The pages of old newspapers are full of intriguing details about crimes, some long forgotten, some inspiring inquiry and speculation to this day. While reading the pages of the London Times cover to cover for the years 1812-1822, I encountered much fodder for historical murder mysteries, with new or overlooked information that shed new light on unanswered questions in the context in which the crimes were perpetrated.
The May 11, 1812 murder of Spender Perceval, the British Prime Minister, is one of these mysteries which continues to attract speculation by historians. The question is not WHO did it, but WHY, or rather, whether this was solely the act of a solitary madman, or whether political motives entered into the equation. Britain was at war with France, shortly to be at war with the United States, and both could have benefited from the chaos following death of a head of state. Luddism and popular disturbances were at their height, and the ministry was generally unpopular. There is a tendency to magnify that unpopularity, to see in popular demonstrations following the assassination a groundswell of public opinion, and conclude that assassination was inevitable. The connection, however, is tenuous. Members of the Liverpool Administration which followed Perceval’s were wildly unpopular and political unrest continued, but none were targets of individual assassination attempts.
The assassin, John Bellingham, was a bankrupt Liverpool merchant with a grudge against the government for their alleged mishandling of affairs in Russia, where Bellingham was imprisoned for debt from 1804-1809. Perceval was not Prime Minister at the time. To the extent the resentment was justified, it focused instead on Sir Granville Leveson-Gower, British ambassador to St. Petersburg in 1804-1807, a member of the House of Commons in 1812, and the subject of numerous petitions from Bellingham. If the main motive of the murder was a species of paranoid revenge, Leveson-Gower was the more likely target.
In Britain in 1812, it sometimes happened that people who were suicidal confessed to capital crimes or even committed capital crimes in order to be executed, in the belief that they would escape going to Hell if they were properly shriven before they died. This is one reason full murder trials and examination of evidence took place even if there was a confession, to avoid executing innocent people. Newspaper accounts from 1817 document a mother of ten who cut her infant’s throat and stated expressly that she did so because she was suicidal and wanted to be hanged , and a depressed weaver who murdered his 10 year old daughter because he was tired of life and also feared she was headed for a life of prostitution. The most heartbreaking case, however, was a young man, disappointed in love, who set out to murder his erring sweetheart, hoping to be hanged, but murdered his landlady’s five year old daughter instead. He reasoned that the innocent child would go straight to Heaven while the former girlfriend, who was living in sin with another man, was in danger of going to Hell if she died suddenly.
There are parallels with Bellingham and Perceval. Leveson-Gower had the reputation of being a ladies’ man; he had recently married an heiress without breaking off relations with his mistress and was the subject of a minor scandal. Perceval, on the other hand, was a conspicuously pious churchgoer and contributor to evangelical efforts. He has been called the evangelical Prime Minister. Sexual and financial misconduct were never ascribed to him, even by his worst enemies.
I find it reasonable to deduce that Bellingham, having resolved to murder somebody in the hopes of being hanged, went to the House of Commons on May 11 intending to shoot Sir Granville Leveson-Gower, whom he hated, but was having second thoughts because of Gower’s sinfulness. Consequently, when a man crossed his path whom he also disliked, who was presumably in a state of grace, he impulsively shot him.
Bellingham’s trial took place at Old Bailey on Friday, May 15; he was hanged the following Monday. This rapid sequence of events was standard at the time for a murder with multiple witnesses, when the accused did not request additional time. Insanity was the only possible defense.
Bellingham’s deliberate planning, and his articulate stance while defending himself, made a verdict of insanity very unlikely in 1812. Was he insane? The judgment of modern historians, applying modern standards of rational thought, is that he most certainly was, and that the court was wrong to execute him. However, he was clearly aware of the consequences of his actions, including consequences in the afterlife to which large numbers of people still subscribed in 1812. Given the belief system, the actions were rational enough.
While awaiting execution, Bellingham told his jailers that he looked forward to being “freed.” His calm demeanor on the scaffold also suggests that he wanted to be executed, and that this may have been a motive for his crime.
Note: some of the information in this essay is taken from my entry on John Bellingham in this work: Notorious Lives.
Photo (a 19th century engraving) is from St Neots Museum