MAJOR JOHN ONEBY
Who murdered a Man in a Duel and cheated the Gallows, 1729
MAJOR ONEBY was the son of an eminent attorney at Burnwell, in Leicestershire. His father intended him for his own honourable profession, and procured him a marriage with the niece of the celebrated Sir Nathan Wright, who was appointed Lord Keeper of the Great Seal of England.
Sir Nathan appointed him to be his train- bearer -- no invaluable place, but greatly inferior to what the young gentleman's ambition had taught him to aspire to. However he kept his place some time, in expectation of preferment; but failing in his views of promotion in this line he bought a commission in the army.
He served under the Duke of Marlborough in several campaigns in Flanders, and was promoted in the army as the reward of his military merit. While in winter quarters at Bruges, at the close of one of these campaigns, he had a quarrel with another officer, which occasioned a duel, and Oneby, having killed the other, was brought to his trial before a court martial, which acquitted him of the murder. The regiment being soon afterwards ordered to Jamaica, Mr Oneby went with it, and during his residence at Port Royal fought another duel with a brother officer, whom he wounded in so dangerous a manner that he expired after an illness of several months; but as he did not instantly die, no further notice was taken of the affair.
The rank of Major in a regiment of dragoons had been conferred on Mr Oneby in consequence of his services; but on the Peace of Utrecht he returned to England, and was reduced to half-pay. Repairing to London he frequented the gaming-houses, and became so complete a gambler that he commonly carried cards and dice in his pockets. Having fallen into company with some gentlemen at a coffee-house in Covent Garden, they all adjourned to the Castle Tavern, in Drury Lane, where they went to cards. Mr Hawkins, who was of the company,
having declined playing, Mr Rich asked if anyone would bet him three half-crowns. The bet was apparently accepted by William Gower, Esq., who, in ridicule, laid down three halfpence. On this Major Oneby abused Gower and threw a bottle at him; and, in return, Gower threw a glass at the other. Swords were immediately drawn on both sides, but Mr Rich interposing, the parties were apparently reconciled, and sat down to their former diversion. Gower seemed inclined to compromise the difference, saying that he was willing to adjust the affair though the Major had been the aggressor.
In answer to this Oneby said he "would have his blood," and said to Mr Hawkins that the mischief had been occasioned by him. Hawkins replied he was ready to answer, if he had anything to say; to which Oneby said: "I have another chap first." Mr Hawkins left the company about three o'clock in the morning; soon after which Mr Oneby rose and said to Gower: "Hark ye, young gentleman, a word with you"; on which they retired to another room and shut the door.
A clashing of swords being heard by the company, the waiter broke open the door, and on their entrance they found Oneby holding Gower with his left hand, having his sword in the right, and Mr Gower's sword lying on the floor. A surgeon of eminence having examined Mr Gower's wounds, it was found that the sword of his antagonist had passed through his intestines, of which wound he died the following day; on which Mr Oneby was apprehended and lodged in Newgate.
The circumstances above mentioned were stated on his trial; but some doubts arising in the minds of the jury, they brought in a special verdict, referable to the opinion of the twelve judges. Mr Oneby having remained in Newgate two years, and the judges not having met to give their opinion, he became impatient of longer confinement, and therefore moved the Court of King's Bench that counsel might be heard on his case.
Thereupon the prisoner was carried into court, by virtue of a writ of habeas corpus; and the record of the special verdict being read, the Reverend Bench, with great humanity, assigned him two counsel, a solicitor and a clerk in court.
Lord Chief Justice Raymond and three other judges presided a few days afterwards, when the Major was again brought up, his counsel, as well as those for the Crown, being heard; after which the Lord Chief Justice declared that he would take an opportunity of having the opinion of the other judges, and then the prisoner should be informed of the event. The Major, on his return to Newgate, gave a handsome dinner, at the Crown and Anchor tavern, in the Strand, to the persons who had the custody of him; and, seeming to be in high spirits on account of the ingenious arguments used by his counsel, entertained little doubt of being discharged.
After a considerable time the judges assembled at Serjeant's Inn Hall to bring the matter to a final decision. Counsel were heard on both sides, and the pleadings lasted a whole day, during which the Major was carousing with his friends in Newgate, and boasting of the certainty of his escape, as he had only acted in conformity with the character of a man of honour. The judges broke up about ten o'clock at night without declaring their opinion.
Not many days after this the keeper of Newgate told the Major he must double-iron him, to prevent his making his escape, and that he must be removed to a safer place, unless he would pay for a man to attend him in his room. Oneby was shocked at this news and asked the keeper's authority for such a proceeding, but he could obtain no satisfactory answer.
The man appointed to attend the Major in his room was one John Hooper (who was afterwards executioner), a fellow of remarkable drollery, but of such a forbidding countenance that when Oneby first saw him he exclaimed: "What the devil do you bring this fellow here for? Whenever I look at him I shall think of being hanged." Hooper, however, by a knack of telling stories, soon made himself a very agreeable companion to the Major.
At length the judges assembled again at Serjeant's Inn Hall, and having declared their opinions to each other, the Counsel for the Prosecution demanded that their Lordships would proceed to judgment. Thereupon the sense of the Bench was delivered to Mr Oneby by Lord Raymond, who said that it was the unanimous opinion of the judges that he had been guilty of murder, and that his declaring he would "have the blood" of Gower had great weight in his disfavour.
A few days after this judgment of death was passed against him, and he was ordered to be executed. On the Saturday preceding the day that he was ordered for execution an undertaker went to Newgate and delivered him a letter, of which the following is a copy, saying that he would wait below for an answer:
HONOURED SIR, -- This is to inform you that I follow the business of an undertaker in Drury Lane, where I have lived many years and am well known to several of your friends. As you are to die on Monday, and have not, as I suppose, spoken to anybody else about your funeral, if your honour shall think fit to give me orders, I will perform it as cheap, and in as decent a manner, as any man alive. Your honour's unknown humble servant, G. H.
The Major had no sooner read this letter than he flew into a violent passion, which being made known to the undertaker he thought proper to decamp, without waiting for his orders. When Hooper came at night to attend Mr Oneby he told him of the letter he had received from the undertaker, and in terms very improper for his melancholy situation expressed his resentment for the supposed affront.
Every hope of pardon being vanished, this unhappy man had recourse to a dreadful method of evading the ignominy of the gallows. On the night of the Saturday last mentioned he went to bed at ten o'clock, and having slept till four o'clock on Sunday morning he asked for a glass of brandy-and-water, and pen, ink and paper, and sitting up in bed wrote the following note:
-- COUSIN TURVILL, - - Give Mr Akerman, the turnkey below-stairs, half-a-guinea, and Jack, who waits in my room, five shillings. The poor devils have had a great deal of trouble with me since I have been here.
Having delivered this note to his attendant, he begged to be left to his repose, that he might be fit for the reception of some friends who were to call on him. He was accordingly left, and on a gentleman coming into his apartment about seven o'clock, and the Major's footman with him, he called out to the latter, "Who is that, Philip?" which were the last words he was heard to speak.
The gentleman, approaching the bedside, found he had cut a deep wound in his wrist with a penknife and was drenched in blood. A surgeon was instantly sent for, but he was dead before his arrival.