FERRERS, Laurence Shirley, fourth earl, letters, autographs, documents, manuscripts

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The murdering earl seeks bail

FERRERS, Laurence Shirley, fourth earl (1720-1760). Murderer.
Brief autograph note ('Ferrers') asking 'Athorp' to plead not guilty for him, on a small slip, 75 x 185mm. (c.3 x 7½ inches), dated 31 January 1758. A note on the reverse (in another hand) reads: 'Instr[uctions] to plead'.

It would appear that some degree of lunacy ran in the Ferrers family. The fourth earl had inherited the title and the estates at Staunton Harold on the death in 1745 of his uncle Henry, who had been confined as a lunatic. Although the earl had periods of relative lucidity ODNB describes him as being from time to time 'distracted' or 'ungovernably excited', prone to gesticulating and grimacing, and paranoid. He had been aggressive to his wife, and imprisoned her in the house, before she separated from him by act of Parliament in 1758, presumably after the date of this document.

It is not clear on what charge he wished to plead guilty, presumably through the intermediacy of Athorp, probably his legal representative. It was not until two years later, in January 1760, that he shot his steward, John Johnson, in a locked room at Staunton Harold. The earl's trial in Westminster Hall was a social sensation, among the spectators being Horace Walpole, who *scribed the 'pomp and awfulness' of the scene. He was found guilty on 17 April and the next day sentenced to death.

'His lordship was conveyed to Tyburn gallows in his own landau, dressed in a superb suit of white and silver, being the clothes in which he was married, his reason for wearing which was that they had been his first step towards ruin, and should attend his exit'. (Memoirs of William Hickey, 1.20, quoted in ODNB). Walpole also described the execution.
[No: 26617]

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