Little Bits of History

May 15

Posted in History by patriciahysell on May 15, 2017

1800: James Hadfield or Hatfield attempts an assassination. James was born in 1771 or 1772 and his early life remains a mystery. He served with the British Army at the Battle of Tourcoing in 1794, a part of the French Revolutionary Wars. James was captured by the French but not before sustaining eight saber wounds to the head. The scars remained prominent for the rest of his life. He was eventually able to return to England and joined the Millennialist Movement. The premise advanced by this group was that a major change in society could be hurried along by getting enough people (the thousand mentioned in the millennial portion of the name) to bring about beginning changes. James believed the Second Coming of Jesus Christ could be moved forward by assassinating members of the government.

He and Bannister Truelock plotted to kill King George III in order to bring peace to the world. On this day while the King was at the Theatre Royal, in Drury Lane, the national anthem was played. During the performance, James took a pistol out and fired on the King standing in the royal box. He missed completely. James was arrested and tried for high treason. His defense was led by Thomas Erskine, a famous lawyer of the day. A plea of insanity was submitted. At the time, to be considered legally insane, one had to be “incapable of forming a judgement upon the consequences of the act which he is about to do.” Since there was planning involved in the assassination attempt, this bar was not met.

The 1795 Treason Act held no distinction between plotting treason and actually committing it and by this reasoning, even though James missed his mark, he had committed treason. Erskine challenged the insanity test and insisted the delusional state, even if unaccompanied by “frenzy or raving madness” was true insanity. Two surgeons and a physician testified that James’s history of head trauma led to delusional thinking. Judge Lloyd Kenyon, 1st Baron Kenyon, acquitted James, but opined that returning him to his family was also not an option and he needed to be removed from society at large for his own sake as well as the safety of others.

Before this time, if a person was judged insane, he was simply returned home. The Criminal Lunatics Act 1800 was quickly passed and given royal assent on July 28, 1800. It established the procedure for indefinite detention of mentally ill offenders. James was sent to Bethlem Royal Hospital for the rest of his life. He briefly escaped and was recaptured as he tried to flee to France. He was held in Newgate Prison until being transferred to Bethlehem Hospital (aka Bedlam). He died there from tuberculosis in 1841, outliving his intended victim by 21 years. King George III also went insane, but was able to be cared for outside the hospital system.

The reason I talk to myself is because I’m the only one whose answers I accept. – George Carlin

I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity. – Edgar Allan Poe

It is sometimes an appropriate response to reality to go insane. – Philip K. Dick

One person’s craziness is another person’s reality. – Tim Burton


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