Modern history



Mr. Laws knows best how he made his escape. Many odd storys were then told, particularly that he took the sleeping of the sentinel for some hours at his door to be a trick and that he bought an underkeeper.

James Johnston,

Earl of Warriston (1719)

AFTER THE TRAUMAS OF THE DUEL, THE TRIAL, AND HISmurder conviction, Law could do little but wait for events to unfold. His mood was surprisingly sanguine. A seventeenth-century man of privilege expected justice to be pliant and merciful, particularly if his crime was widely regarded as honorable.

In the privileged world of both Law and Wilson, dueling was one of the unwritten rules of membership—a nobleman’s way of settling a dispute and thus, in some deep-rooted sense, a ritualistic badge of rank. It was expected that a gentleman would issue a challenge if his honor was in any way impugned. If he didn’t, or if his opponent resisted such a challenge, it would be tantamount to an admission that he was not a gentleman—which the dashing John Law would never have given in to. Since the restoration of the monarchy, dueling had flourished. Among the journals of the day there are numerous examples of fatal conflicts arising from the most trivial of slights. Shades of Law’s escapade echo in John Evelyn’s diary note of a duel involving a young spendthrift, Conyers Seymour, who “had a slight affront in St. James’s Park, given him by one who was envious of his gallantries, for he was a vain foppish young man.”

The covert respectability of dueling was reflected in the way surviving protagonists were treated. Charles II had issued a proclamation against duelists but invariably pardoned those convicted, and a blind eye was turned throughout William’sreign. Duelists made frequent appearances in the courts but were never put to death for their crime. “I neither heard before nor after that killing a man in a fair duel was found murder,” remarked Law’s friend James Johnston, the Earl of Warriston. In his Newgate cell, Law must have concluded calmly, therefore, that there was no cause for alarm. A reprieve was certain. Over the following weeks and months his optimism began to seem misplaced.

Wilson’s cousins—the Townsend, Ash, and Windham families—were eager to avenge the death of their kinsman. All were prominent courtiers and as such “strangely prepossessed King William.” They anticipated, correctly, that Law’s supporters would try to secure a royal pardon, so they besieged the king with counterdemands. In this particularly brutal duel, they insisted, Law had shown himself a man of dishonor. Premeditated malice had been proven, therefore no mercy should be shown. Within days of the trial, a haze of subterfuge and intrigue pervaded the cabinets and corridors of Whitehall Palace. Caught in its midst, King William became uneasy and increasingly irate whenever the matter was raised.

Law’s most stalwart supporter was the Earl of Warriston. A fellow Scot, intelligent, honest, and a brilliant lawyer, Warriston had been brought up in Holland and studied law in Utrecht. His bond with King William was long-standing—Warriston had helped to set up an intelligence network before the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which had brought William to the throne. At the time of Law’s imprisonment, Warriston was Scottish Secretary, having replaced the disgraced Earl of Stair in the aftermath of the massacre of Glencoe.

How or where Law and Warriston met is not known, but the bond between them must have been close, because Warriston braved the king’s wrath more than once to help. First he accosted William at his morning levee with the claim that Wilson’s supporters had bought off the jury, and that Law was being made unjustly to “suffer for his ingenuity.” His legal expertise told him that “without Mr. Law’s confession the fact could not have been proved, for those that saw it being strangers to him when brought to prison to see him, could only swear that it was one like him.” In other words, if Law had denied his presence he would probably have escaped sentence of death.

The king’s antipathy to his Scottish subjects was immediately apparent in his scathing retort: “What . . . Scotchmen suffer for their ingenuity. Was ever such a thing known?” The more Warriston attempted to reason with him, the more the royal anger smoldered: “When I reasoned the matter . . . I was more rudely treated by him and the nation too than we ever had been upon any occasion.” The king was convinced that money lay at the root of the quarrel. “He could not but believe . . . that Mr. Laws had quarrelled with Wilson who, he said, was a known coward, in order to make him give him money.” This placed a sordid complexion on the matter, and he saw no reason for the death sentence to be lifted.

Warriston realized he would need help to overcome the king’s antagonism and enlisted the help of the dashing Duke of Shrewsbury, who at the time “had more power . . . with the King than any man alive,” and, fortunately for Law, also owed Warriston a favor. Shrewsbury cannily advised Warriston to play for time and let the king’s temper subside—“he would keep it out of the cabinet for a week,” he promised. In the meantime, Warriston should try to find evidence “that it was not a money business.”

Somehow Warriston made contact with one of Law’s money dealers, who confirmed that “a little before” the duel Law had received “£400 from Scotland by Bill, which the Banker’s book could show.” Law, therefore, had plenty of money and no reason to resort to extortion. Shrewsbury was convinced by this testimony and passed the information to the king with the confident assurance “that there was nothing of money in the case.” But to the king the dilemma still seemed insoluble. Now that his original objection was disproven, Warriston and Shrewsbury were pestering him to release Law; yet he had promised the Wilsons he would never pardon Law without their consent, and he could not risk upsetting them. Eventually he took the middle ground: Law was reprieved from the death sentence but not released, pending the Wilsons’ reaction.

They retaliated dramatically, issuing an “Appeal of Murder,” an ancient legal procedure that allowed the heir to a murder victim to oppose a royal pardon. If they succeeded, the king could have no further jurisdiction over the outcome. They would be able to demand Law’s death, and not even a royal pardon would save him.

The case was now a civil one and came under the jurisdiction of the Court of the King’s Bench at Westminster Hall. Without tasting freedom, Law was transferred from Newgate to the King’s Bench prison in Southwark—from one grim hellhole to another—to await this second trial. Opinion had swung markedly in Wilson’s favor. Even Warriston privately admitted the worst: “Mr. Law’s case is very doubtful, all indifferent men are against him; and I never had so many reproaches for any business since I knew England, as for concerning myself for him: my Lord Chief Justice is earnest to have his life, the Archbishop owns to me that he himself pressed the King not to pardon him, as being a thing of an odious nature, and which would give great offence,” he wrote gloomily.

On June 22, almost two months after the first trial, Law came before the King’s Bench. To his relief, he found Chief Justice Sir John Holt officiating. Unlike Lovell, Holt is remembered for his fair-mindedness, his humanity—he ended the practice of bringing defendants to the dock in irons—and for the exceptionally profligate and debauched friends he made while at Oxford. Years later one of them came before him on a charge of felony. Holt inquired after the rest of the circle, only to be told, “Ah, my lord, they are all hanged but myself and your lordship.”

Since this was a civil action, Law was now entitled to his own defense and enlisted some of the most eminent lawyers of the day: Sir William Thompson and Sir Creswell Levinz with Thomas Carthew as junior. As soon as the case opened it became apparent that even with this support, his prospects were even worse than everyone had feared. Wilson’s legal team had prepared a damning case, claiming that Law had committed murder “violently, feloniously, wilfully, and of his malice aforethought,” and furthermore that he had cowardly attempted to evade arrest. Robert Wilson said he had been forced to give chase “from vill to vill into the four nearest vills and further.” If we bear in mind that this is the only mention of Law’s attempt to evade justice, Wilson’s version of events rings hollow and was probably just another malicious attempt to manipulate the court and make the case against Law even blacker.

Law’s defense team opted to use technical quibbles to demolish the Wilson case. There were serious discrepancies in the writ against their client, they complained: the time and place of the incident had not been precisely given; the charge against Law was indirect and thus there was “no necessity, nor is he [Law] bound by the law of the land to answer” the Wilson appeal. Clearly the argument carried weight, because Holt and his learned colleagues needed time to consider the complexities raised and deferred judgment for a week. But by late June, Trinity term was drawing to a close and the hearing was postponed until the following autumn.

Law now faced the prospect of several months in the King’s Bench prison, a loathsome penal establishment. But unlike the fortress Newgate, where the turnkey locked the prison gates and did not reappear till morning, King’s Bench was notoriously insecure. Ever since he was moved there, friends had urged him to try to escape. Even Warriston, pillar of the establishment though he was, whispered that Law was “a blockhead if he make not his escape which he may easily do considering the nature of that prison.” So far Law had resisted, hoping that he would be legally released. Now, faced with what seemed an interminable wait and a doubtful outcome, he listened. Friends offered to smuggle in tools, and by mid-October he was surreptitiously filing down the bars of his prison cell, dreaming of freedom.

It was a short-lived illusion. On October 20 the diarist Narcissus Luttrell noted that Law’s filed bars had been discovered by one of his guards. To prevent any further attempts he was put in handcuffs and leg irons. Even the stalwart Warriston now despaired. “I am afraid Mr. Law shall be hanged at last, for I am in a manner resolved to meddle no more in the matter; had he had his senses about him, he had been out of danger long before now,” he wrote despondently. A tragic conclusion seemed even more certain when Judge Holt decided that Law’s legal objections had failed. He would face the Wilson appeal as charged in the new year of 1695.

So much for the record. At this point traditional legend and probable fact diverge. According to the usual story, which Law did nothing to discourage, somehow he laid his hands on powerful opiates and more tools. Shortly before his trial, he broke free of his irons, drugged his guards, filed down the bars of his cell, scaled the prison wall—and suffered no more than a sprained ankle in the process. A waiting carriage then whisked him to the coast, where he sailed to safety on the Continent.

The truth was almost certainly rather more complex and much more astonishing. By autumn of 1694, Law had given up hope of legally escaping the death sentence, but his friends had not forgotten him and his case was still debated in court circles. The king remained irresolute, but eventually, with royal blessing, the Duke of Shrewsbury announced to Warriston that the only satisfactory conclusion would be for Law to be saved, “provided it can be done in such a manner, as that his majesty did not appear in it, nor must I [Shrewsbury].”

Warriston reacted quickly. Assuring them “that nothing was more easy than to give a verbal order to the keeper to let him make his escape, as had been done in many a thousand cases,” he began to plot Law’s escape himself. Secrecy was paramount: if either the king, the duke, or Warriston was known to have sanctioned the escape of an already notorious convicted felon, a huge public scandal might result. This time the plan succeeded. Warriston, having witnessed the bungled first attempt, knew that Law would need help to escape successfully. He found two underkeepers “to offer . . . services to Mr. Laws.” One night, soon after New Year’s, the underkeepers drugged the guards on the door, took turns to file down Law’s manacles, and released him from his cell. A few days later Warriston met the duke, who “whispered to me in a crowd, that my friend was at liberty . . . and prayed me to keep his secret.” Warriston was as good as his word and never spoke of the matter “till King William’s death, or at least that the duke was out of all business.”

To Law the freedom of which he had dreamed and despaired came as a shock. He did not expect to be pushed to liberty, and fearful that the open door and sleeping guards were merely another example of Wilson chicanery, was bemused when it happened. Years later he would own that “though he knew nothing nor does yet know of the truth . . . that he himself was surprised with the zeal and forwardness of the underkeepers who relieved one another in sawing off his irons.” The truth was that Law was happy for the world to believe what it liked of his escape, because even he did not fully know how it had happened.

The escape, announced a few days later in court, aroused the Wilson family’s outrage. They immediately ensured that Law was declared a fugitive from justice, and a reward for his apprehension was offered in the London Gazette of Monday, January 7, 1695. But here, too, their attempts to recapture Law were thwarted. The publication was produced under the auspices of the Secretary of State—none other than the Duke of Shrewsbury. Doubtless with his connivance, the advertisement was worded as follows: “Captain John Lawe, a Scotchman, lately a prisoner in the King’s Bench for murder, aged 26, a very tall, black, lean man, well shaped, above six foot high, large pock holes in his face, big high nosed, speaks broad and loud, made his escape from the said prison. Whoever secures him, so as he may be delivered at the said prison, shall have fifty pounds paid immediately by the Marshall of the King’s Bench.”

The unidentified person who placed the notice ensured that the description of the handsome fugitive was wildly inaccurate. John Law was not a captain, nor was his face pockmarked, nor was his voice “broad and loud.” If anything, the unattractive picture it painted helped his successful escape.

Public interest, already avid at the time of the trial, was whipped up further by the drama and romance of Law’s flight. Everyone expected that he would make for his native Scotland, and attention focused on roads to the north. There was at least one false alarm. Narcissus Luttrell noted a writ of habeas corpus issued “for bringing up hither Mr. Lawes, who killed Mr. Wilson, he being apprehended in Leicestershire as he was riding post for Scotland.” Then, a few days later, on January 26, he disappointedly recorded the latest installment: “The report of Lawes being taken in Leicestershire proves a mistake; ’twas another person.”

Even years later the details of the duel and escape were still picked over. Most agreed that there was more to the matter than evidence in court had suggested, and that the origins of Wilson’s money lay at the root of the matter. Many bizarre theories were put forward to make sense of the scant facts. John Evelyn wrote, “It did not appear that he was kept by women, play, coining, padding, or dealing in chemistry; but he would sometimes say that if he should live ever so long, he had wherewith to maintain himself in the same manner.” The Unknown Lady’s Pacquet of Letters published in 1707 offered one solution. According to their author, Wilson had accidentally met a masked woman in Kensington Gardens and, without knowing who she was, embarked on an illicit affair with her. The woman forced Wilson to agree that he would never attempt to find out her identity and in return paid him a generous retainer. But the temptation for Wilson was too great. When he discovered that the woman was Elizabeth Villiers, the king’s boss-eyed, unattractive mistress, she was furious that he had broken his word and enlisted the help of her friend Law, whom she knew to be already embroiled in a quarrel with Wilson, to avenge them both. Villiers assured Law that with her royal connections, he would escape the usual punishment.

This extraordinarily far-fetched account was countered a decade or so later by another outlandish and recently rediscovered theory. A pamphlet thought to have been published around 1723, entitled Love Letters Between a Certain Late Nobleman and the Famous Mr. Wilson: Discovering the True History of the Rise and Surprising Grandeur of That Celebrated Beau, suggested that Wilson’s money came secretly from a homosexual lover and that Law had been involved in the intrigue and had fallen out with Wilson over it. But by the time this version of events was published, Law was an internationally famous figure who had rocked the financial structure of the Western world. Europe was full of satirical and slanderous attacks on his character and background—and this, in all probability, was one of them.

The truth remains enigmatic.

What is not in doubt is that the duel and the events surrounding it formed a template for the rest of John Law’s life. His blinkered high principles and refusal to compromise, his willingness to wager everything—life itself—in a matter of honor landed him in similar dire predicaments, when he had to rely on prominent friends to propel him to safety. It is possible, too, that while it was the dueling convention as much as reckless courage that induced him to respond to Wilson’s challenge in the first place, the violence of the encounter, his brush with death, and the horrific experience of prison unsettled him more than he revealed. Years afterward, it may have been these disturbing memories that spurred the loss of control that surfaced in similarly stressful situations.

Certainly, too, the inscrutable John Law had resolved that the duel’s full story should be left untold. As he stood on the deck of the packet ship crossing to the Continent and savored his freedom, he forgot his past and prepared for a new life.

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