Laurence Shirley, 4th Earl Ferrers
Lord Ferrers, descendant of an ancient and noble family, was the eldest son of the Honourable Laurence Ferrers, himself the third son of the first Earl Ferrers. At the age of twenty, he quit his estates and Oxford education, and began living a debauched life in Paris. At the age of twenty-five he inherited his title from his insane uncle the 3rd Earl Ferrers, and with it estates in Leicestershire, Derbyshire and Northamptonshire. He lived, however, at Staunton Harold Hall in northwest Leicestershire. In 1752, he married Mary, the youngest sister of Sir William Meredith, 3rd Baronet. Ferrers was also a cousin to Selina, Countess of Huntingdon, the prominent Methodist lady and supporter of George Whitefield, though he was not involved in the Methodist revival.
It was said that there was insanity in his family, and from an early age his behaviour seems to have been eccentric, and his temper violent, though he was quite capable of managing his business affairs. Significantly, in 1758, his wife obtained a separation from him for cruelty, which would have been rare for the time. She would not accept her husband's drinking and womanizing, and was particularly upset by his illegitimate children. The old family steward, Johnson, may have given evidence on Mary's behalf and was afterwards tasked with collecting rents due to her. She was married again, on 28 March 1769, to Lord Frederick Campbell. Mary later died in a fire at her country seat, Coomb Bank, Kent, on 25 July 1807.
The Ferrers' estates were then vested in trustees; Ferrers secured the appointment of an old family steward named Johnson, as receiver of rents. This man faithfully performed his duty as a servant to the trustees, and did not prove amenable to Ferrers' personal wishes. On 18 January 1760, Johnson called at the earl's mansion at Staunton Harold, Leicestershire, by appointment, and was directed to his lordship's study. Here, after some business conversation, Lord Ferrers shot him. Johnson didn't die immediately, but instead was given some treatment at the hall followed by continued verbal abuse from a drunken Ferrers before a Dr. Kirkland was able to convey him to his own home where he died the following morning.
In the following April Ferrers was tried for murder by his peers in Westminster Hall, Attorney General Charles Pratt leading for the prosecution. Shirley's defence, which he conducted in person with great ability, was a plea of insanity, and it was supported by considerable evidence, but he was found guilty. According to Lord Oxford, "Lord Ferrers was not mad enough to be struck with Lady Huntingdon's sermons. The Methodists have nothing to brag of his conversion, though Whitefield prayed for him." Ferrers subsequently said that he had only pleaded insanity to oblige his family, and that he had himself always been ashamed of such a defence.
On 5 May 1760, dressed in a light-coloured suit embroidered with silver (the outfit he had worn at his wedding), he was taken in his own carriage from the Tower of London to Tyburn and there hanged by Thomas Turlis. There are several illustrations of the hanging. It has been said that as a concession to his rank the rope used was of silk. After the execution his body was taken to Surgeon's Hall for public exhibition and dissection. The Execution was widely publicised in popular culture as evidence of equality of the law and the story of a wicked nobleman who was executed "like a common criminal" was told well into the 1800s.
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- The Newgate Calendar: LAURENCE, EARL FERRERS
- Tamworth Herald: The murderous Earl Ferrers
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