FRANCIS DAVID STIRN
Convicted of Murder, but poisoned himself in Newgate, 12th of September, 1760, after a Hunger Strike
FRANCIS DAVID STIRN was by birth a German. A man of erudition, he was born in the principality of Hesse-Cassel, about the year 1735. His father was a minister, and his brother a metropolitan minister at Hersfeld.
Francis was sent to a public grammar school in Hesse- Cassel, where be made considerable progress, and was then removed to a college at Bremen.
He was later taken home by his brother, who soon after placed him at the University of Hintelin, belonging to Hesse, where he pursued his studies from the year 1756 till the middle of the year 1758. During this time he improved his knowledge in the Latin and Greek classics to an uncommon degree; he also acquired very considerable skill in Hebrew, and became greatly proficient in both vocal and instrumental music, dancing, fencing and other polite accomplishments. About this time, the French having made an irruption into Hesse, and impoverished the inhabitants by raising exorbitant contributions, his brother was no longer able to support him, and therefore sent him to England, with very strong recommendations, to a friend, who received him kindly, and promised to procure him an appointment that should be agreeable to his friends; but as no opportunity immediately presented itself, he offered himself as an assistant to Mr Crawford, who kept a school in Cross Street, Hatton Garden, and was received, upon the recommendation of the Rev. Mr Planta, who had himself lived with Mr Crawford in that station, and left him upon his having obtained a place in the Museum. It was also proposed that he should assist the German minister at the Chapel in the Savoy, where he preached several probationary discourses; but as he made use of notes he was not approved by his auditors.
While he lived with Mr Crawford he became acquainted with Mr Matthews, a surgeon in the neighbourhood, who advertised the cure of fistulas, and other disorders of the like kind, and who made him a proposal to come and live with him, offering him an apartment ready furnished, and his board, upon condition that he should teach Mrs Matthews and her daughter music, and Matthews himself the classics. Stirn accepted Matthews's proposal, and took possession of his apartment at his house. A very little time, however, was sufficient to show that they could not long continue together. Stirn's pride and his situation in life concurred to render him so jealous of indignity, and so ingenious in discovering oblique reproach and insult in the behaviour of those about him, that, finding one evening, after he came home, some pieces of bread in the dining-room, which had been left there by a child of the family, he immediately took it into his head that they were left there as reproachful emblems of his poverty, which obliged him to subsist on the fragments of charity. This thought set him on fire in a moment, and he ran furiously upstairs and, knocking loudly and suddenly at Mr Matthews's chamber door, called out: "Mr Matthews!" He was answered by Mrs Matthews, who was in bed, that Mr Matthews was not there. But he still clamorously insisted on the door being opened, so that Mrs Matthews was obliged to rise, and, having put on her clothes, she came out and asked him what he wanted and what he meant by such behaviour. He answered that he wanted Mr Matthews, and that he knew he was in the room. It happened that at this instant Mr Matthews knocked at the street door, and this put an end to the dispute with his wife. The moment Mr Matthews entered the house, Stirn, in a furious manner, charged him with an intention to affront him by the crusts. Mr Matthews assured him that he meant no such thing, and that the bread was carried thither by the child. Mrs Matthews also confirmed it, and Stirn was at length pacified. He seems to have been conscious of the strange impropriety of his conduct as soon as he had time for reflection; for the next morning he went to Mr Crawford and expressed a most grateful sense of Mr and Mrs Matthews's patience and kindness in suffering, and passing over his fantastic behaviour.
It is, however, probable that from this time they began to live together upon very ill terms. Matthews soon after gave him warning to quit his house, and Stirn refused to go. Eventually he went to the Pewter Platter, in Cross Street, Hatton Garden, where Matthews and other persons in the neighbourhood frequently met to spend the evening. Stirn, after some time, applying mself to Mr Matthews, said: "Sir, you have accused me of theft and adultery." Matthews denied the charge, and after some mutual reproaches called him a dirty fellow, and said he ought to be sent into his own lousy country. Stirn, after this, took two or three turns about the room, and then, drawing out two pistols, discharged one of them at Matthews's breast, who gave a sudden start and then, falling forward, died instantly, without a groan. Stirn, almost at the same moment, discharged the other at himself; but, by some accident, the ball missed him, without doing any other damage. As soon as the smoke was dissipated, and the company had recovered from their first astonishment and confusion, Stirn was seen standing, as it were, torpid with amazement and horror. As soon as he saw the attention of all that were in the room turned upon him he seemed to recollect himself, and made towards the door; but a person in the room, named Warford, seized him, and after some struggle pulled him to the ground. Another man, named Lowther, immediately went up to him, and Stirn cried out: "Shoot me! shoot me! shoot me! for I shall be hanged." Somebody then saying, "Matthews is dead," Stirn replied, "I am not sorry, but I am sorry that I did not shoot myself."
After his commitment he obstinately refused all kinds of food, with the view of starving himself, that he might avoid the infamy of a public death by the hands of the executioner. He persisted in this abstinence till the Friday following, the 22nd of August, being just a week, drinking only a dish or two of coffee and a little wine. This conduct he endeavoured to justify, by saying that his life was forfeited by the law of both God and man, and that it was not lawful even for the Government to pardon him; "and what does it signify," says he, "by whose hands this forfeit is paid?" The ordinary indeed told him, in answer to this argument, that his life was not in his own power, and that as he did not, and could not, give it to himself, so neither had he a right to take it away. He was, however, urged to eat, for he was told that he would incur more infamy by suicide than by hanging, as his body would be dragged like that of a brute to a hole dug to receive it in a cross- road, and a stake would be afterwards driven through it, which would remain as a monument of disgrace.
During his trial, which lasted about four hours, he was often ready to faint; he was therefore indulged with a seat, and several refreshments. When sentence was passed upon him he quite fainted away, but being recovered by the application of spirits he requested the Court that he might be permitted to go to the place of execution in the coach with the clergyman; upon which the Court told him that was in the sheriff's breast, but that such a favour, if granted, would be contrary to the intention of the law which had lately been made to distinguish murders by exemplary punishment. Upon that he made a profound reverence to the Court, and was taken back to prison.
About six o'clock, the same evening, he was visited by the ordinary, who found in the press-yard a German, who said he was a minister, whom Stirn had desired might attend him. The ordinary therefore took him up to Stirn's chamber, he having been removed from the cells by the assistance of some friends. They found him lying on his bed; and as he expressed great uneasiness at the presence of the ordinary and a prisoner who had been set over him as a guard, they withdrew and left him alone with his countryman. Soon after this an alarm was given that Stirn was extremely ill, and was supposed to have taken poison. He was immediately visited by the sheriff and Mr Akerman, the keeper of the prison, who found him in a state of stupefaction, but not yet convulsed. A surgeon was procured, and several methods were tried to discharge his stomach of the poison, but without effect; he was then let blood, which apparently rendered him worse.
About nine o'clock he was pale and speechless; his jaw had fallen, and his eyes were fixed; and about five minutes before eleven he expired.