The ‘vicious appetite’ - the most human of all frailties

Week II

 Richard Martin -could not profit from his wife’s desertion.

Richard Martin -could not profit from his wife’s desertion.

Mrs Eliza Martin, threw caution to the wind, and settled down to live openly with Mr John Petrie, a merchant, at his London house in Soho Square. Her flaunting of the end of her 13 years marriage to Richard Martin, a man of legendary accomplishments, and the owner of vast lands in Connemara, who was not a man to be reckoned with, left society wondering what his response would be to this embarrassment.

Belonging to one of the élite families of Galway, Martin had travelled extensively, and was very much a man of the world. He became both a lawyer and a member of parliament. But despite his respectability, he was a man to be feared as well as admired. He could be deadly on the duelling pitch (preferring pistols ), and reckless with his finances, yet safe in the knowledge that few debtors dared press him for money.

By contrast, he enjoyed acting in romantic plays, usually with his wife Eliza, at his playhouse in Kirwan’s Lane; participated in military parades as a colonel in the Galway Volunteers, and became deeply committed to the protection of animals. Despite a mountain of debt accrued on his many times mortgaged estate, he rarely pressed his tenants for rent.

In the event of his wife’s sudden departure, Martin did something totally in character. He disguised himself as an Eastern pedlar selling silks, and was shown into the house where his wife was sharing with Petrie. Gossip tells us that he found Eliza in his arms, and, I imagine, as they were looking at the silks Martin suddenly threw off his disguise and confronted the couple. Apparently Petrie almost died of shock, and expected a pistol ball between his eyes any second….. Instead Martin, now entirely satisfied that his wife’s desertion was genuine, and that there was no going back, had his solicitors, Yarrow and Bearcroft, charge Petrie ‘for invading the peace and honour of the plaintiff (Martin ), in the tenderest part; for alienating the affections of his wife, and for seducing her from the path of virtue and duty.’ Martin sought £20,000 for his loss.

‘Object of his lust’

The case opened before a special jury at the Guildhall, London, in December 1791, the year following the events in Paris. The main witness was Joseph Casteaux, Martin’s valet whom he sent to help Eliza and the children pack and return to Galway. But when Joseph arrived in Paris he was surprised to see Mr Petrie in almost continuous company with Eliza, and in the following days and weeks observed them kissing and in bed together, and I will spare my reader’s blushes from describing what other lurid details he saw, except to remark that although the past is a different place, they did many things the same as we do today.

Much was made of the letter from Martin urging his wife to return as soon as arrangements could be made, and that she threw it aside in a dismissive gesture. From Casteaux’s evidence, and from other servants, there could be no doubt that Petrie had behaved abominably in his wicked seduction of Eliza. Furthermore when Martin’s barrister appealed to the jury that Martin was an indulgent husband: ‘who lived but to oblige her’; and that Petrie was determined to debauch her as ‘she must have been solely the object of his lust’, he declared , ‘of his love she could not be,’ it would seem to have been an open and shut case.

‘Vicious appetite’

It was indeed clear-cut to a point, but Petrie’s barrister, Mr Erskine, in an attempt to reduce some of the enormous liability that Martin was claiming for the ‘loss’ of his wife, suggested that Martin was not the gallant husband he was presented to be. He began by stating that ‘The best security for the honour of a wife, is prudence on the part of the husband’. Yet what had Martin done? He had returned to London on business, then back to Galway to campaign in an election to parliament, where he was absent for three months pursuing the paths of ambition in his own country, while leaving his poor innocent wife, in times of exceptional events (the excitement of the revolution, which Erskine described as an ‘abomination’ ) in Paris ‘the capital of the greatest luxury’. ‘It is to be lamented that Martin did not send some female friend to be her companion’, or (this might have been going too far ), even to have asked Petrie, as a gentleman, to escort his wife safely home to Ireland.

And as for the letter that Mrs Martin threw aside, she did so in her alienation and disgust that her husband remained away, leaving her virtually abandoned.

Martin would have done better to have allowed his wife to have shared the ups and downs of an election campaign instead of leaving her at the mercy ‘of every kind of dissipation’. ‘Had the husband been present’, Erskine claimed, ‘moral sense would have checked the vicious appetite.’

There was a further appeal from Petrie that even though he had a house in London and an estate in Essex, his business was tied up in the West Indies, and owing to recent trouble there he had no idea where he stood financially. Such was the penalty that Martin sought ‘my innocent children will be involved in my crime and will be ruined.’

After only 15 minutes the jury found in Martin’s favour, and ordered Petrie to pay £10,000 in damages, half of what Martim demanded.

Despite Martin’s desperate pecuniary state he felt that he could not profit from his wife’s desertion. He was to return to Galway and Ballynahinch immediately. He told his coachman Thady Harte to change the £10,000 into small coin. He had his horses shod in silver shoes, and as they set off on the long journey home he ordered Thady to fling the money on either side of the road until it was all gone.

Martin felt no victory at the loss of his wife, the woman he had loved, and in whose company he shared a passion for plays, and a busy social life in Dublin, coming home to more restful times among the wild and beautiful Connemara hills; now all was lost through his absences, his parliamentary ambitions, and, through the most human of all frailties, the prey ‘to the vicious appetite’.

Next week: What happened to Eliza?

NOTES: Quotes taken from Humanity Dick, by Shevawn Lynam, published by Hamish Hamilton 1975, and Burke’s Connaught Journal December 29 1791.


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