John MacNaghten, Anglo-Irish land owner, gambler, and convicted murderer also known as “Half-Hanged MacNaghten,” is hanged at Strabane jail on December 15, 1761, for his involvement in the killing of Mary Anne Knox, daughter of Andrew Knox MP.
MacNaghten is born into a landed Anglo-Irish family and attends Raphoe Royal school in County Donegal. In 1740, he inherits his family estate worth £500 a year and that same year enters Trinity College, Dublin. MacNaghten marries the sister-in-law of the first earl of Massereene. However, he is quickly enamoured of the extravagant lifestyle of Ascendancy Dublin where he becomes a popular and colourful character. He develops an addiction to gambling and squanders away a large part of his inheritance, running up substantial gaming debts and by 1750 is threatened with arrest.
Following the death of his wife in childbirth, he is appointed to the lucrative post of tax collector for Coleraine but gambles away £800 of the King’s money. His estate is sequestered and by 1760 he is penniless.
He gains support trying to help overcome his addiction from a childhood friend, Andrew Knox. Knox is a wealthy land-owner and Member of Parliament (MP) for Donegal who lives on an estate at Prehen about two miles outside the city of Derry. Mary Ann, Knox’s 15-year-old daughter, is already a substantial heiress, having received some £6,000, and would collect a further legacy if her brother dies without issue. MacNaghten and Mary Ann develop a relationship as the former visits Prehen regularly. Nonetheless by 1761 their relationship has run into difficulties.
The practice of abduction and marriage is prevalent in 18th century Ireland among young men of social standing but with little property and, within their society, it is tolerated. So, on November 10, 1761, MacNaghten and his followers attempt to abduct Mary Ann from a carriage on a family journey to Dublin Parliament with the intention of eloping with her. The attempt fails miserably as MacNaghten shoots and mortally wounds her by mistake. He is taken to Lifford Courthouse in County Donegal, where a court finds MacNaghten guilty of murder and he is sentenced to execution by hanging.
At Strabane jail on December 15, 1761, MacNaghten hurls himself from the gallows with such force that the rope breaks. He has the sympathy of the crowd who believe this is divine intervention for a man distraught with grief over the death of his love. Despite the belief that MacNaghten could not be hanged a second time, he fails to use the cover of a sympathetic crowd to make good his escape. Rather he defies the public mood of the people with the never-to-be-forgotten words, “I vow that no one will ever speak of me as Half-Hanged MacNaghten.” He returns himself to the jurisdiction of the hangman and, with a new rope, is dispatched into the arms of eternity.
John McNaghton is buried at Patrick Street graveyard, Strabane, County Tyrone.