A Tragic Case of Abduction and the Hanging of John McNaghtan in Ireland

An Extract from "Ireland Ninety Years Ago" by John Edward Walsh

Abduction, or forcibly carrying off heiresses, was another of those crying evils which formerly afflicted Ireland; but it was an outrage so agreeable to the spirit of the times, and so congenial to the ardent and romantic character of the natives, that it was considered an achievement creditable to the man, and a matter of boast and exultation to the woman.

From the time that the King of Leinster abducted the frail Dervogle, and royalty set an example of carrying off ladies, it was a constant practice. When once it went abroad that a woman in any station in life had money, she became the immediate object of some enterprising fellow, who readily collected about him adherents to assist in his attempt. No gentleman or farmer felt himself safe who had a daughter entitled to a fortune; she was sure to be carried off with or without her consent, and he lived in a constant state of alarm till she was happily disposed of in marriage. It was generally the wildest, most "devil-may-care" fellow who undertook the enterprise, and unfortunately such a character was found to have most attractions in the eyes of a young and romantic girl.

On the Derry side of the Foyle, and about two miles from the city, is Prehen, the seat of the Knoxes. It is highly wooded, and covers a considerable tract, descending to the river and overhanging the broad expanse of water in this place with its dark shade. The circumstance which marked its ancient owners with affliction is of such a character as to correspond with the gloom that pervades its aspect; and no traveller passes it without many reflections on the sad event which happened there.

John M'Naghtan was a native of Derry. His father was an opulent merchant, and gave his son all the advantages of a most liberal education. He graduated in Trinity College, Dublin; but having inherited from his uncle a large estate, which precluded the necessity of engaging in any profession, he commenced a career of dissipation, then too common in Ireland. He married early, but his extravagance soon involved him in such distress that he was arrested by the sheriff in his own parlour for a considerable debt, in the presence of his pregnant wife. The shock was fatal.

She was seized with premature labour, and both wife and child perished. Being a man of address and ability, he was appointed to a lucrative situation in the revenue by the then Irish government, and in the course of his duty contracted an intimacy with the family of Mr. Knox, of Prehen, whose daughter, a lovely and amiable girl, was entitled to a large fortune, independent of her father. To her M'Naghtan paid assiduous court, and as she was too young at the time to marry, he obtained a promise from her to become his bride in two years. When the circumstance was made known to her father, he interdicted it in the most decided manner, and forbade M'Naghtan's visits to his house. This was represented as so injurious to M'Naghtan's character, that the good-natured old man was persuaded again to permit his intimacy with his family, under the express stipulation that he should think no more of his daughter. One day the lovers found themselves alone, with no companion but a little boy, when M'Naghtan took from his pocket a prayer-book, and read himself the marriage ceremony, prevailing on Miss Knox to answer the responses, which she did, adding to each, "provided my father consent." Of this ceremony M'Naghtan immediately availed himself; and, when he next met her at the house of a mutual friend, openly claimed her as his wife. Again he was forbidden the house by the indignant father. He then published an advertisement in all the newspapers, declaring the young lady was married to him. By a process, however, in the spiritual court, the pretended marriage was entirely set aside.

In the course of these proceedings M'Naghtan wrote a threatening letter to one of the judges of the court of delegates, and, it was said, lay in wait to have him murdered when he came on circuit, but fortunately missed him in consequence of the judges taking a different road. The result was, that M'Naghtan was obliged to fly to England. But here his whole mind was bent on obtaining possession of his wife; so at all hazards he returned, and lay concealed in the woods of Prehen. Warning of this circumstance had been communicated to her father, but he seemed to despise it. There was, however, a blacksmith, whose wife had nursed Miss Knox, and he, with the known attachment of such a connection in Ireland, always followed his foster-daughter, as her protector, whenever she ventured abroad.

To detach his daughter from this unfortunate connection, Mr. Knox resolved to leave the country, and introduce her to the society of the metropolis; and in the beginning of November, 1761, prepared to set out for Dublin. M'Naghtan and a party of his friends having intimation of his intention, repaired to a cabin a little distance from the road, with a sack full of fire-arms. From hence one of the party was despatched to the house of an old woman who lived by the way-side, under the pretence of buying some yarn, to wait for the coming up of Mr. Knox's carriage. When it did arrive, the woman pointed it out, named the travellers it contained, and described the position in which they sat. They were Mr. Knox, his wife, his daughter, and a maid-servant. It was attended by but one servant, and the smith before mentioned. The scout immediately ran before, and communicated to M'Naghtan the information he received. The carriage was instantly surrounded by him and three other men. M'Naghtan and one of his accomplices fired at the smith, whom they did not kill, but totally disabled. The blinds were now close drawn, that the persons inside might not be recognized. M'Naghtan rode up to it, and either by accident or design discharged a heavily-loaded blunderbuss into it at random. A shriek was heard inside. The blind was let down, and Mr. Knox discharged his pistol at the assassin. At the same moment another was fired from behind a stack of turf, by the servant who had concealed himself there. Both the shots took effect in the body of M'Naghtan. He was, however, held on his horse by his associates, who rode off with him. The carriage was then examined. Miss Knox was found dead, weltering in her blood. On the first alarm she 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, leaving the other three persons in the carriage with her unhurt and untouched by this random shot.

The country was soon alarmed, and a reward of five hundred pounds offered for the apprehension of the murderers. A company of light horse scoured the district, and amongst other places were led to search the house of a farmer named Wenslow. The family denied all knowledge of M'Naghtan, and the party were leaving the house when the corporal said to one of his companions, in the hearing of a countryman who was digging potatoes, that the discoverer would be entitled to a reward of three hundred pounds. The countryman immediately pointed to a hay-loft, and the corporal running up a ladder, burst open the door, and discovered M'Naghtan lying in the hay. Notwithstanding his miserably wounded state, he made a desperate resistance, but was ultimately taken and lodged in Lifford gaol. Some of his accomplices were arrested soon after. They were tried before a special commission at Lifford, and one of them received as king's evidence. M'Naghtan was brought into court wrapped in a blanket, and laid on a table in the dock, not being able to support himself in any other position. Notwithstanding acute pain and exceeding debility, he defended himself with astonishing energy and acuteness. A singular trait of Irish feeling occurred in the course of the trial. One of his followers implicated in the outrage, named Dunlap, was a faithful and attached fellow, and his master evinced more anxiety to save his life than his own. As a means of doing so, he disclaimed all knowledge of his person: "Oh, master dear," said the poor fellow in the dock, "is this the way you are going to disown me after all?"

On the day of execution M'Naghtan was so weak as to be supported in the arms of attendants. He evinced the last testimony of his regard to the unfortunate young lady he had murdered, of whom he was passionately fond, and whom he mourned as his wife. The cap which covered his face was bound with black, his jacket was trimmed with black, having jet buttons, and he wore large black buckles in his shoes. When lifted up the ladder, he exerted all his remaining strength to throw himself off, and with such force that the rope broke, and he fell gasping to the ground. As he was a man of daring enterprise and profuse bounty, he was highly popular, and the crowd made a lane for him to escape, and attempted to assist him. He fiercely declined their aid, declaring, in a manner characteristic of the impetuous pride of his nature, that "he would not live to be pointed at as the half-hanged man." He called to his follower, Dunlap, for the rope which was round his neck, the knot of which was slipped and placed round his own. Again he was assisted up the ladder, and collecting all his energies, he flung himself off, and died without a struggle. His unfortunate but faithful follower stood by wringing his hands as he witnessed the sufferings of his dear master, and earnestly desired that his own execution might be hastened, that he might soon follow him and die by the same rope.

This murder and execution took place on the road between Strabane and Derry; and as the memory of them still lives among the peasantry, the spot is pointed out to passengers, and recalls traits of what Ireland was about one hundred years ago, even in the most civilized county. Abduction was then a common mode of courtship in the north as well as in the south, and a man was deemed a man of spirit if he so effected his marriage. Any fatal accident resulting to resisting friends was considered a venial offence, and the natural effect of their unreasonable obstinacy.

The circumstances and character of the parties in this affair rendered it one of the deepest interest. The young lady was but fifteen, gentle, accomplished, and beautiful, greatly attached to the unhappy man, devotedly fond of her father, and, with the strongest sense of rectitude and propriety, entangled in an unfortunate engagement from simplicity and inexperience. The gentleman was thirty-eight, a man of the most engaging person, and a model of manly beauty. His manners were soft, gentle, and insinuating, and his disposition naturally generous and humane; but when roused by strong excitement, his passions were most fierce and uncontrollable. His efforts on his trial were not to preserve his life, which became a burden to him after the loss of her he loved, but to save from a like fate a faithful follower, and to exculpate his own memory from a charge of intended cruelty and deliberate murder.