The ‘reports of the Deputy Keeper of Public Records in Ireland’ preserve some hints about the contents of countless legal documents which would later be destroyed by fire in 1922, and the 24th report records: “1785 – Proclamation for apprehending George Moxham, James Moxham, Robert Moxham, Charles Oats, and Bryan Early, and for discovering the other persons concerned in forcibly and feloniously taking and carrying away Elinor Perry, spinster, county Longford”. Couched in polite legal terms, this short description might at first seem innocuous, but it refers to a case which historian Professor James Kelly of St. Patrick’s College, Drumcondra, has singled out as the “most notorious” of “a number of brutal and highly publicised abductions”.
These abductions were a frequent occurrence for many centuries in Ireland, and involved the female heiresses of comparatively wealthy families being kidnapped and forced to marry men of lesser wealth or status, the end result being that the family would have to accept the marriage and provide a dowry and a living to the kidnapper. By today’s standards it might appear bizarre that such a plot could work, but in the religious and patriarchal society of the times any marriage conducted by an ordained priest, even at gunpoint, was considered sacred, and once such a marriage was consummated, even by force, the woman in question was unlikely to find a future husband of her own status, if at all. It was a particularly brutal practise, but clearly one that must have succeeded often enough for so many to attempt it. As Prof. Kelly says in his thorough and compassionate study Abduction of Women of Fortune in Eighteenth Century Ireland, “By any yardstick the abduction of women of fortune as practised in eighteenth century Ireland was a vicious and reprehensible crime. A typical abduction involved a gang of armed men seizing a young woman of fortune, who was usually an only child, at her home under cover of darkness and carrying her off to a remote location; there she was pressurised into marrying one of the abducting party and violated, sometimes in the presence of others, and brought on an odyssey that could last for several weeks. Because most abduction cases are ill documented, it is impossible to establish in most instances if or how well the abductor and his victim knew each other prior to the incident taking place and, thereby, to establish with certitude which cases involved collusion. There was clearly prior contact in some, perhaps even a majority of cases… But this did not inhibit the males in each of these cases from taking the law into their own hands and embarking on courses of action that sometimes ended in disaster for all concerned.”
Prof. Kelly’s study alludes to the fact that there were many different circumstances, occasionally it concerned a young couple who could not gain the consent of the lady’s parents; that abductions were mostly confined to Dublin, Munster and South Leinster; that the abducted women were in fact usually girls in their early to mid teens, or sometimes widows (although they were more difficult to control); that the abductees tended to come from the upper end of the middle class gentry and the abductors from the lower end of the same class; that in most cases both were Catholic, but that it was really only when a Catholic mob had abducted a Protestant girl that the Irish Protestant ascendancy made serious efforts to clamp down on the practise (in the case of Elinor Perry both the victim and the abductor were almost certainly Protestant). There were laws introduced against abductions as early as 1707, but they placed more importance on the need to preserve family inheritance than on the safety of women, in part because the establishment was unwilling to acknowledge that a rape had occurred and thereby bring further shame to the victim and her family (by the attitudes of the day). Prof. Kelly states that a large proportion of abducted women probably had to accept their forced marriage simply because there was no way of returning to their former lives after such humiliation. It was only in circumstances where the abduction had been foiled, or where a particularly determined victim and her family were willing to make the details public, that a perpetrator might face prosecution. There was a marked increase in abductions during an economic boom in the 1770s, and they became noticeably more violent, resulting in the deaths of some attackers, some defenders, and occasionally the targeted girl. Two attackers who attempted to abduct Charlotte Newcomen of Carrigglas Manor on the streets of Longford Town in 1772 were shot dead. The violence and frequency of these attacks coincided with a greater recognition of rape as a crime that should be punished, and the tide of public opinion gradually began to turn from acceptance to outrage, even though the abductors were still able to recruit large mobs of accomplices and usually evaded justice through a network of safe-houses.
The bridge at Legan: the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage suggests this has stood since about 1775
It was against this background that Elinor Perry was ‘forcibly and feloniously taken and carried away’. The Volunteer Evening Post of 21st May 1785 reported on “A most daring outrage… 27th February last… as Mr. Thomas and John Roberts, Mrs. Perry, widow of the late Rev. Perry, and her daughter Elinor Perry, all of County Longford, were returning from the house of a friend where they had dined, they were met by a number of armed ruffians who forcibly carried away Miss Perry…” What turned this local story into a national scandal, and also what explained why it was only being reported months later, was what happened next to Elinor Perry. Her death six weeks after her abduction removed any reluctance from her family in seeking justice for her attackers, and at the same time made the crimes of those attackers all the more grave. The later ‘proclamation’ issued by the Lord Lieutenant (the Duke of Rutland) and Council of Ireland in June 1785 explained in some detail that on the night of Sunday 27th February at about 10 o’clock, on the bridge at Legan, County Longford, George Moxham the younger of Barry, County Longford, together with James Moxham of Ratharney, County Longford, and Robert Moxham of Andandra, County Longford, Charles Oates and Bryan Early, both of Barry, yeomen, and several others, all armed with swords, pistols and other weapons, had stopped Mrs. Mary Perry of Ratharney, widow, who was returning home on horseback behind Thomas Roberts of Colehill, together with Thomas Roberts’ wife, his son John Roberts and Elinor Perry, the daughter of Mary, who were also returning home on a car (carriage). George Moxham, armed, threatened and forced Thomas Roberts and Mary Perry to alight from their horse, which he then mounted and robbed. The gang then violently pulled Elinor Perry off the car and, forced her onto the horse behind George Moxham. She threw herself off but they dragged her up again, and George then instructed James Moxham to ride the horse holding Elinor in front of him across the pommel of the saddle, with a man on horse-back on one side holding her by the head and shoulders and another man on foot on the other side holding her by the legs. In this way they carried Elinor to a public house in the village of Moyvore, County Westmeath (about 10 miles by road), on a cold and frosty night without warm clothes. In Moyvore, Charles Kelly, a ‘silenced clergyman’ of the Church of Ireland, performed a marriage ceremony between George Moxham and Elinor Perry without her consent, and at the same place George Moxham ‘forcibly’ consummated the marriage. This all happened so late at night and there was such a tumultuous mob in Moyvore, that it was only with difficulty that Elinor Perry could be taken back to her mother’s house the next day. (Prof. Kelly suggests it was George Moxham who returned her to her home, after he realised that she was seriously ill.)
George, James and Robert Moxam [sic] were indicted at the County Longford Spring Assizes of 1785, charged with a felony by Mary Perry for the abduction (Charles Oates and Bryan Early not yet having been identified), but were found to have fled the area. Elinor Perry died on 14th April, and on inspection it was determined she had died as a result of the abuse she received from George Moxham and the others, and of the distress caused by that treatment. The case became more widely reported beyond Longford because of the gruesome nature of the assault and because the perpetrators could not be found. The fact that Elinor’s mother was the widow of a clergyman would also have generated much outrage. According to Prof. Kelly, “news of Elinor Perry’s death appalled respectable opinion”. Finally, the Lord Lieutenant issued his proclamation in June – not a unique occurrence, but one that emphasised the public’s revulsion. As well as giving the above details, the proclamation offered a reward of £200 (somewhere in the region of €25,000 in today’s money) for each of the five named suspects, provided they were caught by 22nd December that year. There was a reward of up to £150 pounds for the names of other people involved in the abduction, and the same reward plus a royal pardon if any of the unknown abductors themselves came forward. All through the second half of 1785 this proclamation was published regularly in issues of the major Irish newspapers including The Freemans Journal, the Volunteer Evening Post and the Dublin Evening Post. With the death of Elinor, judging by similar cases from that decade, George would almost certainly have been hanged, while his accomplices could have expected prison and fines, exile to Australia, or even faced execution themselves, but, as with very many of the cases studied by Prof. Kelly, there is no known record of the suspects ever having been apprehended. Instead, the Grand Jury Presentment Books of County Longford record that Mary and Bridget Perry charged Charles Reynolds and [?] Byrne with assault at the 1786 Summer Assizes (perhaps in relation to the abduction?), while at the 1788 Summer Assizes Mary Perry again charged James Moxham, Robert Moxham, Charles Oates and Bryan Early with an unspecified crime, and Thomas Roberts charged George, James and Robert Moxham and others with felony – all suggesting that the injured parties were still seeking justice.
In the course of other research, the papers of the King-Harman Estate were found to include a lease of land in Rathsallagh (NAI D13130) dated 31st August 1793 to Mary Perry, widow of Ratharney, with reference to her son-in-law John Roberts of Ratharney, John’s 6-year-old eldest son Thomas Roberts, and John’s 21-year-old brother James Roberts; John and James being the sons of Thomas Roberts of Driminure (next to Colehill). It is fairly clear that these are the same Mary Perry (mother of Elinor Perry) and Thomas and John Roberts who were held-up eight years earlier, and presumably means that Mary had another daughter (perhaps Bridget, mentioned above?) who was married to John Roberts. The Roberts family continued to hold an interest in the lands of Rathsallagh for many years. I haven’t been able to identify Mary’s late husband, ‘Rev. Perry’. Notably, this lease from 1793 also states that Mary Perry’s maiden name was Moxham, and furthermore Mary Perry was a co-defendant with other members of the Moxham family during a land dispute in the 1770s, all of which means that George Moxham was surely related to his unfortunate victim (Mary Perry was possibly his first cousin), somehow making the crime even more callous. This is entirely plausible as Kelly’s article notes that it was not uncommon for an abduction to happen within an extended family, sometimes with the approval and assistance of the immediate family of the abductor, who sensed an opportunity to raise their fortunes or standing.
The exact identity of George, James and Robert Moxham is not known, but they must certainly be drawn from the family that lived at Rathsallagh and Ratharney, next to Legan, at that time. A clue might be the reference to ‘George Moxham the younger’, as another George Moxham, who married in 1753 and held the previous lease of Rathsallagh, lived at a number of surrounding addresses including Barry in the 1780s, so this was quite possibly his son. The relationship with James and Robert is even less clear, but both Ratharney and Ardandra are within walking distance of Legan bridge. They must have been either his brothers or his cousins. There are no definite records of these three men beyond this infamous case, and their precise connection to the family seems to have been forgotten, either intentionally or otherwise.
One final clue was found among the military records held at the British National Archives, Kew. A John Moxham from the parish of Tashinny & Abbeyshrule served in the army between 1777 and 1802; he seems most likely to be the same John Moxham recorded in 1807 as the eldest son of the above mentioned George Moxham senior of Rathsallagh. Meanwhile, a George Moxham, born around 1755 in Barry, Tishany [sic] parish, enlisted in the army 1780 and was discharged in 1783 (WO 69/80C/1782), and a George Moxham subsequently enlisted in the 38th (1st Staffordshire) Regiment of Foot in 1785 – the same year George Moxham the younger disappeared – which strongly suggests that this is indeed the fugitive and that he simply returned to the army after going on the run. During the 1790s both John and George were in the 38th Regiment stationed in the West Indies during the conflict with revolutionary France. It is of course possible that two men with the same surname but from different families ended up in the same regiment, even with a comparatively rare surname like Moxham, but it would make a striking coincidence. It was also known for criminals to plead for army service rather than a prison sentence, but this was rarely granted, especially in a case of murder or manslaughter. The records show that George Moxham enlisted while the 38th Regiment was stationed in England; the fact that the case was so well publicised in Ireland might have meant that his name could have been recognised in England, but it is also true that Ireland and Britain would not become a United Kingdom, with a united legal system, until 1801. Nevertheless, this George Moxham was also stationed at Magherafelt, County Londonderry, during 1792 and 1793, apparently without any attention from the authorities. Promoted to sergeant, he was stationed in the islands of Les Saintes during 1796 – part of the French West Indies which was then under British occupation. He became sick in June 1799 (perhaps from Yellow Fever, which wiped out thousands of British soldiers in the West Indies around this time) and died the following August (probably while still posted on Les Saintes). Because of his death, there are no discharge records to positively confirm the age, place of birth or years of service of this George Moxham.
Prof. Kelly states that the practise of abduction didn’t die out after this high profile incident, but they did become generally less violent afterwards, and were no longer socially acceptable among the gentry classes. Members of the Whiteboys and other agrarian agitators were implicated in abductions over he subsequent decades, but the major social upheavals of the Great Famine appear to have largely stamped out abductions altogether.
- Professor James Kelly – Abduction of Women of Fortune in Eighteenth Century Ireland (‘Eighteenth Century Ireland’ Vol. 9, 1994)
- National Inventory of Architectural Heritage (NIAH): Legan Bridge
- British Soldiers, American Revolution
- Professor Maria Luddy – Abductions in Nineteenth-Century Ireland (‘New Hibernia Review’ Vol. 17, No. 2, 2013)