“Your time is come, you must die!”
Laurence Shirley inherited the title of the fourth Earl Ferrers in 1745, following the death of his uncle, Henry, the third earl, who had been confined to a lunatic asylum. On 16 September 1752 he married Mary Meredith. They had no children and Ferrers locked Mary in his house at Staunton Harold in Leicestershire until a warrant was issued for her release.
This was typical of Ferrers, who had a violent streak in him. He was also prone to paranoia and generally unbalanced behaviour. After one argument his family considered having him sectioned. Following his separation from his wife in 1758 Ferrers’s estates were placed in the hands of trustees. A servant called John Johnson was appointed rent collector. Ferrers developed an irrational hatred of the man, believing that he had swindled him out of a lucrative coal-mining contract.
On 18 January 1760 Ferrers made Johnson kneel before him and shouted, “Down on your other knee! Declare that you have acted against Lord Ferrers. Your time is come, you must die!” then shot him in the stomach. Johnson died 17 hours later at 9am on the following day.
Staunton Harold Hall, Leicestershire, England
Friday 18 January 1760
Ferrers was apprehended as he tried to escape and on 13 February was cross-examined at the bar of the House of Lords before he was taken as a prisoner to the Tower of London. After two months and two days in the Tower, Ferrer’s trial began on 16 April in Westminster Hall. His family urged him to claim that he was insane at the time of the crime. The following day the peers found Ferrers guilty of felony and murder and on 18 April the Keeper of the Great Seal, Robert, first Baron Henley, acting as Lord High Steward, sentenced him to death.
He asked to be beheaded, as was his right as a nobleman, but was refused. Ferrers was driven to Tyburn in his own landau drawn by six horses, wearing a suit of white and silver that he had been married in. Ferrers was hanged on 5 May at Tyburn gallows. Despite the legend, he was not hanged with a silk rope (King George III gave permission but one could not be found in time). He stood on the collapsible platform (a forerunner of the trap door) wearing a white cap and with his arms bound by a black sash. The 45 cm (18 in) drop, designed to break Ferrer’s neck rather thanstrangle him, was too short, leaving his toes touching the boards; he took four minutes to die, even with the executioner and his assistant pulling on his legs to quicken his demise.
Anatomists dissected his body at Surgeons’ Hall then put it on public display for three days before it was buried under the belfry at St Pancras. He was reinterred at Staunton Harold on 3 June 1782. Ferrers left £1,000 each to his four daughters and £60 per year to his mistress, Margaret Clifford, and £1,300 for the children of his victim.