Criminal Tales was published in February 2020, comprising 18th- and 19th- Century murder cases and four other capital crimes, and is available as an e-book or paperback.
Murders, trials, convictions, executions, and the occasional acquittal – these are part and parcel of any true-crime book.
Grahame Farrell's sixth collection of 18th and 19th Century murder cases also includes four gripping true accounts of crimes other than murder, including an ingenious robbery, and an 18th-Century spy. We learn about the backgrounds and personalities of those featured here, and what drove them to step outside the law.
As with Grahame's earlier books, Criminal Tales largely comprises less-well-known cases which the true-crime enthusiast should find to be absorbing and compelling reading.
The Compact Oxford English Dictionary defines a ‘rakehell’ as “a fashionable or wealthy man who leads an immoral life”, and leaves it to the imaginings of the reader to speculate on what such a life might entail. By the mid-17th Century, the term had been superseded by the shortened form, ‘rake’, and the multitude of sins which (by implication) the definition embraced included the big two — extravagantly heavy drinking and an overfondness for the pleasures of the flesh with whichever woman the rake could get his pampered hands on, and all overlain with a strong element of brutish behaviour.
Charles, 4th Baron Mohun of Okehampton, had comfortably earned the description by the time he was in his late teens.
Like so many others in positions of wealth, power and influence, the Mohuns (the name is pronounced ‘Moon’) had gained their noble title by virtue of the lucky happenstance that an ancestor had been a close friend of William the Conqueror in the year 1066; they had duly acquired lands in Cornwall and South West England. By the 16th Century the Mohuns were playing an active part in English politics.
In becoming what we might safely call a serial duellist (he had fought several before he was thirty-five), the 4th Baron Mohun was following a tradition established by his father, Charles, the 3rd Baron, who had been killed while acting as Lord Cavendish's ‘second’ in one such contest when the younger Charles was only five months old. At the time, seconds played a more active part in a duel, so Charles Mohun, senior had, in effect, been duelling and not merely lending moral support.
Duelling was, of course, banned by law.
The father's death left his baby son and namesake the owner of a vast estate in Cornwall and Devon, as well as the new bearer of the fancy title. Unfortunately, the huge debts that the estate had garnered during his father's suzerainty meant that there was no money to spare for the son's education. Charles and his older sister were brought up in their London home by their bad-tempered and quarrelsome mother.
With no father to provide guidance, and no grounding in socialisation through an education, young Mohun ran amok, and was regularly involved in brawls and acts of debauchery. To add further trouble, by the time he reached his mid-teens the family's finances were in crisis, thanks in part to his insistence on maintaining the lavish lifestyle which he, as the 4th Baron Mohun, felt was his due.
He saw his financial salvation in becoming a full-time gambler, with the inevitable result that his finances became ever more desperate. Then he hit upon a new solution: to marry into money. In 1691, at the age of only sixteen, he selected the 1st Earl of Macclesfield's granddaughter, Lady Charlotte Orby, also sixteen, as his bride. The Macclesfields had plenty of money along with estates in Cheshire and Lancashire.
The failure of the new Lady Mohun to bring a dowry to the marriage left her furious husband as hard-up as ever. The marriage was a train-wreck, and within a very short time the couple had separated.
Charles Mohun's response was to go back into ‘rake’ mode and pick up where he had left off with the gambling, peppered with a little womanising and the regular picking of quarrels with other hot-blooded teenagers. Meanwhile, his debts were steadily increasing. In 1692, soon after the marriage break-up, he got into a gambling dispute with a fellow peer.
Until he threw in his lot with the Hanoverians, thirty-year old Scottish nobleman John Kennedy, 7th Earl of Cassilis, had been a Jacobite supporter and was a descendent, through his mother, of James, the first Stuart king of England and the sixth of Scotland. As such, Lord Kennedy himself actually had a strong claim to the throne of both countries; as a senior politician in Scotland, he was a man of influence and position and not one to be challenged by a cocksure seventeen-year-old.
Nevertheless, a night of heavy drinking led to a verbal confrontation between Kennedy and young Mohun. Reports of a possible duel between the two aristocrats reached King William, who promptly ordered that neither man must leave his own house until tempers had eventually cooled and the disagreement resolved peacefully. The royal edict was ignored, the duel was fought (with swords, as was the custom), and both men were wounded.
In a glaring example of “one law for the rich, another for the poor ”, neither protagonist was punished.
If it was hoped and expected that a moral lesson would be gleaned from this blatant let-off, it failed to register with Lord Mohun, and soon he was up to no good again.
It was inevitable that his choice of friends should include a certain Captain Richard Hill, reprobate, tippler, and rake par excellence. The captain had conceived a passion for one of the most famous and popular of 18th-Century actresses; the widowed Mrs. Ann Bracegirdle was talented, sexy, and thoroughly likeable, she had a large following, and was also an accomplished singer. She specialised in ‘breeches’ roles (playing male characters), which did nothing to diminish her appeal to male members of theatre audiences.
Hill began a campaign of wooing that was flatly rejected by the lady. His continued attentions to her not only annoyed her but very quickly morphed into harassment. Rather than back off, Hill resolved that he would take her by force, if necessary.
His friend Mohun readily agreed to Captain Hill's plan to abduct Mrs. Bracegirdle. But first they had another issue to resolve. On the flimsiest of evidence, Hill had mistakenly concluded that the well-known actor William Mountfort, a married man, was a rival for Bracegirdle's affections and was an obstacle that must be removed. Having watched the pair on stage, the captain had made the erroneous assumption that their love-scenes betrayed a genuine passion between the two, rather than just good acting. He and Mohun would ambush Mountfort and put him out of action in order to allow Hill a free hand with the actress.
On the evening of 9th December 1692, mere months after Mohun's acquittal following the duel with Lord Kennedy, he and Hill watched as Mrs. Bracegirdle left the home of two close friends, a Mr. and Mrs. Page, accompanied by two of the Pages’ male household staff to ensure her safety.
Hill and Mohun had hired six thugs whose task was to overcome the escorts, seize Mrs. Bracegirdle and bundle her into a waiting coach. But the two conspirators and their six hirelings had underestimated Ann Bracegirdle; as she was seized, she screamed her head off and fought like a tigress, while her two escorts pitched in to defend her. The six goons backed off, while a crowd that had gathered now stepped forward to attend to the actress.
Among this crowd were Baron Mohun and Captain Hill, posing as passers-by. Squeezing their way to the front, they offered to escort Ann home in safety while her two previous escorts were dismissed and advised to go home to recover from the skirmish.
Even though she accepted the offer, Ann Bracegirdle had recognised Hill from his regular attempts to proposition her, and it was with relief that she reached home and shut the front door on the world. She moved to a window and watched as Mohun and Hill loitered outside her house instead of moving off. Several times in the past she had heard Hill curse and threaten his alleged rival William Mountfort in the latter's absence. She was now safe from this pair of supposed escorts, but perhaps it was Mountfort who was in danger. She immediately sent a footman to the actor's house nearby to warn him.
On receiving the message, Mountfort decided, on the contrary, that it was not he, but Mrs. Bracegirdle, who was under threat (the truth is, they both were). Straight away he set off alone for her house.
Hill and Mohun had meanwhile repaired to Howard Street off the Strand, en route between Mountfort's and Bracegirdle's addresses, waiting to see if William Mountfort should appear.
Spotting the pair as he turned into Howard Street, and recognising them both, Mountford gave a cursory “Good evening ” and, as was the fashion, gave a polite hug to Mohun, whom he knew well. While Mohun seized this opportunity to pinion the actor, Hill jumped him. Held by Mohun and unable to defend himself, Mountford was run through by Hill's sword. As he fell to the floor, his two attackers made a hasty departure.
William Mountfort died of his wounds the next day, aged only thirty-three, but not before he had named his attackers. There had also been eyewitnesses to the murder, who gave details and descriptions to the authorities. Richard Hill fled to France as soon as he heard the news, but Lord Mohun was arrested and held in the Tower of London pending his trial.
As a peer of the realm, the eighteen-year-old Mohun was entitled to demand to be tried by his fellow-peers, in the debating chamber of the House of Lords, even though, being under twenty-one, he was not yet eligible to take his seat in the House. Nevertheless, his demand could not legally be refused. The trial began on 31st January 1693 and, judging by the names of those who attended, and the array of carriages lined up outside, it was clearly being treated not so much as a murder trial but as one of the most fashionable events of the London season; the king himself was there to enjoy it all…
The trial of a titled aristocrat by others of the same stripe, in a court from which all but those with wealth and pedigree were excluded, had in the late Middle Ages resulted generally in verdicts of Guilty, followed swiftly by an execution. By the late 17th Century, however, there were as many acquittals as convictions as the lords became ever-reluctant to hang one of their own. Despite William Mountfort's dying declaration as well as the evidence of eyewitnesses as to Lord Mohun's presence at the crime scene and his obvious role as an active helper to Hill, on 6th February he was acquitted of the charge of aiding and abetting, by a vote of sixty-nine in favour of acquittal, and fourteen against. He walked out of the court a free man.
The news of the acquittal was met with public outrage; a commoner, and especially a poor one, would almost certainly have been hanged for the same offence. But the anger of untitled riff-raff was water off Mohun's back.
Nevertheless, to distance himself from gossipy London, and at last have a regular income to supplement the rents from his estate, he took the decision to join the army — as an officer, naturally. His commanding officer just happened to be the 2nd Earl of Macclesfield, his estranged wife's uncle, who had already shown his interest in Mohun's future by taking him with him on a diplomatic mission to Brest in Brittany. Mohun's regiment was posted to France and Flanders, where, for the first time ever, he acquitted himself well. But by 1697 he was a civilian again, and living in St. Martin-in-the-Fields, London.
It would be the best part of a year before he was in the news again.
On Saturday night, 29th October 1698, after an evening of heavy drinking, Baron Mohun and his friend and neighbour, Edward Rich, 6th Earl of Warwick and Holland, made their way in sedan chairs to Leicester Fields (now Leicester Square) in order for the Earl to help settle a dispute involving an officer and a gentleman, Captain Richard Coote. Captain Coote, who had got drunk with them that night in the Greyhound Tavern, was a friend and regular drinking-partner of Warwick, and the argument, fuelled of course by alcohol, was a ridiculously trivial one involving nothing more than mild insults and bruised egos.
Mohun, for once, had attempted to call a halt to the proposed duel, but, having given up the attempt, had made his way by sedan chair along with Warwick and Coote in order to watch the show. With them were three other army captains from their social circle, George Dockwra, Richard French, and Roger James, and the quarrel was initially between Coote and French.
Yet, after Captain French had retired wounded from the sword fight, it was the inebriated Earl of Warwick who then clashed swords with Captain Coote on behalf of French, in the course of which Warwick plunged his sword clean into Coote's left breast. The captain had also received a second fatal wound, through the ribs and into the diaphragm.
Barely alive, Coote was removed from the battlefield by sedan chair to a surgeon's house, but he was dead on arrival. The news travelled fast, and Warwick was arrested. Because they been present at the duel instead of summoning the authorities, Lord Mohun and the others had, according to the law, aided and abetted the duellists; they had thus been guilty of a capital felony, and were likewise arrested.
The three army captains were tried at the Old Bailey and found guilty of manslaughter in the course of a felony. After pleading Benefit of Clergy, they were spared execution but two were sentenced to burning on the hand to prevent them from using Benefit of Clergy as a get-out clause if they ever found themselves on trial for murder again.
Inevitably, Warwick and Mohun requested a trial in the House of Lords. Both prisoners pleaded Not Guilty, claiming, in flagrant contravention of the truth, that their purpose had been to try and prevent a sword fight between Coote and French. The first to be tried was the Earl of Warwick.
His trial, under Lord Sommers of Evesham, the Lord High Chancellor, began on 28th March 1699 and occupied two days; Sommers's impressive-sounding job-title for the trial was ‘Lord High Steward’. The Attorney General was the prosecution counsel.
The chief witnesses were the half-dozen sedan chair carriers; none had seen who had struck the two fatal blows, but the basic forensic evidence was there for anyone to draw the right conclusion: the swords of the five survivors had been examined shortly after Coote expired, and all were free of blood, save for Lord Warwick's which had blood a-plenty on the blade. It was enough to make him the prime suspect.
Although it was apparent that he had deliberately killed Coote, the fact that Warwick, like Mohun, had initially attempted to have the duel postponed until the following day was all it took to prompt the peers to bring in a unanimous verdict of manslaughter rather than murder. But this wouldn't spare him from the gallows — duelling was still a capital crime.
Lord Warwick's response towards the end of the trial was to pull a rabbit out of the hat by claiming Privilege of Peerage, a limited form of freedom from arrest but which their lordships chose to interpret as giving Warwick immunity from prosecution. There was now little point in pursuing the trial further, and he was discharged.
Now it was Lord Mohun's turn in the dock. His trial was in its essentials a repeat of Lord Warwick's, with the same witnesses giving evidence. It seems evident that, for once, Mohun was guilty of nothing more than being present at a brawl involving some of his close friends, and which had ended in an unlawful killing. As the law stood, however, his presence as a spectator was enough to make him as guilty as the other four protagonists.
Lord Mohun's performance in the dock was a masterclass in perceived innocence, though whether it was real or contrived, the court could only guess. Whatever the truth of his claim to have gone to Leicester Fields purely in an attempt to end the confrontation and to have it postponed until a later day, the Lords chose to believe it, and it enough to win him a unanimous verdict of Not Guilty.
With a warning to improve his future behaviour, and after a promise to mend his ways, he was acquitted.
Less than a year later, Charles Mohun, now almost twenty-five, took his seat in the same House of Lords that had twice tried him for murder. Whether or not some damascene conversion now visited itself upon him is open to speculation, but he decided at last to make himself useful. He rolled up his sleeves and got stuck into parliamentary work for the Whig Government.
Although they had provided him with an incompatible teenaged bride who had no money to bring with her, the Earls of Macclesfield had since then been of good service to Baron Mohun. He had served with distinction in the army under the 2nd Earl. Now, in 1701, that same Earl took him with him on another diplomatic mission, to the Kingdom of Hanover, where Mohun again acquitted himself well and raised his stock as regards future government appointments.
And now Macclesfield came to the young man's assistance once again. Shortly before the Earl's untimely death in November 1701, he named Charles, Baron Mohun as the heir to his extensive estate at Gawsworth Hall in Cheshire if the Earl's son, the 3rd Earl, should die childless. The following year the 3rd Earl did just that, and the delighted Mohun moved into Gawsworth Hall (a fine Tudor mansion) immediately. The 3rd Earl's father, the 2nd Earl, had effectively disinherited his own family in favour of a violent rake who was separated from the 2nd Earl's own niece.
The estate included a London town house in Gerard Street, Soho (Gerard was the family name of the Earls of Macclesfield). From this new London base, Mohun was thereafter a constant presence in the House of Lords, making effective speeches, in particular on foreign affairs, and, as Parliament developed into two opposing camps, Tories and Whigs, Mohun was a trusted hand for the Whig Party who could be relied upon to ensure that no Whig member in the House of Lords deviated from the Party line. In 1702, he raised his own infantry regiment; Charles Mohun was now beyond dispute a pillar of the Whig Establishment.
But there was a fly in the ointment. It came in the form of a competing claim to the Gawsworth Hall estate. The rival claimant was James Douglas, 4th Duke of Hamilton and Brandon, the senior peer in Scotland. Hardly had Lord Mohun settled into Gawsworth when Hamilton began disputing Mohun's ownership.
Both Hamilton and Mohun had married granddaughters of the 1st Earl of Macclesfield. Although Mohun was now divorced from Charlotte, and had since remarried, this did not affect his right to inherit Gawsworth through Charlotte. After the death of the childless 3rd Earl in 1702, the two granddaughters became co-heirs to Gawsworth Hall. Both claims therefore were equally valid and there was little if anything to choose between them, but Mohun had the advantage of having actually been named as heir by the 2nd Earl. But was it legally watertight?
The Earl's motive for choosing Lord Mohun had been triggered partly by his dislike of Hamilton as a man and partly by his disapproval of Hamilton's political sympathies. The Duke's former opposition to the Act of Union, his Jacobite sympathies, and his recent support for the Tory Party, made him a bête noir from a Whig perspective. It had therefore been politically expedient for the Whig-supporting Earl of Macclesfield to promote and cultivate the unpleasant but politically loyal Mohun rather than hand Gawsworth over to a political enemy.
The litigation, the claims and the counter-claims went on for a full decade. By 1712, Charles Mohun was still at Gawsworth Hall, but a new lawsuit by Hamilton was currently going through the courts, and looked like succeeding. A decision in the Court of Chancery now put the burden of proof not on Hamilton but on Mohun.
Mohun had spent money on new accommodation for himself, Gawsworth New Hall in the grounds of the estate, but had also been paying legal fees for the Chancery case for a full decade, and he risked going into debt again if he were obliged to surrender the estate. The likely success of Hamilton's latest litigation was the last straw for Mohun; the only way he could put an end to all this was to kill his adversary. He challenged the Duke to a duel, and Hamilton took up the challenge.
There was more than just an inheritance at stake — long-standing political scores had to be settled, and the political advance of one of the two aristocrats would mean the political fall of the other. The pleas of their respective relatives to abandon the duel fell on two sets of deaf ears.
Between six and seven o'clock in the morning on 12th November 1712, a coach drove into London's Hyde Park and came to a halt near a marshy rivulet that was later to become the Serpentine lake. Two men got out, Charles, 4th Baron Mohun and his second, a dissolute Scotch-Irish army lieutenant-general and fellow-Whig named George Macartney.
Shortly afterwards they were joined by two others, the 5th Duke of Hamilton and a relative, Colonel Andrew Hamilton of the Foot Guards, acting as the Duke's second.
This was no aristocratic ritual to preserve honour, or to gain satisfaction after a real or imagined insult. Perhaps uniquely in the history of duelling in the UK, it related primarily to something tangible — a dispute over ownership of land.
It was also a life-and-death struggle that bore more of the features of a savage street fight than a duel. While the colonel and the lieutenant-general, the respective seconds, thrust and parried at each other, with Colonel Andrew Hamilton quickly gaining the upper hand and disarming his opponent, the two main combatants threw themselves at each other, fists flew, swords clashed, and suddenly Lord Mohun lay dead.
The two seconds rushed over to the Duke of Hamilton. Seconds later, he, too, fell fatally wounded but still alive.
The later arguments over whether he was slain by Baron Mohun but took longer to die, or whether he was struck a fatal blow from the sword of Lieutenant-General Macartney as the Irishman knelt over him, will never be resolved, despite Colonel Hamilton's insistence that Macartney had seized back his own sword from the colonel and killed the duke (which, within the conventions of duelling at the time, Macartney was entitled to do). Almost certainly Colonel Hamilton's accusation against Macartney was politically motivated; it is more probable that Lord Hamilton slowly bled to death from a severed artery caused by a sword-thrust from Mohun, inflicted just before Mohun, cut to pieces and fatally wounded, fell dead to the ground.
The gatekeeper at the park's lodge, John Reynolds, who had witnessed the entire spectacle, came rushing out, lifted the Duke of Hamilton up, and helped him to walk to the lodge; but after only a short distance the Duke, barely able to speak, managed to splutter “I can walk no further ”. His Grace immediately fell dead.
The news quickly spread beyond Hyde Park; Colonel Hamilton was arrested in the park, on a capital charge of aiding and abetting, in much the same way that Lord Mohun had been charged for his more passive involvement in the fracas between Captains French and Coote. But Lieutenant-General Macartney had fled, and shortly afterwards took ship to the Netherlands.
Colonel Andrew Hamilton was brought to trial, and found guilty, but escaped a hanging. He died in poverty several years later.
A number of attempts were made to extradite Macartney, and the Tory Government put a £500 price on his head, but he remained safely in exile. In his absence, he was cashiered from the army. The Government also put it about, with no actual evidence, that Whig agents had been posted in various parts of the park to finish the Duke of Hamilton off if he should emerge alive from his duel with Mohun. George Macartney finally returned to England shortly after the accession of George I and was restored to his rank without facing trial.
On 24th November, 1712, Charles, 4th Baron Mohun, his body still a mass of bruises and sword-wounds, was buried in St. Martin's-in-the-Fields. His title died with him, since he had sired a daughter (to whom he left his fortune) but no son. As an aristocratic thug with influential connections, he had been well-placed to act as the Whig Party's resident bully-boy in the House of Lords, and had made a success of it.
He had fought many other duels besides those I have recounted — usually against army captains in the Richard Coote mould, but including one with the Tory MP Richard Scobell who had offended Mohun's lordly dignity when Scobell tried to prevent him from beating a coachman to death.
Almost fifty per cent of his duels were fought while he was still a teenager. If to the slaying of Lord Hamilton we add the deaths of William Mountfort (for which he was jointly responsible) and an army captain called Hill (a different Captain Hill from the murderer of Mountfort) in a pub brawl sometime later, for which he again escaped justice, he may well have the distinction of notching up a higher body count in his duels and fights than on the field of battle in Flanders.
The charmed life that had protected him from legal retribution for his involvement in at least three homicides may well, as his Tory enemies claimed, have been due to protection by the Whig hierarchy. Certainly, the inheritance struggle with the Duke of Hamilton gave the Whigs a golden opportunity to exploit Mohun's violent propensities in order to eliminate a leading Jacobite supporter at a time of great political uncertainty.
The Duke of Hamilton had been appointed envoy to France by the Tory Government and would have shortly been leaving for Paris. This would have given him access to the exiled royal Stuart faction, and would have lent legitimacy to the Stuart cause in the eyes of France, and increased the likelihood of French military support for the Jacobite cause. A duel between Mohun and Hamilton, in which Hamilton met his death, would therefore have suited the Whigs very nicely, and there may well be some truth, therefore, in the claim that Whig agents were on hand that day to finish the job if Mohun failed. The killing of Hamilton was undoubtedly as much a political assassination as a duel over an inheritance, and was therefore Mohun's final political service to his party.
All politicians like to leave a legacy; Mohun's, achieved posthumously, was a change in the law, designed to make duelling less of an ‘unpleasantness’.
The public outrage caused by the brutality of the Hamilton-Mohun duel in a public park in the middle of London quickly led Parliament to bring in new legislation. While duelling was still officially forbidden by law, it might henceforth receive a less severe punishment if pistols were used at twenty paces. Swords would henceforth be strictly off the table. As for seconds, they could by law no longer join in, and their role henceforth was virtually limited to handing out the weapons, and cleaning up the mess.
If you liked that chapter, you can purchase the complete book through Amazon now.
You can purchase Criminal Tales from Amazon now through Amazon’s various country-specfic sites.