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James Hadfield, The French Revolution and the Redefinition of Insanity by Sophia Gal: Part Two

In Part one of this blog Sophia looked at James Hadfield's background, his attempted assassination of King George III and the start of his subsequent trial. In Part two she looks at his time in Bethlem, and the wider legal implications of the case

The Verdict

Though Hadfield swore that he had no accomplices, his decision to target the king was motivated by Bannister Truelock, a man with whom Hadfield had been meeting. Truelock was a millenarian, who believed that he was “[a] true descendant of God”, that “[t]he Virgin Mary was a bloody whore, Jesus Christ was a thief, and that God Almighty was a blackguard”, and that he would destroy the world within three days. When questioned in Hadfield’s trial, he brazenly admitted: “I told him he might be a very great man ... by becoming my Son”.[1]

The jury ultimately concluded that Hadfield was not guilty. This displeased the House of Commons.[2] Thus, the Criminal Lunatics Act of 1800 was passed on July 28th that year. This act meant that if the court found an individual unfit to plead, he would be confined ‘at His Majesty’s pleasure’ (the king decided if and when he would be released). The bill was introduced by Sir John Mitford, on the grounds that insane people who are acquitted continue to commit crimes, and these people are usually unfortunate with few friends or family to look after them.[3]

As for Truelock, he was brought to the House of Correction,[4] and later admitted to Bethlem by December 18, 1800.[5] In spite of this, no formal charge was brought against him.[6]

[1] Richard Moran, “The Origin of Insanity as a Special Verdict”.

[2] “High Treason”, Bell’s Weekly Messenger.

[3] Valerie Agent, “Counter-Revolutionary Panic”.

[4] Richard Moran, “The Origin of Insanity as a Special Verdict”.

[5] A Constant Observer, Sketches in Bedlam; or Characteristic traits of insanity (London: Sherwood Jones and Co., 1824).

[6] “High Treason”, Bell’s Weekly Messenger.

Political Background

LDBTH8 138 Margaret Nicholson attempting to Assassinate His Majesty King George III 1786 c

An engraving of Margaret Nicholson attempting to assassinate King George III in 1786.

James Hadfield's co-defendant, Bannister Truelock, was one of many British Jacobins. This refers to a British individual who supported the French Revolution and its ideals. Their beliefs included opposition of taxes, greater access to education for the poor, and opposition towards monarchy. These groups were forced underground through political suppression, and their leaders would be tried for treason. Sympathisers of the French Revolution had an affinity for apocalyptic symbolism and anticipation of a religious millennium as well as a political one. As such, self-styled prophets (among them Truelock himself) emerged in the 1790s. They saw the struggles as a prelude to the end of the world and the second coming of Christ.[1]

As for Hadfield’s case in particular, this was not the first attack on the king. In 1786 he was attacked with a knife by Margaret Nicholson, and in 1796 a stone had been thrown at him by John Frith. Both of these individuals were concluded to be insane.[2] Coupled with the popularity of Frech Revolutionary ideals, the king feared a political assassination.

The Criminal Lunatics Act of 1800 that saw to Hadfield’s detention was coupled with the Treason Act of 1800. It was because of this that Ebenezer Elliot, social campaigner and ‘Corn Law Rhymer’, saw the legislation as one of many attempts at suppressing radical action.[3]

[1] Richard Moran, “The Origin of Insanity as a Special Verdict”.

[2] Valerie Agent, “Counter-Revolutionary Panic”.

[3] Valerie Agent, “Counter-Revolutionary Panic”.

Hadfield in Bethlem

LDBTH2 17 44 New Bethlem Hospital St Georges Fields c 1830 a

Bethlem Royal Hospital in St George's Fields, Southwark c.1830, as it would have looked when Hadfield was a patient there

Hadfield was detained in Old Bethlem until his death in 1841.[1] While there, he killed a man named Benjamin Swain by punching him. Swain’s death was determined to be an accident.[2] Smyth, a visitor to Bethlem in 1823, described Hadfield as a grumpy old man. The writer of Sketches in Bedlam adds that “his impatience of confinement sours his temper, in spite of all the indulgences allowed him.”[3]

Hadfield spent his time in confinement weaving straw baskets, which he sold to visitors.[4] In Bethlem, he was known for the animals he kept and his affection towards them. Flora Tristan, one of his visitors, reported that he had owned two dogs, three cats, some birds and a squirrel[5] - that squirrel being Jack. Hadfield wrote and illustrated epitaphs for each of these pets after they died, which he sold to visitors.[6]

According to Bethlem records, Hadfield attempted to escape on July 27, 1802 and was caught on July 31, after which he was sent to Newgate for 14 years[7]. On March 25, 1821, Dr Monro reported that Hadfield was sane, with strong desires of being removed from the hospital. On December 25, 1826, Dr Monro again reported that Hadfield was sane, but “of weak capacity”.

To summarise, Hadfield’s verdict and the new legislation surrounding it were motivated by more factors than just a new understanding of insanity. The Criminal Lunatics Act was also a product of its time: it was motivated by concerns over political unrest and attacks on the king. This is especially evident in the way that his delusions were fed by the millenarian Bannister Truelock.

[1] D. Y. Rabin, Identity, Crime, and Legal Responsibility in Eighteenth-Century England, (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004).

[2] Catherine Arnold, Bedlam: London and its Mad (London: Simon and Schuster, 2009).

[3] A Constant Observer, Sketches in Bedlam

[4] A Constant Observer, Sketches in Bedlam

[5] Patricia H. Alleridge, “Sketches from the history of psychiatry: A cat, surpassing in beauty, and other therapeutic animals”, Psychiatric Bulletin 15 (1992) p. 759-762.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Catherine Arnold, Bedlam: London and its Mad