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.
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)