Blackwell, Alexander (DNB00)

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search

BLACKWELL, ALEXANDER (d. 1747), was an adventurer, whose career is for the most part enveloped in mystery and contradiction. It is admitted that he was born in Aberdeen early in the eighteenth century; Fryxell, the Swedish historian of the intrigue which brought him to the scaffold, says in 1709, but this seems too late. According to a contemporary memoir, his father was a petty shopkeeper; but this production, although professedly written at Stockholm, was to all appearance fabricated in London to serve a political object; and there seems no reasonable doubt that he was the brother of Dr. Thomas Blackwell [q. v.], and consequently the son of another Thomas Blackwell [q. v.] According to the anonymous biography referred to, he studied medicine at Leyden, under Boerhaave, and he may very probably have represented himself to have done so. As, however, we find him practising the trade of a printer in London about 1730, there is far more probability in the statement of an apparently well-informed correspondent of the 'Bath Journal,' ab- stracted in ' The Gentleman's Magazine ' for September 1747, that Blackwell, urged by ambition and restlessness, left the university of Aberdeen without taking a degree, and came up to seek his fortune in the metropolis. Having obtained employment from the printer Wilkins as corrector of the press, he married an excellent wife with a considerable portion, and set up as a printer on his own account. He seemed on the high road to prosperity, when he was ruined by a combination of the London printers, who opposed him as an interloper who had never been apprenticed to the trade. He spent two years in a debtor's prison, from which he was delivered by the enterprise of his wife [see Blackwell, Elizabeth] He then took up the study of medicine and agriculture, and was frequently cor suited respecting the management of estates. Being introduced to the Duke of Chandos, he obtained employment as the director of that nobleman's improvements at Cannons, which situation he forfeited under circumstances not explained, but apparently little to his credit. ' It kept him,’ says the editor of the ' Gentleman's Magazine,’ annotating the article in the 'Bath Journal,’ 'from other employment.' The printer of the magazine was probably one of Blackwell's persecutors, yet this may have been the reason why, as stated in Chalmers's 'Dictionary,’ 'Mr. Blackwell's family were not very desirous of preserving his memory,’ and allowed the circulation of erroneous statements which have hitherto entirely misled his biographers. In 1741, while still in the dukes service, he had published 'A New Method of improving Cold, Wet, and Clayey Grounds,' of which there is no copy in the British Museum or the Bodleian. It may have attracted attention abroad, for the indomitable adventurer next turns up in Sweden in 1742. Here he represented himself as a physician, prescribed successfully for the king, and was actually appointed one of the physicians in ordinary, but soon incurred the suspicion of quackery, and fell back upon his old trade of practical agriculturist. He published in 1745 'An Essay on the Improvement of Swedish Agriculture,' which was suspected of being a translation been from the English ; and was entrusted with the direction of a model farm at Allestad. This was alleged to have deteriorated under his management, and the precariousness of his appointment may perhaps have driven him to engage in political intrigue. Sweden, under the weak rule of King Frederick, was at the time distracted by the contending factions of the 'Hats' and the 'Caps,' former under French influence, the latter inclining to England. An unquiet spirit like Blackwell would be prone to fish in these troubled waters, and as his political relations were chiefly with the English party, the representatives of his own country might well seek to make a tool of him. In March 1747 he presented himself to the king with a mysterious verbal communication purporting to come from the Queen of Denmark (Louisa, George II's daughter), vaguely hinting at a large sum of money to be bestowed on condition of altering the succession to the exclusion of the infant crown prince. The king, at first referred Blackwell to two of his confidants, but on the following day, becoming alarmed, disclosed the incident to his ministers, who immediately arrested Blackwell. The latter admitted making the communication, and declared that he had been prompted to do so by an anonymous letter which he had destroyed, and the source of which was unknown to him. To extract further revelations he was cruelly tortured. He long withstood his sufferings with the greatest constancy, and although he ultimatelv succumbed, he revoked his confession, and it is difficult to ascertain what it really was. It certainly implicated no other person, for no one else was proceeded against. The sentence of the judges, if correctly cited, condemned him for 'designing to alter the present constitution, and to render the crown absolute to set aside the present established succession ; and to procure large sums of money to enable him to execute these schemes.' It was insinuated that Adolphus Frederick, the next heir, was to have been poisoned, that 'a certain young prince,' the Duke of Cumberland, was to have been put upon the throne, and that Adolphus Frederick's son, afterwards Gustavus III, was to have been indemnified by a principality in Germany. On these charges, of most if not of all of which he was unquestionably innocent, Blackwell was condemned without any public trial to be broken on the on the wheel, a punishment commuted into decapitation. He met his fate on 9 Aug. 1747 with remarkable fortitude, apologising for laying his head on the wrong sicle of the block on the ground that it was the first time he had ever beheaded. The speech he endeavoured to address to the bystanders was drowned in the roll of drums, and a paper published in his name is probably spurious. The real object and secret springs of his intrigue remain a mystery. Some have thought that it was a device of his own to gain the king's favour and magnify his own importance, and that the alleged anonymous letter was a the figment. Others deem him the instrument of a foreign court, probably England. The 'Hats' regarded him as an agent of their adversaries; the 'Caps' insisted that he had been made the stalking-horse of a fictitious plot, Not a few suspected that he had been ensnared by the minister Tessin, who was supposed to be jealous of his influence, and certainly took the leading part in his torture and execution. Blackwell is universally represented as meddlesome, pragmatical, and loquacious, and the theory that his plot was wholly concocted by himself would appear the most plausible, but for the evident pains taken by the English government to vindicate itself at his expense. According to the correspondent of the 'Bath Journal' Blackwell was an excellent scholar in his youth. His eminent talents were marred by want of principle and unsoundness of judgment, but he must have possessed enterprise, courage, and versatility.

[Gent. Mag. 1747. pp. 424-6 ; A Genuine Copy of a Letter from a Merchant in Stockholm to his Correspondent in London (London, 1747); Chalmers's Dictionary, art. 'Blackwell (Elizabeth); Credercreutz, sverige under Ulrica, Eleonora, ich Frederic I (1821): Fryxell, Berättelser ur Svenska Historien, pt.xxxvii., Stockholm, 1868. The proceedings of the tribunal which condemned Blackwell were sealed up by the order of Count Tessin, and remained unexamined for thirty-three years, when Gustavas III deposited them in the public archives. Their contents were first divulged in 1846, in an essay contributed to the newspaper Frey, by N. Arfvidsson, upon which Fryxell's circumstantial and interesting narrative is mainly founded.]

R. G.