Alexander Humphreys

Alexander Humphreys—the Pretended Earl of Stirling

The idea of colonizing Nova Scotia found great favour in the eyes both of James VI. and Charles I., and the former monarch rewarded Sir William Alexander of Menstrie, who actively supported the project, with a charter, dated 12th September 1621, in which he granted to him "All and Whole the territory adjacent to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, thenceforward to be called Nova Scotia;" and constituted him, his heirs and assignees, hereditary Lords-Lieutenant. The powers which were given to these Lords-Lieutenant were little short of regal; but before the charter could be ratified by the Scotch Parliament his Majesty died. In 1625, however, the grant was renewed in the form of a Charter of Novodamus, which was even more liberal than the original document. These deeds were drawn out in the usual form of Scottish conveyances, and were ratified by the Scotch Parliament in 1633.

In accordance with their terms Sir William despatched one of his sons to Canada, where, acting in his father's name, he built forts at the mouth of the St. Lawrence, and acted as a petty king during his stay. Still the project did not flourish: colonists were scarce and shy, and, in order to make colonization more rapid, King James hit upon the expedient of creating Nova-Scotian baronets, and of conferring this distinction upon the leading members of those families who most actively engaged in the work of populating the land. His successor Charles I., who had an equal desire and necessity for money, converted the new order into a source of revenue by granting 16,000 acres of Canadian soil to those who could pay well, by erecting the district thus sold into a barony, and by attaching the honours of a baronet of Nova Scotia thereto. The order was afterwards extended to natives of England and Ireland, provided they became naturalized Scotchmen.

Sir William Alexander, by unfortunate speculations, was reduced to want; his affairs became involved, and he ultimately sold his entire Canadian possessions to a Frenchman named de la Tour. The original Scotch colony depended upon the crown of Scotland: it was ceded to France by the Treaty of St. Germains, dated the 29th of March 1632; was reconquered by Cromwell; was again surrendered in the reign of Charles II.; and in 1713 once more became a British colony—no consideration being paid at the last transfer to the real or imaginary claims of Sir William Alexander.

The worthy baronet, however, notwithstanding his misfortunes and his impecuniosity, continued a great friend of the first Charles, who, by royal letters patent, elevated him, on the 14th of June 1633, to a peerage under the title of the Earl of Stirling. The earldom became dormant in 1739.

After a lapse of more than twenty years a claimant for these honours appeared in the person of William Alexander; but his appeal to the House of Peers was rejected on the 10th of March 1762, and the Stirling Peerage was commonly supposed to have shared the common earthly fate, and to have died a natural death. But a new aspirant unexpectedly appeared. This gentleman, named Humphreys, laid claim not only to the earldom of Stirling, but also to the whole territory of Canada, in addition to the Scottish estates appertaining thereto; and, in order to substantiate his pretensions, put forward an assumed pedigree. In this document he declared himself to be the lineal descendant and nearest lawful heir of Sir William Alexander, who he said was his great-great-great-grandfather. From this remote fountain he pretended to have come, following the acknowledged stream until he reached Benjamin, the last heir-male of the body of the first earl, and, diverting the current to heirs-female in the person of Hannah, Earl William's youngest daughter, who was married at Birmingham, and whom he represented as his own ancestress.

In 1824, having obtained formal license to assume the surname of Alexander, he procured himself to be served "lawful and nearest heir-male in general of the body of the said Hannah Alexander," before the bailies of Canongate, 1826. Then he assumed the title of Earl of Stirling and Dovan, and, in 1830, formally registered himself as "lawful and nearest heir in general to the deceased William, the first Earl of Stirling."

According to the patent of 1633, which was confined to heirs-male, Humphreys had no claim either to the title or estates; but he based his pretensions upon a document which, he said, had been granted by Charles I., in 1639, to the Earl of Stirling, and which conferred upon him, without limitation as to issue, the whole estates in Scotland and America, as well as the honours conveyed by the original patent. This he attempted to prove in an action in the Court of Session, which was dismissed in 1830, as was also a similar action for a like purpose in 1833.

But, although not officially recognised, he assumed all the imaginary privileges of his position, granting to his friends vast districts of Canadian soil, creating Nova-Scotian baronets at his own discretion, and acting, if not like a king, at least like a feudal magnate of the first degree. He caused notice after notice to be issued proclaiming his rights, and the records of the time are filled with strange proclamations and announcements, to which his name is attached. As a rule, these productions are far too lengthy to be copied, and far too involved to be readily summarized. They have all a lamentably commercial tone, and invariably exhibit an unworthy disposition to sacrifice great prospective or assumed advantages for a very little ready money. Take, for instance, his address to the public authorities of Nova Scotia, issued in 1831. In it, after informing his readers of the steps which he had taken to assert his rights, and the prospects which existed of their recognition, he hastens to observe that "persons desirous of settling on any of the waste lands, either by purchase or lease, will find me ready to treat with them on the most liberal terms and conditions;" and throws out a gentle hint that in any official appointment he might have to make, he would prefer that "the persons to fill them should rather be Nova Scotians or Canadians, than the strangers of England." At the same time he issued numerous advertisements in the journals, reminding all whom it might concern of his hereditary rights, and warning the world in general against infringing his exclusive privileges. At length, having succeeded in gaining notoriety for himself, he aroused the Scotch nobility. On the 19th of March 1832, the Earl of Rosebery proposed and obtained a select committee of the House of Lords, with a view of impeding "the facility with which persons can assume a title without authority, and thus lessen the character and respectability of the peerage in the eyes of the public;" and the Marchioness of Downshire, the female representative of the house of Stirling, forwarded a petition to the Lords, complaining of the undue assumption of the title by Mr. Humphreys.

It is somewhat remarkable that the extraordinary proceedings of this person should have been tolerated for so long a time by the law-officers of the Crown; but his growing audacity at last led to their interference, and what is termed an action of reduction was brought against him and his agent. Lord Cockburn, who heard the case, decided, without hesitation, that his claim was not established, declared the previous legal proceedings invalid, and demolished the pretensions of the claimant. Under these circumstances it was necessary to do something to strengthen those weak points in his title, which had been pointed out by the presiding judge, and Humphreys or his friends were equal to the emergency. A variety of documents were discovered in the most unexpected manner, which exactly supplied the missing links in the evidence, and the claim was accordingly renewed. The law-officers of the Crown denied the validity of these documents, which emanated from the most suspicious sources—some being forwarded by a noted Parisian fortune-teller, called Madlle. le Normand; and after Mr. Humphreys had been judicially examined with regard to them, he was served with an indictment to stand his trial for forgery before the High Court of Justiciary, at Edinburgh, on the 3d of April 1839. The trial lasted for five days, and created intense excitement throughout Scotland. During the trial it was elicited that the father of Mr. Humphreys had been a respectable merchant in Birmingham, who had amassed considerable wealth, had gone abroad, accompanied by his son, in 1802, and had taken up his temporary residence in France. As he did not return at the declaration of war which followed the brief peace, he was detained by Napoleon, and died at Verdun in 1807. His son, the pretended earl, remained a prisoner in France until 1815, and afterwards established himself as a schoolmaster at Worcester. There he met with little success, but bore an excellent character, and gained a certain number of influential friends, whose probity and truthfulness were beyond doubt; some of whom supported him through all his career, one officer of distinction even sitting in the dock with him. The public sympathy was also strongly displayed on his side. But the evidence which was led on behalf of the Crown was conclusive, and a verdict was returned declaring the documents to be forgeries; but finding it "Not Proven" that the prisoner knew that they were fictitious, or uttered them with any malicious intention. He was therefore set at liberty, and retired into private life. Whether he was an impostor, or was merely the victim of a hallucination, it is very difficult to say. In any case he failed to prove himself the Earl of Stirling.