A Feature by Craig Pett
Jonathan Swift, privy to a murder? Could the author of Gulliver’s Travels, the champion of the Irish people and the man widely considered the greatest ever prose writer in the English language, have been party to the purposeful killing of another human being, his own printer? This is what I am asserting in an aspect of my research which has grown from my 2015 thesis, which was concerned with Swift’s dealings with the Dublin print industry in the 1720s.
It seems a preposterous notion. Evidence that has never been seen in almost three hundred years? Of a murder that implicates a writer who has been universally revered from before his death in 1745 through to and including today? This evidence, in my view, has been on the face of the record all this time.
I will relate the events as they have always been understood before introducing the perspective which allows the new evidence to be seen.
The events occurred in 1724 and 1725 during the course of an episode subsequently known as the ‘controversy of Wood’s halfpence’. This was a brief but glorious episode for Ireland in which Swift, writing pseudonymously, inspired the nation to resist the introduction of new farthings and halfpence that were being coined for the country pursuant to a patent that had been granted to a Bristol man by the name of William Wood. The controversy concerned the fact that, as Ireland believed, this new coin was being made of an inferior metal, namely copper. It was feared that if the new coin was below standard, it would have the effect of draining Ireland of its better coin, because only ‘good’ money would be accepted in the payment of remittances to the Crown.
In March 1724, Swift wrote a pamphlet in the form of a Letter to the people of the nation. It was described as having been written ‘By M.B. Drapier’. The ‘author’, that is, was a draper with initials ‘M.B.’. It was a fictional authorial identity, but the printer, the twenty-seven-year-old John Harding, stated his real name and place of business on the title page. Written with a power that only Swift could infuse, this Letter was followed by another from ‘the Drapier’ in August and by a third letter in September. All dealt with constitutional issues, in particular the limits on the Crown’s prerogative with respect to coining, but they were written in such a way as to bring these matters within the understanding of everyone from a Parliamentary Peer to a street-corner cobbler. The Letters united the traditionally fractious Irish people in a never-say-die resolve to boycott this coin, each one lifting the newfound nationalistic fervour successively higher.
After the third Letter, Westminster took action. The Lord Lieutenant, Charles Fitzroy, Duke of Grafton, who had been floundering, was recalled and replaced by John Lord Carteret, who was well-known to Swift. Carteret was twenty-three years younger, but he and Swift had been colleagues in the ministry in London over a decade earlier, and, to an extent, given that Carteret had lost his father in infancy, Swift had been a father figure. There had been no communication between them for several years, but, upon his arrival in Dublin, Swift decided to greet Carteret with a ‘surprise’. He had prepared another Letter as the Drapier. This fourth Letter was his most audacious yet, and he co-ordinated with Harding to have it published hours before the arrival of Carteret’s ship in the Liffey. Swift, however, miscalculated. This was too much of an affront to the incoming viceroy, and Carteret responded in a way that Swift did not foresee. He issued a royal Proclamation offering a reward of £300 for the discovery of the author and directed the Chief Justice of the King’s Bench to prosecute this fourth Letter for sedition.
Harding was consequently arrested, and, after swearing before the Chief Justice that he did not know the identity of M.B. Drapier, was imprisoned. Unfortunately, whilst incarcerated, he was struck down in some way and he died five months later from what has been assumed to have been a case of jail fever. His death, however, could not detract from the glory of what Swift had wrought for Ireland. The patent for the production of the coin was withdrawn by Westminster. Ireland had triumphed over the oppressor and the people celebrated Swift, writing songs to immortalise him and putting up signs of the Drapier around the country. It is a characterisation of Swift that has been reaffirmed by historians and biographers ever since: the stoic leader, infallible, unflinching, fearless.
It is this characterisation which has obscured the truth. Swift was not fearless in this episode, and when that assumption is discarded, the evidence become plain. From the moment that Carteret announced the Proclamation and instigated the prosecution, Swift’s fear that Harding might inform on him, which would have the effect of bringing him forward in person to face a charge of sedition or possibly treason, was acute. Harding had the potential to inform on Swift in one of two ways. Having been arrested and imprisoned, he was scheduled to appear in court, where he would be interrogated as to the identity of M.B. Drapier. Or Harding could give evidence voluntarily, after his release from prison, by presenting himself to the court or the Castle to claim the reward.
The motive for the crime is self-evident and the evidence suggests clearly that it was translated into action. Shortly before his release from prison, Harding was beaten in such a way as to render him incapable of giving evidence either orally or in written form. It was a beating that appears to have been intended only to maim him, not kill him, but it cost him his life five months later. As Richard Starrat said years afterwards in 1852 in the Irish Quarterly Review, in what is the only known direct statement on Harding’s cause of death, ‘John Harding, the humble instrument of the saviour of his country, died from the effects of the treatment inflicted on him by the government officials’. This treatment can only have been ordered by Carteret, who, after his bold actions with the Proclamation and prosecution, had once again yielded to Swift’s paternalistic affection and was protecting him.
This episode in Irish history has always been looked upon as a scene of national triumph in which a genius of the written language exercised his craft to devastating effect. Such an approach will always downplay the fact that a man died. Much less will it allow the presence of a murder, and it will never dream that any such murder was carried out with tacit knowledge on the part of the hero. Carteret and Swift, however, colluded to manipulate the court proceeding to ensure that the Harding case did not come before the court. Swift did not arrange for Harding to be bailed from prison, which, as Harding’s widow later revealed in 1726 in her retrospective poem, A POEM to the Whole People of IRELAND, Relating to M. B. DRAPIER, he had been expecting. And Swift, for years to come, tried to ward off any accusation against him with off-handed comments designed to suggest that Harding had never had it ‘in his power’ to identify him as ‘M.B. Drapier’ anyway, which is demonstrably false.
For more detail, see my presentation ‘The death of Swift’s printer John Harding – new evidence that implicates Swift’, Melbourne Irish Studies Seminar Series., which is accessible via the ISAANZ site or my blog: www.pettblog.com A full-length paper will also be published soon.
Dr Craig Pett
Craig Pett works in educational publishing and in his own time is an independent researcher and journalist. His blog is at: www.pettblog.com