Francis David Stirn, 1735-1760

Murderer and Suicide

Francis Stirn, a German-born gentleman and minister, was convicted of murder and committed suicide in Newgate Prison. The case received wide publicity, and was reported in the The Gentleman's Magazine and Newgate Calendar.

Early Life

Francis Stirn was born in the principality of Hesse-Cassel in Germany in 1735. His father was a minister in the area and his brother a minister at Hersfields in central Germany. They were Calvinists, using extended prayer and music in their worship.

Stirn was sent to a public grammar school in Hesse-Cassel before moving north to a college at Bremen University. There he became a tutor to a Mr Hallar, the son of a lawyer, and preached "probationary discourses". However, he was dismissed in the early 1750s as he became suspicious of his patron (for unknown reasons). Such behaviour is perhaps indicative of his later fragile mental state.

He returned to his brother who sent him to the University of Rintelen in Hesse-Cassel, where he studied from 1756 for two years. He became proficient at the Latin classics, Greek and Hebrew, as well as more "genteel accomplishments" such as instrumental music and fencing.

The French encroachment in Hesse-Cassel, the result of the ongoing seven years war between France and Britain, resulted in Stirn being sent to England by his brother to escape.

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Life in London

When he arrived in England he was welcomed by friends and became an assistant to a Mr Crawford at the recommendation of his friend a Reverend Mr P-. He assisted the German minister, preaching three times at the "Chapel of the Reformed" at the Savoy. His use of music in the service was not admired, however, by the congregation.

Once again he became suspicious, on this occasion of Mr P- and his congregation, and decided to pursue a military life. He was dissuaded from this by his friends, however, as they felt that his temperament and "extravagant spirit" made him unsuitable.

He decided instead to enter university, but his plans fell through, and he threatened those who had disappointed him. His professional ambitions changed again when he decided to become a musician and teach the classics. It was during this time that he met Mr Richard Matthews.

It is also about this time that his behaviour started to become increasingly erratic. One evening, while residing at the home of Mr Matthews, he saw a piece of bread which had been placed on a chair by a child of the house. Upon seeing the bread, and believing it a snub reflecting on his impoverished status, he rushed up the stairs in anger and banged upon the door to Mr Matthews' bedroom. Matthews was absent from the house, but his wife appeared at the bedroom door in her night clothes, as the incident occurred at eleven o'clock at night. Stirn was only pacified and calmed down with difficulty.

His behaviour continued to swing from one extreme to another, moving from a pious and sentimental mood when reading the Bible, to speaking in a "low and vulgar" way at other times. On another occasion he went to dine at Muswell Hill, and arriving before his companions, began to argue with his host, a Dutch merchant. Stirn was ordered from the house and called a "mad man". When his companions showed up, Stirn accused them of hiding at the merchant's house and laughing at his disgrace.

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After Stirn had been living with Matthews for about two months, Matthews became increasingly unhappy with Stirn's behaviour. After seeking the advice of Justice Saunders Welch, he decided to ask Stirn to leave. Welch suggested that others be present when this occurred, as disputes had previously arisen between the two men. On 13 August, Matthews took a constable and two friends with him (one of whom was Edward Lowther) and waited for two hours until Stirn arrived home.

Stirn flew into a rage upon seeing his possessions packed up, calling Matthews a "bad man and a coward". Matthews attempted to appease Stirn, inviting him to drink one last glass of wine. Stirn refused, insisting instead on playing one last piece of music before he left. He took up a harpsicord and played a few notes, before stopping and eventually leaving, claiming he would have his revenge upon Matthews.

Later that day Stirn purchased two pistols from a Mr Jones, a gun maker in Fenchurch Street, asking for them to be loaded. Two days later, at about 10 pm at the Pewter Platter, a pub in Cross Street, Matthews and a Mr Chapman, and Edward Lowther were sitting drinking together when Stirn entered. Chapman ordered him to leave. Stirn returned after a few minutes claiming that Matthews had accused him of theft and adultery, although Matthews had not.

Stirn exhibited unsettled behaviour, pacing around the room and taking a piece of paper from his pocket and burning it on a candle. He then moved to stand next to Edward Lowther. Standing still for about a minute and a half, Stirn suddenly stretched across Lowther and shot Matthews in the chest with a concealed pistol. Matthews died soon after.

Stirn seemed shocked but not repentant, simply worrying that he would be executed and saying that he wanted to take his own life instead.

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Punishment and Suicide

Stirn's case was heard at the Old Bailey on 10 September. Following a long trial, the jury took just one minute to find him guilty, and he was sentenced to death. Whilst a prisoner at Newgate he spent his time contemplating his crime and trying to find ways to commit suicide. He was visited by Mr Crawford, who according to the Ordinary, "melted into a flood of tears at the sight of him, observing him loaded with fetters, and so greatly altered and emaciated.

Stirn refused to eat or drink, and on the 21st of August was visited by friends from Germany who tried to persuade him to end his self-inflicted starvation. Although told that he would suffer divine punishment for committing the crime of suicide, and be buried outside the church, he continued to starve himself, and attempted in other ways to end his life.

A German minister, Stapel, visited him and delivered a poison, believed to be opium, which Stirn took. He died the same night, Friday 12 September 1760.

His body was examined by the coroner and, as was the normal punishment for convicted murderers, taken to the Surgeon's Hall to be dissected.

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External Sources

  • The Annual Register, or a View of the History, Politics, and Literature for the Year 1760. 6th edn, 1781, p. 30.
  • Burke, Edmund. Dodsley's Annual Register. 1897, pp. 59-67.
  • The Complete Newgate Calendar, vol. 3.
  • The Gentleman's Magazine. September 30, 1760, pp. 399-404.
  • London Chronicle. Thursday, September 11, 1760, issue 580.
  • Public Advertiser. Monday, September 15, 1760, issue 8069.
  • Public Ledger or The Daily Register of Commerce and Intelligence. Saturday, September 27, 1760, issue 223.
  • Whitehall Evening Post or London Intelligencer. Thursday, September 11, 1760, issue 2261.
  • Eigen, Joel Peter. Witnessing Insanity: Madness and Mad-Doctors in the English Court. 1995, introduction.

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About this Biography

Created by

Victoria Philpott 

Further contributions by

Robert Shoemaker