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We Are Not Amused III

Guest blogger Dr Nick Hervey continues his series of posts on ‘…Insane Persons and others who have come under the cognizance of the Police Force for offences against H.M. Queen Victoria…’

Whatever the motivation of would-be regicides, serious attempts on the monarch's life brought into play the full machinery of the judiciary. The precedent for dealing with such assailants was Hadfield's attack on George III. As Roger Smith has noted in his book Trial by Medicine, criminal lunatics like Hadfield posed a problem because of their uneasy location between the asylum (caring) and prison (penal) systems. Hadfield's trial hastened the formal segregation of criminal lunacy as a category, and initiated a campaign for a central criminal lunatic asylum which only ended when the Home Secretary agreed to implement plans for Broadmoor in 1856. However Hadfield’s acquittal, which owed much to Erskine’s brilliant defence, embarrassed the legal profession because it demonstrated the lack of a scientific rationale behind existing laws, which allowed such inconsistent verdicts to be reached when the insanity defence was employed. In the event Hadfield was held in custody until the Criminal Lunatics Act could be rushed through, which allowed a verdict of not guilty on the grounds of insanity, and required those so found, to be detained at Her Majesty's pleasure.1

In murder cases as a whole, juries increasingly relied on medical evidence either to allow the accused to claim unfitness to plead, or to acquit on the grounds of insanity. In this way they avoided the extreme penalty of the law. Most of the attacks on Victoria were half-hearted, bungled affairs, and public feeling was inclined to clemency. Nevertheless some deterrent was needed to discourage others. In 1840 Edward Oxford was clearly conscious of the nature of his act in shooting at the Queen, but evidence of insanity in his family, and in his conduct, led to a generous acquittal. On May 29th 1842 John Francis fired a pistol loaded with powder at Victoria, and was found guilty of treason but his sentence was commuted to transportation for life to Tasmania. On July 3rd, two days after his court hearing ended, an 18 year old called John William Bean, fired a pistol-load of tobacco and paper at the Queen and was sentenced to two year's imprisonment in Newgate. As a result of these last two attempts, Peel's Government passed the High Misdemeanours Act, on July 16th, which differentiated between serious attempts to harm the sovereign, and offences such as pointing unloaded firearms and throwing letters at her.2 This neatly side-stepped many of the existing medico-legal conflicts over the issue of insanity and responsibility, which had previously been highlighted in such offences of treason.

Ldbth7 9 Daniel Mcnaughten 1843 B 2

The following year Daniel M'Naghten mistakenly shot and killed Sir Robert Peel's secretary, believing himself persecuted by the Home Secretary's new police force. He was found insane at the direction of the Lord Chief Justice, and to deflect criticism of this ruling the Lord Chancellor asked his senior Judges to answer a number of questions relating to the insanity defence. The ‘M'Naghten Rules’ constituted their reply. These basically restated the traditional test that a man was not responsible for his deed if at the time of its commission he was unable to distinguish that it was wrong. There was one difference, though. Previously the law had been less stringent, only requiring that the accused be able to tell the difference between right and wrong in a more general sense. Despite these Rules much was left uncertain, and Smith concluded that jury findings varied widely, confounding the attempts of lawyers and doctors to achieve scientific exactitude in defining responsibility. More importantly, the Rules continued the narrow identification of insanity with disordered reason. They thus excluded disorders of the emotions or will, and effectively ruled out the plea of irresistible impulse. This was a great disappointment to contemporary alienists, and although subsequent court rulings eroded this position, medical evidence which put forward the latter line of defence ran the risk of a guilty verdict.

It is difficult to say how William Hamilton and Robert Pate would have fared under previous legislation. But in 1850 they were judged under the Act of 1842. Both were found guilty of high misdemeanour, and not being found insane, were sentenced to seven years transportation each. For other potential assailants the full trappings of the law were dispensed with. The same year Eliza Hunt, a carpenter's daughter, was found in front of Buckingham Palace with a knife saying, ‘she wanted the life of the Queen, and would have it by some means’. She was removed to Bow Street Magistrates’ Court, and committed to Strand Union Workhouse from which she was taken to Colney Hatch, where she remained until 1860, when she was discharged relieved.3 She, like the majority of those apprehended, was thought to constitute a more attenuated threat to the monarch, and was therefore dealt with summarily in the magistrates courts. However, before looking at the disposal of these cases, it would be helpful to examine the police's role in royal protection more closely, as it was they who generally apprehended these deranged persons.

To be continued…