Half-hanged McNaughten – A Victim or a Villain?

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Guns and Carriage
Guns and Carriage

The McNaughten Family

The McNaughten family from Argyll in Scotland had landed in Carrickfergus with the army of William III in 1688. They settled at Benvarden Estate. The family did well in business and served as local magistrates.

In 1724 John McNaughten was born, son of Bartholomew, a successful Derry merchant. At 6 years of age John inherited Benvarden, with an annual income of about £600. The young heir was educated at the Royal School, Raphoe in County Donegal and in 1740 entered Trinity College, Dublin.

Like many young wealthy men, John was more interested in his social life than his studies. He was said to be charming, witty and popular with the ladies. However, while mixing with the elite of the capital, and enjoying a lavish lifestyle, John developed a serious gambling addiction that was to blight his life. He left university without graduating, and was forced to sell off some of the family lands to pay his debts. The rest he had to mortgage.

“(His inheritance) precluded the necessity of engaging in any profession, he commenced a career of dissipation (debauchery), then too common in Ireland”

Northern Whig 10th November 1930

Love and Marriage

By chance John was introduced by the 1st Earl of Masserene (a rich county Antrim landowner) to his sister-in-law, Sophie Daniel. Sophie was the daughter of Richard Daniel, Dean of Down.

The couple were married, only after McNaughten faithfully promised to never gamble again. Sophie came with a generous dowry which enabled John to satisfy his debtors.

It seemed that John managed to keep his oath for a while at least, but soon he was again a regular at the Dublin gaming tables. ‘Lady Luck’ was not on his side and once again he amassed huge debts.

In 1756 a writ was issued for his arrest. The sheriff’s officers followed his sedan chair home one night and attempted to execute the warrant. A scuffle ensued to which the heavily pregnant Sophie was witness. Shocked at the extent of her husband’s debts and broken promises, she collapsed and died.

A Fresh Start

John seems to have been genuinely bereft at the loss of his wife and unborn child and sank into a deep depression.

The Earl of Masserene came to his aid by securing him the post of Collector of Taxes (the King’s Duty) for the County of Coleraine, now known as County Derry. This provided a yearly salary of £200.

His friends rallied round and stood surety for his debts. John now had a chance to start afresh.

However, his obsession with gambling was not easily overcome, and before long John was ‘up to his eyes’ in debt again. He even embezzled £800 from the taxes he had collected and was forced to leave his job. His trusting friends had to repay the money.

Prehen Pathway
Prehen Pathway

Prehen House

Despite his reputation John must have been a likeable fellow, for once again an old family friend came to his rescue. Alexander Knox MP for County Donegal, offered him the hospitality of his home, Prehen House.

Prehen, from the Irish ‘preachan’ meaning ‘place of the crows’ lay on the east bank of the River Foyle. It was situated on the road to Strabane, a short distance from Derry in the Parish of Clondermot. The house was designed by local architect Michael Priestly in 1745 and sat in an estate of 3,641 acres.

Approaching Prehen House
Approaching Prehen House

“Prehen, the seat of Colonel Knox, is beautifully situated on the eastern side of the Foyle, about 2 miles above the bridge of Derry. The plantations, which sweep down to the water’s edge, extend an entire mile, and the demesne is ornamented throughout with a great number of old and picturesque trees. The house is very substantial and commodious; in its rear is a spacious walled garden and a large orchard”

George Downes Ordnance Survey Memoirs November 1835
Prehen House
Prehen House

Mary Ann Knox

MP Alexander Knox, from Moneymore and Rathmullan, had married Honoria Tomkins in 1738. They had a son George born in 1739 and a daughter Mary Ann in 1741.

When McNaughten arrived, Mary Ann was about 15 years old. 16 or 17 was considered marriageable age at this time. An attraction between John and Mary Ann arose. Whether this was genuine on John’s part, or influenced by her £5,000 dowry is a moot point.

“It was time to turn his attention to his host’s daughter Mary Ann. He targeted the lady herself, who was his junior by 16 years, and became a frequent guest at Prehen. It was an elegant house with substantial grounds and fine views of the upper Foyle and would, one day, belong to Mary Ann”

Sean McMahon The Bloody North 2007
Mary Ann Knox
Mary Ann Knox

The Forbidden Romance

The couple certainly had a ‘dalliance’. It is said that they secretly communicated by hiding notes in the base of a tree within the grounds. For centuries this tree was known by locals as the Post Office Tree, until it was felled by a storm in the 1970’s.

John, ever the optimist and confident of his winning ways, asked Mary Ann’s father for her hand in marriage. However Knox, while charmed by McNaughten, did not (unsurprisingly) want him as a son-in-law!

Seemingly embarrassed at the refusal, John asked Alexander not to mention his proposal to Mary Ann or any other family member, so that he could continue to visit the house without any social awkwardness.

On the other hand, the duplicitous John told Mary Ann that her father had given his blessing, but that the betrothal was to be kept secret until she was a little older.

The ‘Wedding’

John now realised that to marry the wealthy young heiress, he would have to employ underhand tactics.

While visiting the house of a friend, Joshua Sweteham in Derry, John made a ‘fun game’ of a pretend wedding. This included a ‘witness’, 17-year-old Andrew Hamilton who was to confirm that the wedding had taken place . During the ceremony John and Mary Ann in the roles of ‘bride’ and ‘groom’ read the words of the marriage ceremony and kissed the Holy Book.

We can imagine the teen-age Mary Ann being excited and flattered by their play-acting but she was not so gullible in that she added “only if my father consents” throughout the sham ceremony. The wedding ruse came to nothing.

A Trust Betrayed

Still trusting McNaughten to be a good friend and guardian to his daughter, with all thoughts of matrimony firmly quashed, Knox allowed the pair to travel to visit friends, the Wrays of Ards in Donegal. Mary Ann and John were to spend the first night en route with John McCausland in Strabane.

Here McNaughten hoped to ‘consummate’ their relationship. However, Mrs McCausland was a diligent chaperone and had Mary Ann sleep with her in her room.

On reaching the Wrays, Mary Ann told her friend Angel Wray, all that had happened and of John’s increasingly persistent manner towards her. On being informed of the situation, Alexander Knox summoned his daughter back to Prehen and in no uncertain terms informed McNaughten he was no longer welcome.

The Wedding Announced… and Denied

However, whether through genuine emotion or for monetary gain, John was determined to have his ‘wife’. He placed notices in the newspapers announcing their wedding.

Knox retaliated with printed denials.

The affair ended up in court with judgement in favour of the Knox family with McNaughten having to pay £500 damages.

Renewed Pursuit

NcNaughten fled to Bath in England to escape paying. However, he returned to Ireland when he heard that Mary Ann was residing with her uncle James Knox in Sligo.

McNaughten roamed the county, sometimes in disguise, in an effort to espy Mary Ann. He also tried to intercept her while she was in Swanlinbar to ‘take the mineral waters’.

As he went, he tried to influence as many people as he could with tales of his broken heart. The story of Alexander Knox, the cruel aristocratic father, who had parted the two lovers was the gossip of the day.

“as news spread of his plight and separation from his true love, he became a celebrity in Cavan gaining support from the local people in high places”

Dan Donnelly 2016

One Last Gambit

Mary Ann returned to the family home but it was agreed she would accompany her father to the opening of Parliament in Dublin. This would also serve “to detach his daughter from this unfortunate connection”.

On 10th November 1761 the carriage, with extra outriders for protection, left Prehen for the journey south. Mary Ann’s uncle James and manservant rode in front and her brother George followed the post-chaise.

The Prehen Carriage (on display in The Tower Museum, Derry)
The Prehen Carriage (on display in The Tower Museum, Derry)

McNaughten with a ‘last throw of the dice’ decided to ambush the carriage and carry his ‘wife’ away. He was accompanied by his loyal servants George McDougal, James McCarrel and Thomas Dunlop.

This plan was not as far-fetched as it seems to us today. In eighteenth century Ireland, though uncommon, it was not unheard of for impoverished noblemen to abduct an heiress to marry. Once the wedding ceremony and wedding night were passed, the family would reluctantly have to accept the situation, as the young woman in question would no longer be ‘marriageable’ to anyone else.

“Abductions were a form of license or anarchy, medieval in origin, which was spread widely though unevenly in Irish society in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, affecting Anglo-Irish families as well as the Irish. Abductors were sometimes people of standing, though more commonly they were comparatively young men of some social position but not enough to make a credible match by more orthodox means”

L M Cullen The Emergence of Modern Ireland 1981
The Coach Inn
The Coach Inn Today

The Ambush

At 11:00am the horse-drawn carriage arrived at the Coach Inn in Cloghcor to change the horses and for refreshments.

Further along the road, McNaughten and his companions were hiding behind a dunghill near the cottage belonging to the Keyes family.

The conspirators let the front riders pass and as the vehicle approached the armed men leapt forward.

A pistol was held to the driver’s head while John wrenched open the carriage door and tried to grasp Mary Ann.

The Ambushed Carriage
The Ambushed Carriage

However, a servant, a blacksmith who was particularly fond of Mary Ann, sought to overpower him and in the resulting confusion shots were fired. McNaughten, himself was wounded. It is said that in his panic McNaughten tried to shoot Alexander Knox, but Mary Ann flung herself forward to protect her father and the shots struck her instead.

“On the first alarm she (Mary Ann) had thrown her arms about her father’s neck, to protect him, and so received the contents of the murderer’s firearms. Five balls of the blunderbuss had entered her body…”

Northern Whig 10th November 1930

Mary Ann was carried to the Keyes cabin. Dr Law from Strabane was summoned, but she died of her wounds 4 hours later.

The inquest on Miss Knox was held on 11th November and a verdict of wilful murder by John McNaughten was returned. Her body was taken to Donegal and buried in the Knox plot in the churchyard of Killygarvan in Rathmullan. Her headstone reads ‘Mariana filia obit November 1761

McNaughten and his men fled but were quickly captured by a regiment of the Inniskilling cavalry, led by Captain Caldwell, who were quartered in the town.

McNaughtens Capture and Trial

McNaughten himself was found hiding in the hayloft of a barn in Sandville not far from the scene. The barn was owned by a bleacher named Thomas Winsley. It was said that several young women were seen entering the building with food and drink for the fugitive.

None of the locals would disclose John’s whereabouts, such was McNaughten’s popularity in the district. However, one man who was working in the fields, when offered reward money of 100 guineas, lifted his arm and pointed to the barn. Folklore has it that this man lost his arm in a mill accident the following month.

McNaughton was taken to Lifford jail. On 7th December 1761, after a 14-hour trial, John McNaughten was found guilty of murder. The death sentence was pronounced by Judges Mountainy, Scotard and Smith. It is said that many of the spectators in the courtroom openly wept at the verdict.

Preparations for the Execution

Such was the support for McNaughten, that no local carpenter would construct the gallows. John’s charismatic personality and the spread of the romantic love story had turned him into a ‘wronged hero’ in the eyes of the populace. The Knox’s were forced to build a scaffold themselves.

In turn, the blacksmith refused to remove John’s iron fetters. It was against the law in Ireland to hang a man while he was handcuffed. Finally, the blacksmith was forced to do so after threat of punishment. No willing executioner could be found and a hangman had to be drafted in from County Cavan.

On 15th December 1761 at 1:00pm John McNaughten was brought forth for execution. A large crowd of over 1,000 people gathered on the Great Road between Lifford and Strabane to witness the sombre event. Many were waving white handkerchiefs to signal their support for him.

McNaughton and his unfortunate servant Thomas Dunlop climbed the wooden steps.

“Mr McNaughten behaved with surprising resolution and courage at the place of execution; and forgave and begged forgiveness of his prosecutors”

Belfast Newsletter 22nd December 1761
The Hanging © Kenneth Allen and licensed for reuse under CC BY-SA 2.0
The Hanging © Kenneth Allen and licensed for reuse under CC BY-SA 2.0

Half-hung McNaughten

At this point McNaughten grabbed the noose and put it around his own neck and flung himself violently forward. However, as he plummeted the rope broke and he fell to his knees among the spectators.

Many in the crowd saw this as divine intervention and urged the prisoner to flee. John refused saying that he didn’t want to be known as “half-hanged McNaughten” for evermore.

A new rope was secured and McNaughten was finally hanged. His faithful servant Thomas Dunlop was hanged immediately after. They were interred in an unmarked grave in St Patrick’s Cemetery, Strabane.

“They were both beheaded, and their bodies delivered to their friends, and buried in one grave in a corner of the churchyard”

Belfast Newsletter 22nd December 1761
St Patrick’s Cemetery, Strabane
St Patrick’s Cemetery, Strabane

The Legend of ‘Half-hanged McNaughten’

Even during his lifetime stories abounded about John McNaughten. The manner of his death further enhanced the legend.

Many regarded John and Mary Ann as Romeo and Juliet figures, a romantic pair separated by cruel fate.

Whether this was the truth, or John was a scheming adventurer no-one can say for certain. That he was a charmer is not in doubt.

Unfortunately for him, the moniker he sought to avoid, stuck to him. To this day he is known as ‘Half-Hanged McNaughten’ (alternatively “half-hung McNaughten”)

Half-Hung McNaughten Newsletter 22nd Dec 1761
Half-Hung McNaughten Newsletter 22nd Dec 1761

“Romeo or rogue, brigand or beau, like him or loathe him, but remember him you will! The name will attract the attention of even the not-so-curious. Not hanged, but HALF-HANGED”

Michael Kennedy, Strabane Historical Society Website

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