MAJOR GEORGE STRANGWAYES
Executed 28th of February, 1658, for the Murder of the Man who married his Sister
MR GEORGE STRANGWAYES was the second son of Mr James Strangwayes, of Mussen in Dorsetshire, a gentleman of an ancient and unblemished family. He was a person that had a brave and generous soul in a stout and active body, being tall of stature, and framed to the most masculine proportion of man. The virtues of his father he rather seemed to improve than degenerate from, till he was hurried on by an ungovernable passion to commit the horrid fact which we are going to relate.
As his constitution in his youth made him fitter to follow Mars than the Muses, he attained to the degree of a major in the service of King Charles I., which military office he executed with a great deal of bravery and gallantry during the whole course of the Civil War. Yet was he not a stranger to those arts that finish a gentleman; for (as Mr Dryden says of my Lord Roscommon) he had made both Miner's his own.
In the most important consultations he had always a head as dextrous to advise, as a heart daring to act. Only in love he appeared either unskilful or unsuccessful, for he was never married. The father of Mr Strangwayes died about ten years before the unhappy accident happened which brought destruction upon his son. At his death the major was left in possession of Mussen Farm, and his eldest sister, Mrs Mabellah Strangwayes, was constituted executrix by will. This sister, being then an ancient maid, rented her brother's farm, and stocked it at her own cost; engaging herself to him in a bond of three hundred and fifty pounds, which she borrowed towards the procuring of the said stock.
The major, presuming upon her continuance of a single life, and expecting that the greatest part, if not all, of her personal estate would in time revert to him as her heir, entrusted her not only with the bond, but also with that part of the stock, and such utensils of the house, as, by his father's will, properly belonged to him. His reason for doing this was, that they would be more secure by passing for hers, forasmuch as his whole estate was liable to sequestration; by which, at that time of day, a great many thousand gentlemen were ruined.
Sad times, indeed, when honesty, which, by those who have just notions of Providence, is esteemed a common preservative against calamity, was the principal means that made people obnoxious to it! But this was not the only age in which that noble principle has been out of fashion. His estate being thus in a fair probability of being preserved from those vultures of the Commonwealth who had then the administration of public affairs, he lived for some time very happily with his sister, of whose prudence and discretion he had a very high opinion, at his farm of Mussen.
But all of a sudden the scene altered, and she, whom he thought sufficiently proof against all inclinations to matrimony began to express some affection for Mr Fussel, a gentleman well esteemed at Blandford, the place of his residence, and of much repute for his eminent abilities in matters of law. Mrs Mabellah Strangwayes had now contracted an intimacy with Mr Fussel, and she made it the least part of her care to disguise her sentiments concerning him; so that it was not long before her brother came to a perfect knowledge of their mutual resolutions.
Whether it was that he had any former dislike to the man, or that he imagined one of that profession might injure him in his property; or whether it was only the being disappointed in the hopes he had conceived of enjoying after his sister the whole substance of the family, is not easy to determine; but certain it is, that he no sooner heard of a proposal of marriage between this gentleman and his sister than he showed himself absolutely against it, and took an opportunity of telling his sister privately how much he disapproved her design.
Mrs Mabellah as freely told him how steadfast she was in her purpose; upon which he broke out into the most violent expressions of passion, affirming with bitter imprecations that if ever she married Mr Fussel he would certainly be the death of him soon afterwards. These family quarrels soon occasioned a separation between our unhappy brother and sister; and the rupture was still increased by mutual complaints between them. She pretends that he unjustly detains from her much of the stock of the farm, which, either by her father's will, or her own purchase, was lawfully hers; at the same time she denies that ever she sealed the aforementioned bond, insinuating that it was only a forgery of her brother's.
The major, on the other hand cried out as loudly against his sister, accusing her with nothing less than a design to defraud him of part of his estate, besides the money due by the bond. These were the differences which first fomented a rage that was not to be quenched but by blood.
Soon after their parting Mrs Mabellah and Mr Fussel were married, and the grievances between the brother and sister commenced a lawsuit; for the prosecuting of which, as well as for the carrying on of several other causes which lie was employed in, he being a man of great business, Mr Fussel was come up to London, it being Hilary Term, at the unhappy time when he lost his life, in the following manner.
Mr Fussel lodged up one pair of stairs, at the sign of the George and Half Moon, three doors from the Palsgrave's Head Tavern, without Temple Bar, opposite to a pewterer's shop. He came in one evening between nine and ten, and retired to his study, which fronted the street, sitting behind a desk, with his face towards the window, the curtains being so near drawn that there was but just room enough left to discern him.
In this manner he had not sat above a quarter of an hour before two bullets shot from a carbine struck him, the one through the forehead and the other in about his mouth; a third bullet, or slug, stuck in the lower part of the timber of the window, and the passage by which the two former entered was so narrow that little less than an inch over or under had obstructed their passage. He dropped down upon his desk without so much as a groan, so that his clerk, who was in the room at the same time, did not at first apprehend anything of what was done; till at last, perceiving him lean his head, and knowing him not to fall asleep as he wrote, he imagined something more than ordinary was the matter.
Upon this he drew near to be satisfied, when he was suddenly struck with such horror and amazement at the unexpected sight of blood that for the present, he was utterly incapable of action. As soon as he had recollected himself, he called up some of the family, by whose assistance he discovered what an unhappy accident had bereaved him of his master. Instantly they all ran down into the street, but could see nothing that might give them the least information, everything appearing, as they conceived, more silent and still than is usual at that time of night in the public parts of the city.
Officers were sent for and Mr Fussel's son (for he had been married before) was acquainted with the melancholy news; who immediately made use of all the means he could think of to discover the authors of this horrid fact. Several places were searched in vain, and a barber, who lodged in the same house with Mr Fussel, was apprehended on suspicion, he having been absent at the time when the deed was perpetrated.
While they were considering what could induce anybody to such an action, young Fussel called to mind those irreconcilable quarrels which had for some time subsisted between his father and his Uncle Strangwayes; and thereupon proposed the apprehending of him to the officers, which motion they, in general, approved of. They now proceed to put it in execution, and between two and three in the morning the major is apprehended in his bed, at his lodging, over against Ivy Bridge in the Strand, at the house of one Mr Pym, a tailor, next door to the Black Bull Inn which is now Bull Inn Court.
Being in the custody of the officers, he was had before Justice Blake, before whom he denied the fact with an undaunted confidence. However, as there was so much room for suspicion, the justice committed him to Newgate, where remaining till next morning, he was then conveyed to the place where Mr Fussel's body was.
When he came there, he was commanded to take his dead brother-in-law by the hand, and touch his wounds before the coroner's inquest -- a method mightily relied on by the defenders of sympathy. But there having been nothing discovered by this experiment, he was remanded back to prison, and the jury proceeded in their inquiry, though with little hopes of satisfaction.
Several ways were propounded by the foreman for the detection of the murderer; one of which was, that all the gunsmiths in London, and the adjacent places, should be examined what guns they had either lent or sold that day. This, in the opinion of most of the jurymen, was an unpracticable task; and one Mr Holloway, a gunsmith in the Strand, who was one of the number, told them all that the men of his profession were so numerous that he thought it next to impossible for them to make such an inquiry without missing many; that, for his own part, he had that day lent a carbine, and did not question but several of the trade did the same every day that passed.
This saying of Mr Holloway's was presently taken hold of by the foreman, who desired him, for the satisfaction of them all, to declare to whom he had lent the said piece. Mr Holloway, after some small recollection, answered: "To one Mr Thompson in Long Acre, who had formerly been a major in the King's army, and was now married to a daughter of Sir James Aston."
Upon this a speedy search was made after Major Thompson, who being abroad, his wife was taken into custody, and detained a prisoner till her husband should be produced, though she cleared herself very handsomely from having any knowledge of borrowing or even seeing any such thing as a gun. Mr Thompson had that morning gone into the country on some urgent occasions; but on the first news of his wife's confinement he returned hastily to London, where being examined before a justice of the peace, he confessed that he had borrowed a carbine from Mr Holloway at the time mentioned, for the use of Major Strangwayes, who told him that all he intended to do with it was to kill a deer; and that having loaded it with a brace of bullets and a slug, he delivered it to the said Major Strangwayes, in St Clement's churchyard, between the hours of seven and eight at night.
This was all the certain intelligence they could get of what passed before the firing of the gun. Who did the desperate deed was never known; for Mr Strangwayes carried that great secret with him to the grave, refusing to confess anything before man, and reserving this discovery for the general assize hereafter, when the inmost recesses of men's hearts shall be laid open.
Thus much further they learned of Major Thompson, that between the hours of ten and eleven Major Strangwayes brought back the gun to his house, left it, and retired to his lodging.
These circumstances were enough to increase the suspicion of the inquisitive jury, and when they were told to Mr Strangwayes he seemed to be struck with terror, so that he continued some moments in a profound silence; afterwards he acknowledged in a very pathetic manner that the immediate hand of God was in the affair, for nothing less could have brought about such a wonderful detection. He further owned that, the night the murder was committed, he left one at his quarters to personate him, whom he took care to introduce about seven in the evening, while the people of the house were employed in their necessary affairs, and not at leisure to take any notice of his actions. This friend, he said, walked about the chamber, so as to be heard by all the family, which occasioned them to give a wrong deposition concerning Major Strangwayes being at home when he was examined before the magistrate. He added, that when the fact was committed (by whom, as we have observed already, he would never confess) he returned to his lodging, found means to discharge his friend, then hastened to bed, and lay there till he was apprehended at three in the morning.
On the 24th of February, 1658, Major George Strangwayes was brought to his trial at the sessions house in the Old Bailey; where, his indictment being read, and he commanded to plead, he absolutely refused to comply with the method of the Court unless, he said, he might be permitted, when he was condemned, to die in the same manner as his brother-in-law had done. If they refused this, he told them, he would continue in his contempt of the Court, that he might preserve his estate, which would be forfeited on his conviction, in order to bestow it on such friends as he had most affection for, as well as to free himself from the ignominious death of a public gibbet.
Many arguments were urged by the Lord Chief Justice Glyn, and the rest of the bench, to induce him to plead; particularly the great sin he committed in refusing to submit to the ordinary course of the law, and the terror of the death which his obstinate silence would oblige them to inflict upon him. But these, and all the other motives they made use of, were ineffectual; he still remained immovable, refusing either to plead or to discover who it was that fired the gun; only affirming, both then and always afterwards till his death, that, whoever did it, it was done by his direction.
When the Court perceived they could work nothing on him, the Lord Chief justice read the following dreadful sentence: -- "That the prisoner be sent back to the place from whence he came, and there put into a mean room, where no light can enter; that he be laid upon his back, with his body bare, save something to cover his privy parts; that his arms be stretched forth with a cord, one to one side of the prison, and the other to the other side of the prison, and in like manner his legs shall be used; that upon his body be laid as much iron and stone as he can bear, and more; that the first day he shall have three morsels of barley bread, and the next day he shall drink thrice of the water in the next channel to the prison door, but no spring or fountain water; and this shall be his punishment till he dies."
Sentence being passed upon him, he was remanded back to Newgate, where he was attended by several eminent and pious divines till the day of his death -- namely, Dr Wild, Dr Warmstrey, Mr Jenkins, Mr Watson and Mr Norton. Monday, the last day of February, was the fatal day appointed for executing the judgment passed on him, when, about eleven o'clock in the forenoon, the Sheriffs of London and Middlesex, accompanied with several of their officers, came to the press-yard in Newgate.
After a short stay, Major Strangwayes was guarded down, clothed all in white, waistcoat, stockings, drawers and cap, over which was cast a long mourning cloak. From whence he was conducted to the dungeon, the dismal place of execution, being still attended with a few of his friends, among whom was the Reverend Dr Warmstrey, turning to whom he said: "Sir, will you be pleased to assist me with your prayers?"
The doctor answered: "Yes, Major, I came on purpose to officiate in that Christian work. The Lord strengthen your faith, and give you confidence and assurance in Jesus Christ."
After they had spent some time in prayers, the major addressed himself to the company in general, and with a voice something more elevated than ordinary spoke as follows: -- "I thank my God I never had a thought in my heart to doubt the truth of the religion I profess. I die a Christian, and am assured of my interest in Christ Jesus, through whose merits I question not but ere long my soul shall triumph over her present afflictions in an eternity of glory, being reconciled to God by the blood of my Saviour.
The Lord bless you all in this world, and bring you at last to a world of blessedness, which is the reward of the elect. The Lord bless me in this last and dreadful trial. So let us all pray, Jesus, Jesus, have mercy on me!"
Having said this, he took his solemn last leave of all his lamenting friends, and prepared himself for the dreadful assault of Death, with whom he was speedily to encounter. He desired his friends, when he gave the signal, to lay on the weights, and they placed themselves at the corners of the press for that purpose.
His arms and legs were extended, according to the sentence, in which action he cried out: "Thus were the sacred limbs of my ever blessed Saviour stretched forth on the Cross, when He suffered to free the sin- polluted world from an eternal curse."
Then crying with a sprightly voice, "Lord Jesus receive my soul," which were the words he had told them, his mournful attendants performed their dreadful task. They soon perceived that the weight they laid on was not sufficient to put him suddenly out of pain, so several of them added their own weight, that they might the sooner release his soul.
While he was dying, it was horrible to all who stood by, as well as dreadful to himself, to see the agonies he was put into, and hear his loud and doleful groans. But this dismal scene was over in about eight or ten minutes, when his spirit departed, and left her tortured mansion, till the great day that shall unite them again.
His body having lain some time in the press, was brought forth and exposed to public view, so that a great many beheld the bruises made by the press, one angle of which being purposely placed over his heart, he was the sooner deprived of life, though he was denied what is usual in these cases, to have a sharp piece of timber under his back to hasten the execution.
The body appeared void of scars, and not deformed with blood, save where the extremities of the press came on the breasts and upper part of the belly. The face was bloody, not from any external injury, but the violent forcing of the blood from the larger vessels into the veins of the face and eyes.
After the dead corpse had been thus examined it was put into a coffin, and in a cart that attended at the prison door conveyed to Christ Church, where it was interred.
While he was under sentence he wrote the following letter to Major Dewey, a Member of Parliament, who had married one of his sisters:
-- DEAR BROTHER, -- I hope for forgiveness from you and the rest of my friends; for my conscience bears me witness that I was grievously provoked by my brother-in- law's wrongs. It was after he had abused me by prosecutions, and refused to fight me in single combat, that I suffered myself to be tempted to do what I did, though I intended only to have terrified and not killed him. In a word, each hath his desert; he fell to my revenge, and I to the law. I suffer willingly, being satisfied that my crime is cancelled before the Almighty. From your dying brother, G. STRANGWAYES.
It is said the major had often fallen into most impetuous storms of rage at the sight of Mr Fussel, and had offered him odds in length of weapon, to fight with him. Once in particular he met him in Westminster Hall, when they had a cause there depending, and told him that Calico Sands was a much fitter place for them, who were both Cavaliers, to dispute in, than that court, where most of the judges were their enemies. But Mr Fussel not only refused that way of deciding their quarrel, but indicted him as a challenger, which added fuel to his former rage, and put him upon the dreadful manner of satisfying his passion for which he suffered.