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John Lindsay Crawfurd

John Lindsay Crawfurd—Claiming to Be Earl of Crawfurd

In 1808, George Lindsay Crawfurd, twenty-second Earl of Crawfurd and sixth Earl of Lindsay, died without issue, and his vast estates descended to his sister, Lady Mary Crawfurd. After the death of the earl various claims were advanced to the peerage, one of them being preferred by a person of the name of John Crawfurd, who came from Dungannon, in the north of Ireland. When this claimant arrived at Ayr, in January 1809, he gave himself out as a descendant of the Hon. James Lindsay Crawfurd, a younger son of the family, who had taken refuge in Ireland from the persecutions of 1666-1680. At first he took up his abode at the inn of James Anderson, and from his host and a weaver named Wood he received a considerable amount of information respecting the family history. From Ayr he proceeded to visit Kilbirnie Castle, once the residence of the great knightly family of Crawfurd. The house had been destroyed by fire during the lifetime of Lady Mary's grandfather, and had not been rebuilt—the family taking up their residence on their Fifeshire estates. At the time of the fire, however, many family papers and letters had been saved, and had been stored away in an old cabinet, which was placed in an out-house. To these Mr.. Crawfurd obtained access, and found among them many letters written by James Lindsay Crawfurd, whose descendant he pretended to be. He appropriated them and produced them when the fitting time came. At Kilbirnie he also introduced himself to John Montgomerie of Ladeside, a man well acquainted with the family story and all the vicissitudes of the Crawfurds, and one who was disposed to believe any plausible tale. The farmer, crediting the pretender's story, spread it abroad among the villagers, and they in turn fell into ecstacies over the idea of a poor man like themselves arriving at an earldom, rebuilding the ancient house of Kilbirnie, and restoring the old glories of the place. Their enthusiasm was turned to good account. The claimant was very poor, and stood in need of money to prosecute his claim, and he made no secret of his poverty or his necessities, and promised large returns to those who would help him in his time of need. "Farms," we are told, "were to be given on long leases at moderate rents; one was to be factor, another chamberlain, and many were to be converted from being hewers of wood and drawers of water to what they esteemed the less laborious, and therefore more honourable, posts of butlers and bakers, and body servants of all descriptions." These cheering prospects, of course, depended upon the immediate faith which was displayed, and the amount of assistance which was at once forthcoming. Therefore, each hopeful believer exerted himself to the utmost, and "poor peasants and farmers, cottagers and their masters, threw their stakes into the claimant's lucky-bag, from which they were afterwards to draw 'all prizes and no blanks.'" Men of loftier position, also, were not averse to speculate upon the chances of this newly-discovered heir. Poor John Montgomerie gave him every penny he had saved, and every penny he could borrow, and after mortgaging his little property, was obliged to flee to America from his duns, where, it is said, he died. His son Peter, who succeeded to Ladeside, also listened to the seductive voice of the claimant, until ruin came upon him, and he was compelled to compound with his creditors.

In due time the pretender to the Crawford peerage instituted judicial proceedings. His advocates brought forward some very feasible parole evidence; but they mainly rested their case upon the documents which had been discovered in the old cabinet at Kilbirnie. These letters, when they were originally discovered, had been written on the first and third pages; but in the interim the second pages had been filled up in an exact imitation of the old hand with matter skilfully contrived to support the pretensions of the new-comer. In these interpolations the dead Crawfurd was made to describe his position and circumstances in Ireland, his marriage, the births of his children, and his necessities, in a manner which could leave no doubt as to the rightful claims of the pretender. Unfortunately for his cause, he refused to pay his accomplices the exorbitant price which they demanded, and they, without hesitation, made offers to Lady Mary, into the hands of whose agents they confided the forged and vitiated letters. The result was that a charge of forgery was brought against the claimant, and he and his chief abettor, James Bradley, were both brought to trial before the High Court of Justiciary, in February 1812, and were sentenced to fourteen years' transportation. This result was obtained by the acceptance of the evidence of Fanning, one of the forgers, as king's evidence. While under sentence the claimant wrote a sketch of his life, which was printed at Dairy, in Ayrshire, and was published before the sentence was carried into execution. After some delay the sham earl was shipped off to Botany Bay, and arrived in New South Wales in 1813. Many persons in Scotland continued under the belief that he had been harshly treated, and had fallen a victim to the perjured statements of witnesses who were suborned by Lady Mary Crawfurd. It was not disputed that the documents which had been put in evidence really were forged; but it was suggested that the forgery had been accomplished without his knowledge, in order to accomplish his ruin. Public feeling was aroused in his favour, and he was regarded not only as an innocent and injured man, but as the rightful heir of the great family whose honours and estates he sought.

During his servitude in Australia, John Lindsay Crawfurd contrived to ingratiate himself with MacQuarrie, the governor of New South Wales, and got part of his punishment remitted, returning to England in 1820. He immediately recommenced proceedings for the recovery of the Crawfurd honours; and, as his unexpected return seemed to imply that he had been unjustly transported, his friends took encouragement from this circumstance, and again came forward with subscriptions and advances. Many noblemen and gentlemen, believing him to be injured, contributed liberally to his support and to the cost of the proceedings which he had begun. At last the case came,—and came under the best guidance—before the Lords Committee of Privileges, to which it had been referred by the king. Lord Brougham was counsel in the cause, and he publicly expressed his opinion that it was extremely well-founded. Many of the claimant's adherents, however, were deterred from proceeding further in the matter by the unfavourable report of two trustworthy commissioners who had been appointed to investigate the affair in Scotland. On the other hand, Mr. Nugent Bell, Mr. William Kaye, and Sir Frederick Pollock, with a host of eminent legal authorities, predicted certain success. Thus supported, the pretender assumed the rôle  of Earl of Crawfurd, and actually voted as earl at an election of Scotch peers at Holyrood. Unfortunately for all parties, the claimant died before a decision could be given either for or against him. His son, however, inheriting the father's pretensions, and also apparently his faculty for raising money, contrived to find supporters, and carried on the case. Maintaining his father's truthfulness, he declared that his ancestor, the Hon. James Lindsay Crawfurd, had settled in Ireland, and that he had died there between 1765 and 1770, leaving a family, of which he was the chief representative. On the other hand, Lord Glasgow, who had succeeded by this time to the estates, insisted that the scion of the family who was supposed to have gone to Ireland, and from whom the pretender traced his descent, had in reality died in London in 1745, and had been buried in the churchyard of St. Martin's-in-the-Fields. It was finally proved that a record remained of the death of James Lindsay Crawfurd in London, as stated, and 120 genuine letters were produced in his handwriting bearing a later date than that year. The decision of the House of Lords was—"That from the facts now before us we are satisfied that any further inquiry is hopeless and unnecessary." This opinion was given in 1839, and since that time no further steps have been taken to advance the claim. Strange to say, Lord Glasgow allowed the body of the original claimant to be interred in the family mausoleum; and it has been more than suggested that if John Lindsay Crawfurd was not the man that he represented himself to be, he was at least an illegitimate offshoot of the same noble house, and that had he been less pertinacious in advancing his claims to the earldom, he might have ended his days more happily.