Friday, 28 June 2019

The Prime Minister is Assassinated! London, 1812

On the afternoon of May 11, 1812, the British Prime Minister, Spencer Perceval, was walking through the lobby of the House of Commons when a man approached him and shot him point blank in the chest. Perceval supposedly cried "Murder" and "Oh, my God" before collapsing to the floor. He was pronounced dead a short time later. He remains the only British Prime Minister to have been assassinated.

Authorities initially feared that the shooting was the beginning of an uprising of radical elements. Unrest was widespread. Food prices were high. Britain had been at war with France since 1793 and simultaneously undergoing the traumas of early industrialization. Perceval was highly unpopular. People in some places cheered when they heard of his death. 

It soon became clear that the assassin had acted alone, out of a sense of grievance against Perceval and his government. John Bellingham (not Ballingham as in the image above) was a Liverpool merchant who believed that he had been unjustly imprisoned in Russia after his business had gone bankrupt. He had repeatedly petitioned the government for compensation, but his petitions had been ignored.  (Below: Contemporary image of Bellingham)

Bellingham was charged with wilful murder, tried, convicted, and hanged within a week. To some people he was a hero: a public subscription was raised to benefit his widow, testimony to the unpopularity of Perceval and the Tory government. Others thought he was insane. 

Among them was Bellingham's defense team. But they had only one day to prepare his defense. The lead defense counsel, Peter Alley, entered a plea of insanity and requested a delay to call witnesses, medical experts and people who knew Bellingham personally. The court denied his requests and the trial proceeded. It seems that the government was eager for revenge and to set an example.  

Bellingham himself rejected his counsel's insanity plea. He defended his action as the inevitable result of the government's refusal to compensate him for his losses in Russia. It did not take long for the jury to convict him. (below: Bellingham pleading his case)

Was Bellingham insane? We will probably never be able to answer that question. But one thing I think we can be sure of: his chances of being declared insane would have been much greater if he had failed to kill Perceval or killed someone of lesser importance.
People who had tried and failed to assassinate George III and later, Queen Victoria were declared insane and sent to asylums. Another example comes from a case similar to that of Bellingham's.

In the early 1840s, Daniel McNaughten*, a Glasgow woodturner, became convinced that the Tory government was persecuting him and sending spies to harass him. Like Bellingham, he blamed the Prime Minister, in this case, Sir Robert Peel. 

In January McNaughten went to London, apparently intending to shoot Peel. Instead he shot Peel's secretary Edward Drummond in the back while Drummond was walking down Whitehall. It was widely believed that McNaughten mistook Drummond for Peel, but that is not entirely clear. 

At first, Drummond was expected to recover from his wound. But he died of "complications" a few days later, possibly due to medical incompetence. Like Bellingham, McNaughten was charged with wilful murder. But there the similarities end. 

McNaughten's father contributed a large sum of money to his son's defense and secured excellent counsel. (Where got the money is a mystery. A woodturner like his son, he is unlikely to have possessed such fuds himself.) Defense counsel requested a delay to prepare their case and the court granted it this time. The trial did not begin until March 3. 

The defense, led by one of the top barristers in England, Alexander Cockburn, called a number of expert medical winesses. including several leading alienists (psychiatrists). They testified that McNaughten was insane, that his delusions regarding the government had deprived him of "all restraint over his actions." In other words, he was not responsible for what he did. (Below: Drawing of McNaughten at the time of his trail)

The prosecution agreed that McNaughten was delusional, but argued that he was nevertheless responsible for his actions. The jury accepted the defense argument and found McNaughten not guilty on grounds of insanity. He was sent to Bethlem Hospital, part of which functioned as the state asylum for criminal lunatics. In 1864 he was transferred to the newly opened Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane, where he died a year later. (Photo of McNaughten taken at Bethlem, 1856)

The verdict at McNaughten's trial sparked widespread outrage. Most of the public, including the Queen, believed that McNaughten had escaped a well-deserved hangman's noose. McNaughten himself never denied killing Drummond, which he justified as the result of Tory persecution, not delusions. He had been involved in radical politics and there may have been some truth to his claims of persecution.

The furor over the verdict led to a demand that the rules for an insanity plea be clearly defined. The result was the McNaughten Rules, which state that 

"To establish a defence on the grounds of insanity it must be clearly proved that, at the time of committing the act. the party accused was labouring under such a defect of reason from disease of the mind, as not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing or if he did know it, that he did not know that what he was doing was wrong."   

The McNaughten Rules were subsequently adopted in England and Wales, much of the British Empire, and the United States. In England and Wales the rules were largely superseded by the adoption in 1957 of the Scottish concept of diminshed responsibility.

Ironically, if the McNaughten Rules had been in force at McNaughten's trial, he would have been found guilty and hanged.

*McNaughten's name in historical records is variously spelled as McNaughtan, M'Naughten, M'Naghten, and more.

Further reading: 

Andro Linklater, Why Spencer Perceval Had to Die: The Assassination of A British Prime Minister (London, 2013)

David C. Hanraham, The Assassination of the Prime Minister: John Bellingham and the Murder of Spencer Perceval (London, 2011)

Richard Moran, Knowing Right from Wrong: The Insanity Defense of Daniel McNaughtan (New York, 1981)

Wednesday, 12 June 2019

Gin Crazes: Georgian England and Beyond

If you search the internet for "Gin Craze" these days you will probably find information about two such crazes. One is the current craze for craft, artisan, and boutique gins with alll sorts of added flavorings, including asparagus. 

The number of gin distilleries in the UK increased from 152 to 315 between 2013 and 2018. In 2016 a gin hotel opened, run by the Portobello Road Distillery, where over indulgers can spend the night. That may be a first for modern London, but perhaps not for an earlier age, as we will see. "Gin craze sees number of UK distilleries double in five years."

The other craze, which comes up in searches far more frequently, has a much longer pedigree. This is the original Gin Craze that  swept over England, especially London, in the early 18th century. Gin, or geneva, as it was often called, was a new drink in the British Isles. It was introduced by Dutch producers and drinkers who arrived after their ruler, Willliam of Orange, became king of England in 1689, as William III (1689-1702). 

The government under William and his successor, Queen Anne (1702-1714), promoted gin as an alternative to brandy, a French import. During most of this period, Britain was at war with France. (Image: William III)

The new spirit caught on quickly, especially in London and among the lower orders. Producers and sellers touted gin as a medicine that could cure gout and indigestion. But it soon became popular for other reasons. One is that it was untaxed and therefore cheaper than beer and other drinks such as brandy. No license was required to distill or sell gin, unlike other alcoholic drinks.

Another reason is that gin promised a quick route from misery to oblivion, an obvious attraction to the wretched masses of London's slums. "Drunk for a penny, dead drunk for twopence. Clean straw for nothing," as William Hogarth put it. The straw indicates a possible connection with today's gin hotel. The intoxicated could  sleep off their inebriation on the straw. Perhaps not an ideal accommodation for today's gin tourist.

Gin shops proliferated rapidly in the poorer parts of the capital. According to an estimate in the 1730s, one London house in five contained a gin shop. By the 1740s, consumption of gin in London had reached astounding levels, on average more than two pints per person per week. The gin they drank was roughly twice as strong as that sold today. 

Many people denounced the situation, among them novelist and magistrate Henry Fielding and artist William Hogarth. They blamed gin for an upsurge in mortality, poverty, and crime. 

In 1751 Fielding, founder of the Bow Street Runners, argued that if consumption was not curbed, there would soon be "few of the common people left to drink it." Fielding claimed that "gin alone" was responsible for a large proportion of theft and robbery in his jurisdiction.

Hogarth agreed. In the same year, he tackled the gin problem in his classic engravings "Gin Lane" and "Beer Street." "Gin Lane" highlights the destructive effects of excessive gin drinking on London's populace. Desolation and death reign everywhere in this grim work, centered on the intoxicated woman whose child is falling from her arms, probably to its death. This part of the scene recalls another nickname for gin, "Mother's Ruin." Fighting, theft, and suicide are hallmarks of this neighborhood. Buildings are falling down, shops decrepit. Only the pawnbroker and undertaker are prospering.

"Beer Street" is the complete opposite. Here, everyone is prospering except the pawnbroker, whose services are unneeded and whose shop is decrepit. Crime and violence are absent. Happiness, robust health, and good cheer reign. 

The government's response to the gin craze was to tax the production and sale of gin heavily, thereby raising its price, as well as the Crown's revenue. Parliament passed a series of gin acts between the 1720s and 1750s. The Gin Act of 1736 introduced prohibitive licensing fees. It inspired the cartoon below, which celebrates the "funeral of  Madame Geneva." Her death, as it turns out, was greatly exaggerated.

Enforcement of the act relied on paid informers, who were often victims of crowd violence, the so-called "Gin Riots." Producers and sellers largly ignored the law, and consumption continued to rise. Critics claimed that the illegal gin was improperly distilled and often poisoned.

The 1736 act was repealed in 1743 and replaced by a more moderate, more workable law in 1751. Consumption dropped after 1743, and more in the 1750s, probably more for economic reasons than legislative ones. 

In the early 19th century gin enjoyed a major renaissance with the opening of "gin palaces," establishments much more attractive than the dingy gin shops of the previous century.  One of these "palaces" is pictured below. The unknown artist portrays it as a convivial enough place, but the drunks and young children indicate cause for concern. 

Gin drinking reached near its 18th century levels again and aroused renewed condemnation. The renowned caricaturist George Cruikshank produced the cartoon below in 1829, "The Gin Shop." Once again, gin was equated with destruction. At the left, Death chortles cheerlily that he will "have them all dead drunk presently. They have nearly had their last glass." 

The various gins in the shop are stored in coffins. Signs indicate that gin is the road to the workhouse, financial and physcical ruin. Parents have brought their children to the shop, and the mother is forcing her infant to drink gin. The "woman" serving the gin is actually a skeleton wearing a mask. 

Cruikshank reiterated the point in other works, such as the one below, "The Battle of A-Gin-Court," (1838). In obvious reference to one of England's greatest medieval victories in the Hundred Year War, Agincourt, Cruikshank emphasizes the message that gin is bringing about the disintegration of a once great nation.

Cruikshank certainly convinced himself. He became a teetotaler in the 1840s. Gin consumption fell with the growing strength of the Temperance Movement during the Victorian Age, but the advent of the gin and quinine tonic as an antidote to malaria in Britain's tropical possessions helped keep the gin industry alive. Today's gin craze is helping it to thrive again, for good or ill. 

Further Reading: 
Jessica Warner, Craze: Gin and Debauchery in an Age of Reason. (London, 2003)

Patrick Dillon, The Much Lamented Death of Madame Geneva: The Eighteenth Century Gin Craze. (London, 2003)