Caroline Isham, the eldest daughter of the Reverend Charles Euseby Isham, married Thomas Welch Hunt, the Squire of Wadenhoe in Northampton on 9th February 1824. The marriage took place at Polebrook where Caroline’s father was rector of the parish.
The couple were both young; Caroline was 22 years old at the time of her wedding and Thomas was 27. Moreover, Thomas Welch Hunt was a wealthy and amiable gentleman. Their future looked bright.
A short time after the marriage, the new Mr and Mrs Hunt took an extended Grand Tour of a honeymoon on the continent, heading for Italy. The Napoleonic Wars were at an end and British tourists were once more able to travel across mainland Europe. They made first for Rome and then travelled south, stopping at the coastal town of Salerno in the Kingdom of Naples before, in early December, continuing on to the small town of Eboli in order to visit the ruins of the three Greek temples at Paestum. They were in wild and dangerous countryside where banditti roamed and English visitors were warned to carry pistols.
The hills became less picturesque as the Hunts carriage travelled from Salerno but Eboli itself was a handsome town, built on the slope of the hills. Beyond Eboli was the plain of Paestum, with large tracts of dark green shrubs which had a dismal and desolate appearance when viewed from the higher ground of Eboli but which were myrtles, ten feet high, standing in a pasture which fed water buffalo (kept for making cheese from their milk). A traveller in 1822 was to recall that there ‘was something solemn and imposing in the silent loneliness of this monstrous expanse… [our driver] pointed out to us a spot, where, about two years since, two Englishmen had been stopt… [and] robbed of everything, even to their shirts, and sent literally naked back to Eboli, where these travellers had been so incautious as to exhibit diamond pins, and gold watches and seals’.
There were three groups of English tourists visiting Paestum; the Hunts, a Mrs Benyon and her two daughters and three midshipmen from the Revenge, Charles Alex Thorndike, a Mr Hornby and Mr Thompson. Thomas and Caroline Hunt spent the night at a ‘miserable little inn at Eboli’, and unwittingly placed themselves in mortal danger.
The landlord was a rogue and a villain, in league with the lawless men who terrorised the vicinity. Naples had changed hands a few times during the Napoleonic wars but, from 1823, was – for the second time – under the control of the Bourbon, King Ferdinand I of the Two Sicilies and maintained by an Austrian garrison. A Corps of sixty pardoned highwaymen had formed part of the king’s troops in Sicily under the command of a Chef de Brigade named Costa, also a former criminal and a fervent anti-Jacobin. They had not received their pay for some time and – it was rumoured – had reverted to their old trade, roaming the plains of Paestum and preying on visitors to the ancient ruins. Unbeknown to the Hunts, their landlord at the inn alerted the banditti. Mr Hunt had been careless – or imprudent – in putting his expensive travelling accoutrements on display. The eagle-eyed landlord had noted their value.
…the landlord, observing that he [Mr Hunt] had silver mounted cruets, and silver backed brushes in his dressing-case (a wedding present he had received), communicated with a band of brigands that infested the neighbourhood.
The next day – Friday 3rd December 1824 – the banditti were stationed, ready to pounce on the unwary tourists. Mrs Benyon and her daughters were their first victims. As they left the ruins at around one o’clock in the afternoon they were held up, threatened and relieved of their valuables but allowed to continue on to Salerno where they were expecting to meet up with the other two English parties. By nightfall, Mrs Benyon was convinced that misfortune had befallen her fellow travellers and penned a hasty and unfortunately prophetic letter to the Minister at Naples, ‘it is much to be feared that resistance… may have led to dreadful results’.
Thomas Welch Hunt and his wife Caroline were the next victims of the troop of brigands. They set off in their carriage from Paestum but had only travelled about half a mile when a man jumped out from behind a hedge and stopped the horses; another man leaped on to the footboard of the carriage and demanded money from the servant travelling on the box before throwing him to the ground and holding him fast there. In all, there were six highwaymen, all masked and armed; one pointed his musket at Mr Hunt (who was unarmed) and another targeted Caroline. Mr Hunt gave the men his purse but repeatedly asked for at least two or three carlins (a Sicilian silver coin worth about fourpence) to be returned to him, perhaps trying to convince them that he had no other money or valuables with him. Caroline – terrified – begged her husband to just hand over everything; the men knew there was a box in the carriage containing the silverware and they wanted more than just Mr Hunt’s purse. But Thomas Welch Hunt was obstinate and imprudent; he was also deaf to his wife’s pleas and bravely contemptuous of the threats made by the men pointing their muskets at the couple. “If you do not immediately give up everything, we will shoot you”. “You dare not do that”, responded Mr Hunt. Caroline recalled the fatal moment:
The words were no sooner uttered than we were both unfortunately shot. I wish he had not been so obstinate, and I am sure they would not have acted so rashly – but pray do not tell my husband I said so. They all made their escape without delay without taking a single article from us.
The servant who had been on the box took one of the horses and galloped as fast as he could back to the ruins at Paestum to find the three midshipmen. The carriage, with the wounded couple inside, headed back the same way.
Mr Hunt and his wife were gently carried into the ruins and it was clear that they were both mortally wounded. A ball had passed through Mr Hunt’s right breast, and another had passed clean through Caroline’s left hand and left breast. Medical aid was sent for and a message also sent to Mr John Roskilly, an eminent English surgeon resident at Naples (who had treated Percy Bysshe Shelley a few years earlier). Thomas Welch Hunt was too injured to be moved and he died amid the ruins of the Greek temples at seven o’clock that evening; Caroline had been taken to a nearby farmhouse where she was tended to but not told of her husband’s death. The next morning (Saturday) she was able to tell Mr Thorndike what had happened but after that she became weak and she died in the early hours of the Sunday morning. Mr Roskilly arrived at noon on the Sunday, too late to be of use but it was he who discovered what had become of Thomas Welch Hunt’s body. It had been taken to the church and the local surgeon had opened the body before placing it – upright – in a narrow closet, unclothed and with the body still open. Roskilly was able to prevent Caroline’s remains suffering the same fate.
The young, newly married couple were buried side-by-side, and a tablet to their memory is located nearby in the churchyard of Christ Church in Naples; another was placed back in the church at Wadenhoe.
The brigands were rounded up, accused and found guilty of the Hunts murder.
EXECUTION OF THE ASSASSINS OF MR. AND MRS HUNT
NAPLES, APRIL 28, 1825
The assassins of the unfortunate Mr. and Mrs. Hunt, whose case excited so deep and extensive an interest, were executed last Saturday, 23d inst. The Neapolitan journal, which, as you may remember, avoided making any mention of the distressing affair at the time it happened, and which only alluded to it lately, when the malefactors were discovered, inserted yesterday a long article on the subject. It appears, that immediately after committing the crime, the villains had kept themselves closely hidden, and by means of the wife of one of them, who denounced certain innocent individuals, misled for some time the pursuits of the police. At last, however, the whole mystery was cleared up, and the following individuals secured: – Felice Solito, aged 32, a peasant; Biagio Manzo, 32, a colono, (or little farmer); Liberato Letteriello di Vincenzo, aged 26, a peasant; Pietro Antonio di Pasquale, aged 28, a wine seller, or tavernajo; Maria Vittoria Calabrese, aged 39, wife of Biagio Manzo; Marianna Cirmo, aged 30, wife of Liberato Letteriello, Raffaele Frasca, aged 30, a guardiano campestre, (or man armed for taking care of country property); and Nicola Maria Petrelli, whose condition is not mentioned, aged 38. These persons were brought before the Military Commission of the Province at Salerno, according to a decree of King Ferdinand, dated 3d October, 1822, which orders that all briganti, or companies of robbers, be tried by martial law, and executed immediately after conviction. The Commission… declared Solito, Manzo, Letteriello, and Di Pasquale, guilty, recommending, however, Solito to Royal mercy, as his evidence had principally discovered the secrets of the crime, in which also he had taken the least part. Of the other individuals, accused of being privy to the desperate projects of the assassins, and of having lent them arms and assistance, one, viz. Cirmo, was acquitted in toto, and the other three detained in prison for further examination.
The three ordered for execution were carried down to Eboli and shot, at three o’clock in the afternoon of Saturday. The brutal ruffians, the sanguinary destroyers of defenceless youth and beauty, died like dastardly villains as they were. Those hearts which had the baneful energy to arrive at the excess of crime, which could dictate the cruel blow that was to send to a premature grave two beings rich in merit, in love, and in happiness; and that was to wound the hearts of thousands of the just and virtuous, trembled and sunk at their own sufferings. They moaned, they shrieked, nor could all the consolations of religion give them strength to face their punishment.
It appeared on the trial that the criminals took to the road, for the first time, the day before our unfortunate country people fell into their hands.
Probably the last likeness of Caroline Hunt née Isham which survives is a plaster cast medallion, done by Neri while she was in Rome and which was in the possession of a descendant of the Isham family, Gyles Isham, in 1950. Intriguingly, either the original or a second copy was bought at an antique show in Massachusetts and was in a fragile box alongside a similar one of Rosa Bathurst, another young Englishwoman who also died in Italy in 1824 (Rosa drowned in the Tiber).
Sources not referenced above:
Scots Magazine, 1st September 1822
London Courier and Evening Gazette, 20th May 1825
The Story of Wadenhoe by the Wadenhoe History Group
Tragic Honeymoon by Gyles Isham; Northamptonshire Past and Present, 1950
Views in the Levant: Paestum, c.1785. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection