Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/MacNaghten, John

MacNAGHTEN or MACNAUGHTON, JOHN (d. 1761), criminal, was son of a gentleman seated at Benvarden, near Ballymoney, co. Antrim. The father died when his son was about six, leaving him an estate worth 500l. a year. He was educated at Dublin University, but does not appear to have graduated. At college his handsome figure and insinuating address attracted the notice of Sir Clotworthy Skeffington, fourth viscount Massereene, who introduced him to the best society. His passion for gaming soon involved him in debt, but he retrieved his fortune by marrying the sister of Lord Massereene's second wife, a daughter of Henry Eyre of Rowtor, Derbyshire, whose friends made him take an oath that he would play no more. About two years later, however, he returned to the gaming-table with more disastrous results than before. An attempt to arrest him for debt so alarmed his wife, who was lying-in, that she died soon afterwards. Reduced to distress, he obtained through Massereene's good offices the place of collector of the king's duty in Coleraine, co. Londonderry, worth about 200l. a year. He gambled away more than 800l. of the king's money, and in consequence lost his collectorship, and his estate was sequestered.

At this crisis Andrew Knox of Prehen, Londonderry, M.P. for Donegal, who had known Macnaughton from a child, invited him to his house, and he at once paid his addresses to Knox's only daughter. Mary Anne, a girl of fifteen, who was entitled to a fortune of 6,000l. Miss Knox favoured his suit, but her father opposed it. Macnaughton, however, told Miss Knox that her father had secretly consented to their marriage; then persuaded her to read over the marriage service with him in the presence of a youth named Hamilton, and finally claimed Miss Knox as his wife by law in virtue of the supposed contract between them. He followed her to Sligo, but was there challenged by a friend of the Knox family, and being wounded was obliged to take refuge in his uncle's house at Londonderry. Meanwhile, the prerogative court of Armagh set aside the pretended contract, and 600l. damages were awarded to Knox.

Macnaughton, to avoid a writ sued out against him for these damages, withdrew to England. But in August 1761 he returned to Ireland, visited Enniskillen, and learning that Miss Knox with her mother and aunt were drinking the waters at Swanlinbar, a village ten miles from Enniskillen, he hired a lodging there, disguised as a common sailor. His movements excited suspicion, and Miss Knox and her friends were placed under the protection of Lord Mountflorence at Florence Court, co. Fermanagh. Macnaughton, after vainly soliciting an interview there with Miss Knox, planned an attack on Knox and his family on their way to Dublin for the parliamentary session. On 10 Nov. he, with accomplices, attacked Knox's coach at a sequestered spot by Cloughhean, and, meeting with a determined resistance, shot Miss Knox with fatal effect. Macnaughton, who was himself badly wounded, rode off, but was captured in a hayloft by two of Sir James Caldwell's light hone, and lodged in Lifford gaol. At his trial on 11 Dec. he was brought into court on a bed dressed in a 'white flannel waistcoat with black buttons, a parti-coloured woollen nightcap, and a crape about his shoulders.' He declared he had no intention Of killing anybody, but that, feeling himself wounded, he no longer knew what he did. He strove to save the life of an accomplice Dunlap, who was tried with him, alleging that the man was his own tenant and has acted under his influence. His eloquence and resigned bearing are said to have 'drawn tears from the eyes of many,' but he was sentenced to be hanged at Strabane on 16 Dec. 1761. The populace imagined that Macnaughton had only tried to seize a wife wrongfully detained from him, and in consequence of a general refusal to take part in the work, the gallows was built by an uncle and some friends of Miss Knox. Macnaughton behaved with the utmost coolness at his execution. The rope broke three times — an accident that entitled him to his liberty, but he bade the sheriff proceed. He and Dunlap were buried in the same grave behind the church of Strabane, co. Tyrone.

[Gent. Mag. 1761, p. 603*; Scots Mag. 1761, p. 698.]

G. G.