resulting witch trials - including her own.

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