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The Story of James Hadfield and his Squirrel

James Hadfield blog 2

Amongst the most striking items we hold at Bethlem are several copies of ‘Epitaph, of my poor Jack, Squirrel’ by James Hadfield, one being on permanent display in the museum. This poem was hand written and illustrated by the author, and is one of a number of works sold by him to visitors - cute animals being as popular with people in the early 1800s as they are today in the early 2000s. But James Hadfield was also one of the most important and notorious patients in Bethlem’s history, whose story had a lasting impact on the place of those with mental health issues in criminal law.

Hadfield was a soldier who had suffered severe head wounds at the Battle of Lincelles (1793) while serving amongst the bodyguard of the Duke of York. These affected James deeply and left him with lasting mental health issues. Discharged from the army on the grounds of insanity with a pension, he tried to reintegrate with normal life, finding work as a silversmith in London. Already suffering delusions about the end of the world, by 1800 Hadfield had become convinced that he was God’s chosen instrument in the world, and that he must sacrifice himself to save mankind. Unwilling to commit suicide, he decided to create a situation where his life would be taken away by others.

This led to a spectacular attempt on the life of King George III as later reported in Bell’s weekly messenger:

On 15th May [1800], the prisoner had repaired to Drury Lane Theatre, [and] had there drawn a concealed weapon, and when the opportunity presented itself, had discharged a pistol at the person of his Most Sacred Majesty. The slugs, with which the pistol was loaded, had been found in different places, but all very near the Royal Box.

Hadfield’s bullet missed the king by some 12 inches, and he was immediately arrested.

James Hadfield blog

Although attempted regicide was undoubtedly significant news, Hadfield was far from unique. George III had already suffered a far less serious assassination attempt by Margaret Nicholson (who used a blunt butter knife to try to half-heartedly stab the monarch), and later in the century Queen Victoria would have no fewer than eight attempts on her life, one by future Bethlem patient Edward Oxford.

However, Hadfield’s trial exposed a basic gap in the law around criminal activity, mental health and responsibility for ones actions. Having spoken to his captors in a calm and collected manner, and with having multiple witnesses as to his good character but erratic behaviour, it became clear that this was a man capable of lucid periods of thinking, but who was also beset by sustained and fixed delusions. His lawyer, Thomas Erskine, successfully argued that Hadfield was a ‘religious maniac’ who was ‘incurably insane’, and while acting under the influence of his delusions could not be held responsible for his actions. Technically, this would have led to a verdict of ‘not guilty, for reasons of insanity’, which would have left Hadfield free to resume his everyday life. Parliament rushed through an ‘Act for the safe custody of insane persons charged with offenses’ with retrospective powers, allowing its provisions to impact on James. He had become one of the ‘criminal lunatics’ created by the Act, and was sent to the ‘incurable’ ward at Bethlem for detention and treatment ‘until His Majesty’s pleasure shall be known’.

Bethlem had taken in patients deemed dangerous to the Crown and Country before, including Margaret Nicholson, but Hadfield’s punishment solidified and legalised this link. When Bethlem moved to St George’s Fields the Government took the opportunity to insist on the construction of two wings for these ‘criminal lunatics’- and it was to the male wing that Hadfield was returned in 1816, after 14 years spent in Newgate Prison following a brief escape from Bethlem in 1802.

James Hadfield seemed to settle to life in this ‘new’ Bethlem, and it was here that he was allowed pets (cats and dogs, as well as birds and squirrels) and to take visitors, to whom he sold his poems (his money seemed to be spent on tobacco). In 1820 he is described in his case notes (such as existed) as being ‘perfectly sane in his conduct and conversation’ most of the time, but erratic and absurd in his writings (one wonders if this included the Epitaph for Jack). In 1822 he was described as ‘steady’ in his health, and had been allowed to spend time in one of the upper galleries of the Hospital (most patients thought to be severely ill and/or dangerous to staff and other patients had a room in the basement at this point). In 1833 the Governors bought Hadfield a wig, presumably to cover the scars on his head. When he died in 1841 his autopsy revealed severe brain injuries, almost certainly the cause of his mental health issues.

Hadfield created the need for the state to deal with ‘criminal lunatics’, a term found wanting even in the 1800s, but one which was only removed from the statute books in the 1930s. We hold records of its first solution, the State Criminal Lunatic Asylum, from its establishment at Bethlem in 1816 up to its move to Broadmoor Hospital in the 1860s. Many of the staff and patients were transferred directly from Bethlem to the new location in Berkshire, marking another profound change in the history of the Hospital.

His patient notes are available to view on Find My Past, and a copy of the Epitaph can be seen in the Museum.