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On this day in history in 1720, was born Laurence Shirley.
Shirley was a dissolute aristocrat and murderer who was the last peer of the realm to be hanged.
Laurence Shirley, 4th Earl Ferrers, was the grandson of the 1st Earl Ferrers, who having rendered meritorious service to the Crown was granted estates in Leicestershire and admitted to the peerage. The 1st Earl had fifteen sons and twelve daughters and on his death, the title passed to his second son who died childless, to his ninth son who also died without legal issue, and then to the tenth son, who passed the title to his son, Laurence Shirley.
At the age of twenty, Shirley abandoned his education at Oxford and left for Paris where he indulged in various forms of wanton behaviour, as befitted members of nobility of the time. When he inherited the title and estates at the age of twenty-five, he returned home and dutifully married the younger daughter of a viscount. His behaviour at this time was not particularly extravagant. He was noted for excessive drinking, a violent temper but nothing unusual.
In 1758, Shirley’s wife obtained a separation order on the grounds of cruelty. The resulting Deed of Separation required a receiver be appointed to oversee the estates and apportion the income between Shirley and his estranged wife. This task fell to an old family retainer, Johnson, who was well known for his faithful service and the accuracy of his accounting.
Johnson assiduously collected the rents and made equitable distributions to the parties in accordance with his duties. He received adequate remuneration for his services and the beneficiaries expressed their satisfaction with the arrangement, until one day in 1760 when matters all went amiss.
Johnson called upon Shirley by appointment on 18th January and was admitted to His Lordship’s study. There a discussion on business matters took place, which went according to the agenda until a minor disagreement arose. Shirley could not understand a particular item in the records and when Johnson explained matters, Shirley was not satisfied. He solved the problem by drawing a pistol and, announcing “your time is come”, shot Johnson through the abdomen. Johnson was seriously injured but received the attention of the servants who carried the invalid to home on a contrived stretcher of blankets and poles but sadly Johnson died the next morning.
Shirley was duly arrested for murder and brought for trial in Westminster Hall. He conducted his defence personally and pleaded insanity, but his arguments were so cogent that they precluded a conclusion of lunacy. Shirley was therefore convicted and sentenced to hang. On 5th May 1760, Shirley proceeded in his own carriage from the Tower of London to Tyburn and hanged. He had asked to be beheaded in accordance with his noble status but this was refused. As a concession, he was offered the privilege of being hanged with a new rope but Shirley rejected this out of hand. It was finally agreed that Shirley would be hanged with a silk rope on account of his aristocratic rank.
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