Man-eating Tiger

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Issue 1 (Jan/Feb 2005), News, Volume 13

Man-eating Tiger 1ROCHE, ‘Tiger’ (c. 1739–79), adventurer and duellist, was born David Roche in Dublin, the youngest son of James Roche, a barrister. His father died when he was young, and his mother remarried and moved to England, leaving her son in Dublin. He spent the next few years as part of a notorious set of ‘bucks’ until he was involved in the murder of a watchman and had to flee the country. Making his way to America, he fought in the Anglo–French wars, first with the French against the Indians and then with the British. Initially well regarded, he was commissioned an officer and won the favour of his commander, Col. Massy, but after he was accused of stealing a valuable fowling-piece from a fellow officer he was court-martialled and dismissed. Roche, who protested his innocence throughout, was so incensed that he challenged his accuser to a duel and, on being refused, suddenly sprang at him, ‘fastened on his throat with his teeth, and before he could be disengaged, nearly strangled him, dragging away a mouthful of flesh which he afterwards declared was the “sweetest morsel he had ever tasted” ’. This attack earned him his nickname of ‘Tiger’.
Roche returned to England and applied for a commission but found that his ignominy had preceded him. Declaring that he would fight anyone who doubted his innocence, he fought duels with a Capt. Campbell and twice with his old commander, Col. Massy. Eventually his name was cleared through a deathbed confession from Bourke, a corporal in the regiment, who admitted the theft. Roche returned to Dublin entirely vindicated. His rescue of a family from an attack by ruffians on Ormond Quay advanced his reputation even further, and he formed a group of vigilantes who regularly patrolled the streets.
He moved to London and soon eloped with a Miss Pitt, allegedly a niece of Lord Chatham; Roche embezzled most of her £4,000 fortune, but they did not marry. Instead he married another heiress, Elizabeth Jefferson of Cambridgeshire, fought more duels, and one night successfully saw off two attackers at once. According to Jonah Barrington, ‘he regarded swords no more than knitting needles and pinked every man he faced in combat’.
Having run through his wife’s fortune, Roche enlisted as a captain in the East India service, and sailed on the Vansittart in May 1773. On board he grossly offended a group of passengers and was challenged to a duel by a Capt. John Ferguson. Two days after the Vansittart arrived at Cape Town on 3 September, Ferguson was found dead with nine sword wounds to his side. Suspicion fixed on Roche, who fled during the night. On 3 April 1774 he was shipwrecked off Bombay and arrested for murder. He was shipped back to London and his trial was heard at the Old Bailey on 9 December 1775. The jury, after being directed to acquit or condemn for murder but not to bring a charge of manslaughter, took 45 minutes to return a verdict of ‘not guilty’, to loud cheers from the gallery. The East India Company, however, immediately dismissed him from its service.
Roche lived for a further four years and did not mend his ways. He emerged unscathed from several more duels, and while attempting to claim the title ‘Viscount Fermoy’ became ill and died in Westminster on 11 September 1779, aged 40.

Bridget Hourican is an editorial assistant with the Dictionary of Irish Biography.


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