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Oxford Martyr 3

We hope we may be permitted to add a postscript to our reviews of recently-published books concerning Edward Oxford, in order to give context to the claim that Oxford was (for a time, at least) a martyr to British public opinion, which had been outraged by his intended attack (whether in seriousness or in pretence) upon the person of the Queen. Were it not for the success of the insanity plea advanced by his defence counsel, Oxford surely would have been sent to the gallows, despite serious doubts being entertained concerning whether his pistols were loaded. Yet his incarceration at Bethlem and then at Broadmoor could have quite easily been lifelong: once he admitted to a visitor that, though he dreamt of being released, he knew it wasn’t very likely.1

A paper just published by Dr Tom Davies in the National Library of Wales Journal treats the medical evidence preserved in the records of the Welsh Court of Great Sessions as illustrative of the range of ways in which so-called ‘criminal lunatics’ were handled in eighteenth and nineteenth century Britain. Davies gives the example of a 1734 homicide on the Gower Peninsula against whom no prosecution was pursued due to ‘insanity’,2 and he speculates that in cases such as these, some “would have been released” and left “to fend for themselves, permanently psychologically scarred as they were”, while for others “arrangements were made for some type of custodial care”, with an eye more to “the protection of the community” than to “the welfare of those being detained”. In eighteenth century Wales, these arrangements ranged from being “kept in close custody for life”, through being sent to Ireland, there to be “detained in some safe and proper place of confinement”, or being transported to the colonies as a convict, to being attended by “proper persons…to administer medicines or such remedies as shall be thought necessary to restore [the] reason”.3 ‘Confinement’ in this context usually meant confinement to prison, but by the early nineteenth century another option was available: transfer to Bethlem’s Criminal Lunatic Department, opened on the Hospital’s new site in Southwark in 1816. Davies instances two Welsh admissions to this Department, though without naming them - Aaron Bywater, who was first charged in 1799 and held at Montgomery Gaol prior to 1816; and John Roberts, who was admitted to Bethlem in 1825 directly following his trial - both acquitted of murder on the grounds of insanity, and both confined at His (later Her) Majesty’s Pleasure.4

‘Arrangements’ such as these were effectively life sentences. Oxford, though he had caused no actual harm and was considered by his doctors to be of sound mind, was extremely lucky to escape this fate. His case, like that of Daniel McNaughten, another resident of Bethlem’s Criminal Lunatic Department, became a cause célèbre and a lightning rod for public debate concerning the insanity defence. One school of thought, to which the Queen herself subscribed, was that the defence was being cynically exploited as an expedient to escape deserved punishment. In 1843 the inimitable Punch magazine placed within its pages a spoof advertisement for a ‘Monomaniac Academy’ at the Hospital:
“Messrs Oxford and Macnaughten beg to announce that they have opened an Academy for the instruction of youth in the art of insanity. This very desirable and necessary acquirement will enable persons who have committed any crime or offended against the law of their country to escape punishment…Young gentlemen who are studying the art of picking pockets will also find this a desirable addition to their education; as, should they be detected, and tried at the Old Bailey, two or three lessons will teach them how to become monomaniacs pro tempore. Terms - One Guinea per lesson.”5

In 1867, the Evening Standard considered Oxford’s release to be “merciful” and his banishment to the colonies to be “very proper”, opining that “it is very right that the person of the sovereign should be protected from the vanity of a man who, at however distant a period, could commit the cowardly outrage of which he was the perpetrator”.6 One gets the impression from the story of Oxford’s life that there were certain points at which events could have easily taken a different course, one that would have been far less auspicious for him.
In his paper, Davies makes one critically important point which is easily lost sight of in the midst of historical (as well as contemporary) discussions of mental health and criminal responsibility. “In spite of the adverse publicity which crimes committed by the mentally ill attract,” he reminds us, “they form only a small proportion of the whole criminal population”. Again, his examples are from Wales, where “from 1730 to 1830, 855 [people] were taken to court for murder”, but only “twelve were considered to be ‘insane’”, and from 1825 to 1846 there were “not more than six” mentally ill offenders of any kind “being kept in…gaols at any one time”.7 Davies’ point is well taken: according to Mind, the UK mental health charity, today’s crime statistics “do not support…sensationalised media coverage about the danger that people with mental health problems present to the community”. Further, “people with mental health problems are more dangerous to themselves than they are to others”, as well as being “more likely to be the victim of a violent crime than the perpetrator”.8