A tale of successful detection

Lady Elizabeth Hastings (1682–1739), known as Lady Betty,  daughter of the seventh Earl of Huntingdon,  lived at Ledston Hall in Castleford, Yorkshire. She never married (although her letters reveal many persistent suitors) and was a significant donor to various charities and institutions, including Queen’s College, Oxford; indeed, the trust she established continues in operation today (Lady Elizabeth Hastings Charities). She suffered from breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy, dying just over a year later.

Ledston Hall

The following account of an attempt at coercion and the apprehension of those responsible was found among her papers:

Last Friday night whilst the servants were at supper a letter was stuck on one of the spikes of the little iron gate which is by the side of one of the porter’s lodges. The contents were summed up on the outside which was, “This is to let you now that your hal shal be bornet doun on Sonda nex if you do not li the mony ther whear this leter tels you.” The inside was much to the same purpose only that £100 which was the sum demanded was to be laid at the heel of the north gate on Saturday night or else the Hall should be blown up and the town set on fire. All possible care was taken to prevent the incendiary putting their wicked threat into execution and to detect the writer of the letter. In order to which the next day warrants were procured directed to the constables of seven neighbouring villages round about with orders to them to keep watch and ward and take up all vagrants that were then within their several constabularies or that might afterward pass through them. And watch was set about the barns it being thought they would be likelier to revenge the disappointment that they would meet with upon the hay and corn, than the house and watch was likewise set by the north gate where the money was ordered to be laid to see if any suspicious people passed that way on Sunday. But there was nobody passed but a young man about two or three and twenty that was the least so. He said he was a tailor and worked near Leeds and was going to a place near Byram where he had before worked and had left some linen which he was going to fetch but coming by again about 4 o’clock in the afternoon and varying in his story (though the first was true) they began to suspect him and pursuing him to Kippax the constable secured him who had a few hours before taken up an old man that sold ballads. The boy and him seemed strangers to each other and but that it was ordered that no person taken into custody should be discharged again without being carried before a magistrate they had both been let go without further examination they seemed so innocent especially the old man. On Monday they were both carried before Justice Ibettson at Leeds where they positively denied writing or knowing anything of the threatening letter being written but the Justice making the old man write part of the letter which he read to him and thinking the hands agreed ordered him to be secured and then tried to make the young confess which at last he did upon oath in substance as follows namely, that on Friday the 18th instant as he was standing at his master’s door at Whitchurch near Leeds the old man came to him with whom he had been before acquainted and told him he designed to leave a letter at Lady Betty Hastings gate to tell her that if she did not lay £100 at the place before named on Saturday he would burn her house and that if he, the said boy would go on Sunday and take up the money (for the old man seemed sure of its being laid) he should half of it for his pains and the boy having so good an excuse as the fetching some linen which would lead him by the place he undertook to do it.

Ledston, 23 December 1730

The first achievement was deciphering the bomb threat itself!

Source: George Hastings Wheler (ed.) (1935) Hastings Wheler Family Letters, West Yorkshire Printing Co.

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