The Atholl Papers: The Case of Carolina Elinora Mahon Search of iMuseum

The Atholl Papers: The Case of Carolina Elinora Mahon

Posted on 30.09.2021

I must confess that I went down a bit of a rabbit hole, back in May, when I first came across correspondence and others papers relating to the apparent abduction of a 13/14-year-old Irish heiress, Carolina Elinora Mahon, by members of the Corry family of County Monaghan, Ireland, in October 1749. But what I initially thought was a standard example of an Irish marriage abduction, became a whole lot more, at least to my fairly uniformed eyes, once I began to dig deeper into both the Atholl Papers and the wider rich holdings of the Manx Museum.

Before we delve further into the story of Carolina Elinora Mahon, it would be prudent to give a brief general overview of the social phenomenon that was Irish marriage abductions. Prevalent since the mediaeval period, but especially so between 1700 and the 1830s, it was the practice of kidnapping a young heiress (12-15 years old) or a wealthy widow with the intent of forcing her to marry one of her abductors, usually with the assistance of a couple-beggar (a defrocked minister). In the period of our particular case, these abductions were a method for men of the lower gentry to acquire wealth and the subsequent rise in social status that came with it, though later on these kidnappings and forced marriages were used as a weapon by secret agrarian societies, like the Whiteboys/Rightboys, and other displays of agrarian unrest in Ireland. Although an Act was passed in 1707, which made it illegal for a woman under the age of 18 to be married without her parents’ consent, and a capital crime if the woman had been forced, it continued to remain an acceptable form of violence towards women by a certain section of Irish society. This acceptance clearly manifests itself when you read accounts of parties as large as 50-strong abducting a young heiress or widow, and either injuring or murdering members of the woman’s family in the process.

But things aren’t so clear-cut when it comes to Irish marriage abductions, because there are also ‘collusive abductions,’ when a young girl/woman was a willing and active participant in their own kidnapping and subsequent marriage. In a period when a woman had little to no power over her finances and whom she wed, agreeing to be taken away by a preferred suitor was one way to take control, particularly if the woman was being forced by her family to marry someone she did not like, or if she was being stopped from marrying the partner of her choice. It is this ‘collusive’ form of abduction that I would say Carolina’s case falls under, but at the same time, I don’t believe the Corry family were necessarily benevolent actors either.

Complaint of Charles Campbell before the Chancery Court, 31st October 1749 (Libri Cancellarii 1750, page 23) [Click image to enlarge & read.]

Carolina’s story does not begin in the Atholl Papers, but rather in the records of the Manx Chancery Court, where we find a complaint from Charles Campbell, dated 31st October 1749, on behalf of the 8th Baron Blayney, uncle to Carolina and her reputed guardian. Campbell’s complaint levies charges against the Corry siblings: William, Isaiah and Elizabeth; of spiriting away Carolina to the Isle of Man, without the consent of her guardian, with the intent of wedding her to William, and requests that both the Corrys and Carolina be detained. As a consequence of the complaint, they would be held, but as reported by John Quayle the Elder (Comptroller and Clerk of the Rolls) to the Duke of Atholl in a letter, dated 20th January 1749/50 (AP 54 (1st)-20), it was soon discovered that Campbell had no authority to issue the complaint in the name of Lord Blayney (who wasn’t even interested in the matter, as other records suggest), which led to him departing from the island and Carolina and the Corrys being released at the beginning of December 1749. It is through Quayle’s letter that we also learn that Carolina is an heiress to £300 a year (around £35,000 in today’s money), and that she has made the Corrys her guardians. Quayle also reports that she and William are rumoured to be married, though it is unknown by whom, and regardless of their marital status, ‘no body doubts’ that ‘they lye together.’

But Charles Campbell’s departure is only the beginning, and the matter would come to involve the Earl of Harrington, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, and the Duke of Bedford, Secretary of State for the Southern Department (precursor to the Home Office). At the behest of Lord Harrington, Lord Bedford would send the Duke of Atholl a letter at the beginning of January 1749/50 (AP X12-3), requesting that he issue a warrant for the arrest of the Corrys, Carolina and any other accomplices, so that the Corrys could be returned to Ireland for trial and Carolina reunited with her family. It is through a number of documents that accompany Lord Bedford’s letter that we learn that it is John Campbell, Carolina’s step-father and brother to Charles, who is the principal actor pursuing those that have come to the Isle of Man, and that there were a number of other accomplices involved in the abduction: Joseph Corry, Edward Corry, Patrick Murphey, Richard Nowlan, and James McArooney. It is interesting to note that only the Corry siblings and Patrick Murphey came to the island with Carolina, though Joseph Corry (father to the siblings) would also appear in December, perhaps in response to the Bill of indictment against him and the other accused.

Copy letter from the Duke of Bedford to the Duke of Atholl, 9 January 1749/50 (AP X12-3) [Click images to enlarge & read.]

Petition of John Campbell and Mary Campbell to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland (AP X32-7) [Click images to enlarge & read.]

Having petitioned Lord Harrington in December 1749, John Campbell would go on to submit a complaint to the Isle of Man’s Chancery Court at the beginning of January 1749/50 (Libri Cancellarii 1750, pp. 63-64), where once again the Corry siblings, along with Patrick Murphey, would be accused of bringing Carolina to the island through ‘flattery, fair promises or other indirect means,’ and also charge Joseph Corry with aiding and abetting his children. Not content with just recovering Carolina and having the Corry’s stand trial, Campbell also sought damages of £6000 (around £700,000 in today’s money). When we consult other records, it appears that money is very much Campbell’s concern, particularly Carolina’s estate and keeping it in the family. Returning to John Quayle’s letter to the Duke of Atholl (AP 54 (1st)-20), he writes that Carolina has stated that Campbell has already helped himself to £1600 or £1700 of her inheritance, and ‘wants to sacrifice her to his brother (Charles) to rub off scores.’ At a Chancery Court hearing, held 1st February 1749/50, Carolina declares that she willingly came to the Isle of Man with the Corrys, whom she invited to accompany her, as she was under ‘great fear and apprehension’ because Campbell intended to marry her to his brother, ‘a person for whom she had an utter abhorrence and dislike.’

The answer of Carolina Elinora Mahon, 1 February 1749/50 (Libri Cancellarii 1750) [Click images to enlarge & read.]

At a session of the Chancery Court on 2nd February 1749/50, it was agreed between John Campbell and Joseph Corry that they would both go to Ireland to see Baron Blayney and wait upon his decision on the matter, and at a date of his choosing, Corry would bring his children before Lord Blayney. But nothing further is heard of this particular aspect of the story, partly because Lord Blayney did not care, but also because later in February the Duke of Atholl’s warrant, at the behest of Lord Bedford, finally arrived and Carolina, Patrick Murphey and the Corry siblings were taken into custody and detained at Castle Rushen. It is reported by John Quayle and other Manx officials that an individual from Ireland arrived on the isle at the beginning of March to take possession of them, but as this unnamed person did not come with a warrant from the Lord Chief Justice of Ireland, Carolina and the Corrys were not handed over. Further correspondence throughout April and May reports their continued imprisonment, with John Quayle informing the Duke in a letter, dated 28th May 1750 (AP 54 (1st)-23), that the Lord Chief Justice refuses to grant a warrant to ‘receive them,’ with the further news that the marriage between Carolina and William ‘is now no longer doubted and madam is ready to lye down.’

We hear nothing more about Carolina and the Corrys from the Manx officials in the Atholl Papers after May 1750, I suspect in part because they were preoccupied with overzealous English and Irish revenue cruisers, and the fall-out from several violent confrontations with Captain Dow and his crew (which will be covered in a future blog post). But there is a petition from the detainees to Deemsters Daniel Mylrea the Elder and John Taubman the Elder, dated 5th July 1750. In this petition, John Campbell and Carolina’s mother are referred to as ‘pretended lawfull guardians,’ and Campbell is described as having an ‘evil disposition’ towards Carolina, keeping her imprisoned so that she may not sue him for the ‘considerable debt’ he owes her. The petitioners also go on to state that Campbell openly declares that ‘he will not trouble himself’ to bring them back to Ireland, and is happy to see them ‘pining, starving and dying in gaol.’

Petition of William Corry, Isaiah Corry, Elizabeth Corry, Patrick Murphey and Carolina Elinora Mahon (AP X19-8) [Click images to enlarge & read.]

That petition is the last we hear of the case of Carolina Elinora Mahon, at least in the Atholl Papers. We get some form of closure in the records for the Manx Court of Exchequer (Libri Scaccarii), with a notice sent to John Campbell and his wife, dated 1st February 1750/51, declaring Carolina and the Corrys are to be released if Campbell does not take possession of them in 30 days of receiving the document. This notice is then followed by a second one given by the Deemsters, on 13th April 1751, ordering the prisoners to be released. From there, Carolina’s fate and that of her marriage to William becomes somewhat of a mystery; there is information floating about on various genealogy websites, but as they are sketchy sources at best, I’m not inclined to entertain what they say in this blog.

What began as a story of collusive marriage abduction appears to turn into a darker tale, involving a step-father more interested in reclaiming his step-daughter’s wealth than the young girl herself, and once deprived of his control over her estate, is content to indulge in a petty act of spite. It would be easy to dismiss some of Carolina’s accusations against John Campbell as those of an errant, gullible young girl, if it weren’t for the fact that he left her to rot in prison for over a year! As for the Corrys, I think William was seen as a suitable escape by Carolina to get away from her step-father and his designs over her inheritance, but that does not mean that the Corry family did not take advantage of a vulnerable girl to try to improve their financial and social position.

The next edition of the Atholl Papers’ blog will be released at the end of October, and will look at the Isle of Man and the Jacobite rising of 1745.

Read The Atholl Papers Blog:

The 2nd Duke of Atholl’s Inheritance of the Isle of Man
The Atholl Papers: An Introduction to the Project


Gareth Pugh
Manx National Heritage Project Archivist (The Atholl Papers)

Further Reading

For those who would like to learn more about Irish marriage abductions, I suggest the following publications, which I consulted for this blog:

Kelly, James. (1994) ‘The Abduction of Women of Fortune in Eighteenth-Century Ireland’, Eighteenth-Century Ireland, Vol. 9, pp. 7-43.

Luddy, Maria and O’Dowd, Mary. (2020) Marriage in Ireland 1660-1925. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Power, Thomas P. (2010) Forcibly Without Her Consent: Abductions in Ireland, 1700-1850. Bloomington: iUniverse.

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