"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, May 7, 2018

Woodcock's Wooing: A Case of Mad Love

That peculiar aberration we now call "stalking"--or to use the clinical term, "ertomania," is the wholly unfounded delusion that a particular person is wildly in love with you. Any effort by the victim of this obsession to prove that such is not the case only seems to fuel, not dampen, the ertomaniac's ardor. Persons suffering from this disorder are remarkably creative in inventing reasons why the adored object is merely hiding their true feelings. Ertomania is often alarmingly persistent and untreatable.

Modern-day stories of "celebrity stalkers" cause us to overlook the fact that this is hardly a new form of mental illness. In fact, one of the most notable "stalkers" made life hell for one unfortunate young woman back in the mid 19th century.

When you discover that someone earned the nickname "Woodcock," because it was so difficult for people to shoot him, you surmise that you have come across someone with a novel and striking personality. John Rutter Carden certainly lived up to those expectations. In 1811, Carden was born at his family's Tipperary home, Barnane Castle. After being educated for some years in England, he returned to claim his Irish estates.

A 19th century view of Barnane Castle

He discovered that the properties had sadly declined. During Carden's absence, the tenants on his lands had felt free to stop paying rent, and they saw no reason why they should start now. Carden ordered them to either pay up or leave, but most declined to do either one. War quite literally broke out between the two factions, complete with Carden installing a cannon on the castle roof. (It was during these battles that our hero earned his unusual nom de guerre.)

Happily, a peaceful resolution was eventually reached. His tenants eventually learned that, other than his dismaying predilection for collecting rent, he was a decent enough landlord by the standards of the day. Despite the fact that he was the county's magistrate and deputy-lieutenant--positions of authority that seldom lead to general popularity--he was well-liked by his neighbors. For some years, his life in the Irish countryside jogged along very prosperously and peacefully. Woodcock Carden, in short, seemed like the last man in the world to qualify as Strange Company fodder.

Of course, you never know when people might surprise you.

Although Carden went through his share of love affairs--women generally found him attractive--by the time he entered his forties he was still a bachelor, and evidently felt little need to marry. He liked women, but had yet to love any of them. Then, in July 1852, some friends of his named Bagwell invited him to their estate, Eastwood, in County Cork. This would prove to be a visit that would change the course of his life and win him a curious place in Irish history.

Among the other visitors at Eastwood were a Mrs. George Gough and her two orphaned sisters, Laura and Eleanor Arbuthnot. Eighteen-year-old Eleanor was like a heroine from a Jane Austen novel: Pretty, intelligent, wealthy, charming, warmhearted, and both innocent and spirited. All that was needed was for a Mr. Darcy or Colonel Brandon to fall hopelessly in love with her.

Eleanor Arbuthnot.  (H/t to Twitter's @litrvixen for bringing this portrait--as well as the above image of Carden--to my attention.)

Unfortunately for her, what she got instead was Woodcock. Although neither Eleanor or her family took any particular interest in Carden, he instantly became violently smitten with the girl. Before his visit was over, he begged Mrs. Gough for her young sister's hand in marriage. She issued a prompt and firm refusal. Mrs. Gough pointed out that Eleanor was too young to think of marriage, and in any case, she showed no particular liking for him. She told Carden to just forget about Eleanor and move on.

This was the absolute last thing Carden intended to do. Woodcock had managed to unalterably convince himself that Eleanor was secretly infatuated with him, but maidenly modesty kept her from admitting as much. At first, he saw her family as working to poison her mind against him. This later grew into the conviction that her relatives were holding her prisoner, and Eleanor was desperately waiting for him to rescue her. Carden wrote Eleanor a letter proposing they elope. The shocked--and rather disgusted--girl showed this note to her family. The outraged Goughs sent a response ordering Carden never to communicate with any of them again. Eleanor herself wrote a reply stating that she would never forgive him for this "insulting proposition."

Baffled and embarrassed by the rebuff, Woodcock scarcely knew what to do next. He even considered moving to the West Indies to try to escape his humiliation. Most unfortunately for all concerned, he did no such thing. Instead, his increasingly fixated mind came up with a plan that would, he felt sure, free Eleanor from her family's domination and enable Miss Arbuthnot to finally reveal her hidden passion for him.

He decided there was nothing to be done except kidnap the girl.

In the autumn of 1853, he felt he had finally found his opportunity. While traveling to Scotland to stay with a friend, Lord Hill, who lived on the isle of Skye, fate placed him on the same boat as Eleanor and her family, who were traveling to a ball at Inverness. When he learned of their destination, he immediately changed his own travel plans and followed them to the party, essentially gate-crashing the event. He did not try to speak to Eleanor, but he followed her around and stared at her in a most unnerving fashion.

He decided that Inverness would be the site of Eleanor's "liberation." He intended to grab her away from the Goughs and use relays of horses to take her to the coast of Galway. There, a yacht would be waiting to sail them to Skye, where, so he fondly imagined, Lord Hill would be willing to shelter them.

While waiting to have his newly-acquired yacht fitted out in suitably bridal elegance, Carden occupied his time by making a thorough pest of himself. When Eleanor and her family traveled to Paris, Carden ruined their vacation by trailing their every move. No matter where they went, there was Woodcock, staring and peeping and languishing.

After everyone had returned to Ireland, Carden learned that his scheme would have to be delayed: Eleanor had fallen from a horse, breaking one of her ankles. During her recuperation, Carden frantically nagged mutual acquaintances for updates about her condition. He had gotten it into his head that Eleanor's relatives were preventing her from receiving proper care.

Early in 1854, Carden learned that Eleanor's brother William was going to India, and that Eleanor was going to accompany him for part of the journey. Woodcock saw this as his golden opportunity. Unlike the rest of Eleanor's family, William Arbuthnot had always been friendly to Carden, and Woodcock hoped the young man might be sympathetic to the planned abduction. As it happened, however, by the time William was ready to leave, Eleanor's ankle had not healed, forcing her to remain at home.

Time for Plan B. Carden made one last effort to obtain Eleanor's hand in a conventional fashion. He wrote the Goughs offering to give the family his entire fortune if they would only consent to letting him wed Eleanor. This mad idea was treated with the scorn it deserved, leaving Carden feeling he had no choice but to resort to drastic measures.

All was soon made ready. The yacht was waiting off Galway. Horses had been placed along the road to the coast. Carden had enlisted a small private army--consisting of the strongest, most loyal men on his estate--to assist in the abduction. He had even thought to provide a vial of chloroform, in case Eleanor's nerves were upset by the kidnapping.

On July 2, 1854, Eleanor and her two sisters, along with the family governess, a Miss Lyndon, set off for church, about a mile from their house. Carden quietly followed them. After the service, the women were riding home in their carriage when they noticed that Woodcock was following them on horseback. By this point, the family was so used to him mooning about, that they initially paid little attention to the intrusion.

They soon learned that this time was very different. Several men suddenly leaped into the road, forcing their carriage to stop. The men grabbed the horses' heads, cut the reins, and threatened the carriage driver with their knives. Meanwhile, Carden dismounted and ran to the carriage, intending to pull Eleanor from the vehicle. Miss Lyndon, who happened to be seated near the door, pummeled Carden with her fists until his face was bloody. He yanked her out and threw her to the side of the road. Carden's henchmen, assuming she was the target of the abduction, began pulling Miss Lyndon into the brougham Carden had lying in wait.

Before the governess could be kidnapped--a fiasco that, Carden later said dryly, would have been a "just punishment" for him--men from the Gough estate arrived on the scene and joined in the battle against the attacking party. Carden had almost managed to pry the screaming, struggling Eleanor from her carriage when someone struck him a paralyzing blow to the head. When more of Gough's men appeared, Carden knew the battle was lost, and he ordered his forces to retreat. The would-be kidnappers rode hard for home, with the Gough faction--soon to be joined by the police--in hot pursuit.

The chase lasted for some twenty miles before Carden and his men were overtaken. Although the fugitives put up a fierce fight, they were badly outnumbered, and they soon found themselves in custody. Carden expected to face not just failure, but social ruin and, very possibly, the standard sentence for abduction, which was transportation for life.

Instead, he found himself a public hero. Crowds--largely of women--surrounded his prison to cheer him. His peers among the gentry considered Carden's escapade to be a grand romantic adventure, a jolly bit of wooing that had deserved better success. When he went on trial for abduction, attempted abduction, and felonious assault, it was the social event of the year. All of Irish high society fought for seats in the courtroom. The legal show beat opening night at the opera all hollow.

The dramatic highlight of the spectacle came when Eleanor herself took the stand. Carden had instructed his attorneys not to badger his lady love with any questions, but the defense still managed to get her to reveal a vital legal point: Carden had not succeeded in removing her from the carriage. Carden's lawyers used this to argue that no actual abduction had taken place.

The jury--which shared in the near-universal public adulation of the defendant--readily acquitted him of abduction. They had no choice but to find him guilty of the lesser charge of attempted abduction, earning Carden a sentence of two years hard labor. Jurors also absolved him of assault, a verdict which inspired a prolonged round of cheering among the spectators. Despite a few disapproving comments in the Irish newspapers--one editorial grumbled that Carden "stands more in need of a straight-waistcoat than of a wife"--Woodcock emerged from his trial as the people's idol. The public found Eleanor's antipathy to becoming the wife of this dashing fellow to be quite inexplicable.

Inevitably, having this level of general support did absolutely nothing to cure Carden's near-fatal attraction. He left prison in 1856 as determined as ever to marry Eleanor. He traveled all the way to India, simply to try and enlist William Arbuthnot's help in winning her over, but that young man wisely declined. Carden then petitioned the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, who kindly but firmly advised him to find a bride he did not have to kidnap. Although he claimed to be terribly regretful about all the trouble he had brought to Eleanor, he failed to do the one thing that would show true remorse: namely, leave her the hell alone. For years, he would continue to stalk her. Wherever she went, in Ireland, England, Scotland or the Continent, Eleanor would find a silent shadow trailing her movements. Carden rarely tried approaching her; settling for lingering in her general vicinity. Eleanor must have felt like she was being haunted by a ghost, although I'm sure she would have found a spectral stalker far preferable. When he wasn't trailing after Eleanor, Carden lived in solitary splendor at Barnane. He had spent a fortune lavishly redecorating it in anticipation of the day Miss Arbuthnot would come to reign as queen of the castle. Instead, he settled for turning it into an informal hotel. His hospitality became renowned among neighbors and visiting guests--aside from his obsession with Eleanor, he struck everyone as a genial, generous, and gentlemanly character. When he died in 1866, he was greatly missed. To this day in Ireland, you can hear folk ballads celebrating Carden and his "romance."

And then there was Eleanor. Truly a "victim of love" if ever there was one, Eleanor saw her life irretrievably blighted by her unwanted admirer. With the public regarding Carden as the hero of the story, the woman who steadfastly rejected him naturally became the villain. The utterly blameless Eleanor was seen as Carden's ruin, not the other way around. For some time after the trial, she could not appear in public for fear of being hissed at, heckled, or worse. Her reputation--that most prized possession among well-bred Victorian ladies--was permanently ruined by the scandal. She never married. Until her death in 1894, she contented herself with becoming a second mother to her sister Laura's children.

No, life is very seldom fair.


  1. Youre very welcome happy to help out a fellow twitterer and strange stories afficinado. :)

  2. Carden does sound like a decent fellow - except for his ridiculous and destructive obsession. I do feel strongly for poor Miss Gough. The victim in a crime is often victimised by the public, which is vastly unfair.

    Does this strike you in part - especially the actual attempt at kidnapping - as if it could have come from the Ireland or the Scottish Borders of three or four hundred years before?

    1. Yes, the whole saga has a curiously medieval air.

    2. Have any of you seen the movie "The Abduction Club"? It was inspired by an Irish society of younger sons during the 18th century. It may very well have been an Irish cultural thing.

    3. I'd not heard of the film. It may indeed be an Irish thing, a combination of large families, too little money and not enough options for younger sons.

  3. This reminds me of the 1826 Shrigley abduction (there's a book about the case), although the kidnapper's motives were more financially mercenary than unhealthily besotted. That case also generated large amounts of publicity and it's possible that Carden had heard about it. Some men felt entitled and emboldened enough in their patriarchal societies to terrorize women who - as in this case - clearly wanted nothing to do with them, and were sympathized with in the courts and the court of public opinion for their unstable behaviors.

    1. I remember the Shrigley case--I did a post about it several years ago!


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