Thursday, 23 August 2012

The Shady Shenanigans of the Heiress Hunters

"It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife."  
Jane Austen Pride and Prejudice

                       If Miss Austen is correct in her assertion, it surely follows that the converse must also be a truth equally acknowledged, that a single woman in possession of a good fortune must too be in want of a husband. So thought many men in the past, who sought to relieve themselves of their financial embarrassments by the marrying of an heiress. 

Captain Sir John Johnston

One such gentleman was Captain Sir John Johnston, born at Skickaldy, Fifeshire and who had fought under the command of the Duke of Monmouth at the siege of Maestrich and at the Battle of the Boyne. Finding himself in straitened circumstances, Sir John sought to insinuate himself into the affections of one Miss Magrath of County Clare, Ireland, who happened to have an inheritance of  £10,000. He made the acquaintance of her uncle and managed to inveigle himself into the Magrath household, receiving many invitations to dinner, where he set about persuading Miss Magrath that she should elope with him. Mr Magrath’s avuncular suspicions were alerted and he banned Johnston from the house and placed his niece under a close watch. She, infatuated with gallant Sir John, managed to persuade a kinswoman to deliver a letter to him but this lady thought it better to advise the uncle instead, who opened and read the letter, before resealing it and having it delivered. 

Ardent Sir John set out to meet the object of his devotions but arriving at the place of assignation he found not the maid he expected but instead men in the employment of Mr Magrath, who set about beating him with sticks, clubs and cudgels so thoroughly that he promised immediately to leave both County Clare and Miss Magrath. He went off to Dublin, where he managed to run up enough debts as to be thrown into debtor’s prison. He contacted an acquaintance, Lady Thomond, a faithful Roman Catholic, whom he knew kept a priest in her household, and told her he wished to be reconciled with the Roman Church, asking if she would send a confessor to him. This innocent lady sent off her priest to Sir John, who told the unfortunate cleric that since King William had recently conquered the country, it was his loyal duty to inform His Majesty’s authorities of this priest’s existence. The priest, fearful for his life, turned over what money he had with him but the naughty knight thought that this was not nearly enough so he had a scrivener sent for, who drew up a bond for a further £60 from the priest. Funds thus raised, Sir John settled his debts, secured his release and made straight for England. 

Persuading Johnston to leave Clare

Here he met with a former army colleague, Captain the Honourable James Campbell, son of the ninth Earl of Argyle, and a Mr Archibald Montgomery. Captain Campbell had designs on an heiress of his own – a certain Miss Mary Wharton, who, on the death of her father, came into an income of £1,500 a year, with £1,000 in property, a fortune in total worth over £50,000 and who was, at the time, thirteen years of age. She lived with her aunt, Mrs Bierley, in Great Queen Street, London, and it was there that Captain Campbell came in a coach drawn by six horses, bearing a haunch of venison as a gift for the Bierley household, on the evening of Friday November 10th 1690. At about nine in the evening the precocious Miss Wharton climbed into the coach with Campbell and his companions and they drove to a coachman’s house, where a parson was waiting. 

In an upper room, Campbell and the girl were married, with Johnston and Montgomery as witnesses; the ring which Campbell had brought was too large for the bride’s finger but she said she thought it was bad luck to change it, so she wrapped a ribbon around her finger to make it fit, and after the nuptials were concluded, the newly-weds went off to bed. The following morning, Johnston suggested to the new Mrs Campbell that it might be a good idea if she advised her aunt of her recent matrimonials, so she sent for pen and paper and wrote, 
“Dear Aunt, Pray be not troubled, nor take no care for me, for I am very well with my husband, Captain James Campbell, and in a short time I will bring him to wait upon you.” 
At no time during the whole proceedings was the girl made to do anything against her will, indeed she was positively enthusiastic about everything. Her friends and relations, when they heard about the marriage, were outraged and Lord Wharton, a near kinsman, sought the assistance of the King, who issued a Royal proclamation for the apprehension of Campbell and his abbetors on charges of kidnap, with a reward of £100 for Campbell and £50 for the others. Campbell scarpered to Scotland and Montgomery went into hiding but Johnston’s landlord turned him in for the reward, and on December 11th 1690 he was tried at the Old Bailey. Great applications were made to the King and the Whartons, and evidence produced that Miss Wharton was at no time forced or coerced but all to no avail. Captain Sir John Johnston was sentenced to the gallows. 

At eleven o’clock on the morning of Tuesday December 23rd 1690, he was taken in a mourning coach, with a hearse following, and in the company of a friend and two divines, from his prison to Tyburn, where he stood on the back of a cart and made a speech to the crowd, declaring his innocence, then offered up prayers, recited the 51st and the 103rd Psalms and put the cap over his own head. The rope was placed about his neck and the cart was drawn away, with Sir John praying and raising his hands to heaven several times before he finally expired. 

Tyburn Tree

Three weeks after the wedding a Bill was brought before the House of Commons to make the marriage void, and although the Earl of Argyle spoke against it, it was quickly passed in both Houses. Miss Wharton later married Colonel Robert Bierley, who just happened to be the son of her guardian Mrs Bierley, who was undoubtedly vexed when her niece had married someone else. Captain James Campbell married another heiress, Honourable Margaret Leslie, who brought him estates in Burnbank and Boquhan, and in 1699 became the Member of Parliament for Renfrew and later the Ayr Burghs. Unlike Captain Sir John Johnston, he escaped all punishment. 

Castle Campbell


All christians that have ears to hear,
And hearts inclined to pity,
Some of you all bestow one tear
Upon my mournful ditty:
In Queen Street did an heiress live,
Whose downfall when I sing,
'Twill make the very stones to grieve,
God prosper long our King.

For her a Scottish Knight did die,
Was ever the like seen;
I shame to tell place, how, or why,
And so, God bless the Queen.
Some say indeed she swore a rape,
But God knows who was wrong,
For he that did it did escape,
And he did not, was hanged.

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