Shooting Victoria



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Paul Thomas Murphy

Pegasus Books









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Shooting Victoria: Phrenological Edition

Every time that one of Victoria’s assailants attacked her, everyone asked why?—why wouldanyone would do such a thing? In an attempt to answer that question, experts and amateurs alike speculated about the psychology of Victoria’s assailants—and theories about their madness tended to be central to their trials. In the first half of the nineteenth century, one leading psychological method was phrenology, which had as its basis the theory that one’s mental qualities could be determined by the shape of one’s head. Edward Oxford, Victoria’s first assailant, in 1840, was in particular the subject of a great deal of phrenological speculation. Visiting him in his cell before his trial, to evaluate his sanity, one doctor actually conducted a close examination of Oxford’s head—and concluded that something was not quite right with the boy. According to the following account, taken from The Phrenological Journal and Miscellany for 1841, George Combe, the leading phrenologist of the day, having studied a cast made of Oxford’s head taken just before his trial, was able to flesh out a full psychological profile of the 18-year-old. Combe’s conclusions certainly suggest that the best, most accurate phrenological readings benefited greatly from 20/20 hindsight:

      Oxford, says Dr Moore, is eighteen years of age, of low stature and modest address. His countenance would be pleasing, but for the silliness which a continual grin imparts to it. He exhibits little cunning, and no degree of ferociousness. He is feelingly alive to statements regarding himself in the newspapers, and to the portrait prints of himself. He was delighted at the proposition to take his cast, and assented to it most readily. Inordinate vanity is betrayed in every action, and the love of notoriety seems to have been a powerful motive in impelling him to the commission of his execrable act. His mortification was most marked on an observation being made, that to commit murder, even on the person of a sovereign, no longer constituted a hero. His education has been very limited; he is fond of reading works which contain the marvellous; and he alleges he has read with care and much pleasure Thiers’s History of the French Revolution.

      Mr Combe remarked that the head was rather below the average size, that the intellectual organs were pretty fully developed, and that the organs of Self-Esteem and Love of Approbation were very large. The natural language of these faculties was evident in the expression of the countenance. The case, however, was one of diseased excitement of the feelings. The jury returned a verdict of insanity, and a very just and proper verdict it was. The act itself, taken in all its circumstances, was a proof of a diseased brain. Twenty years ago, however, this poor youth would have been found guilty of murder, and executed, as many individuals labouring under moral insanity have been. A better day had dawned, and insanity was now beginning to be better understood, not only by the medical profession, but by lawyers and legislators. Phrenologists are undoubtedly entitled to the merit of contributing to bring about this most desirable result.

02:04 pm, by shootingvictoria Comments

LINC Tasmania Online - An Attempted Assassination

On John Francis’s second chance: his life in Tasmania and Melbourne after his transportation for life in 1842, for twice pointing a pistol at Queen Victoria.

08:18 am, by shootingvictoria Comments

…this always happens when a Liberal Government is in!
Queen Victoria in 1882, political partisanship winning out over accuracy, recollecting the eight attempts on her life on the day that her last assailant, Roderick Maclean, was found not guilty by reason of insanity.

08:03 am, by shootingvictoria Comments

Shooting Victoria: The Poetic Attempt

Poetic? Can any assassination attempt, successful or unsuccessful, be called poetic? All the assaults upon Queen Victoria contained humor and pathos, suspense and, ultimately, joy—with the Queen’s survival. All were grand stories, now largely forgotten and very much worth retelling. But I certainly would not argue that any one of them could be described as poetic: assassination attempts never amount to poetry in motion. But of all the assaults, one of them did stand out as an event surrounded and saturated by poetry: Roderick Maclean’s attempt in 1882. Maclean himself was a would-be poet, and a poem that he wrote in 1877 in praise of the Queen might have been at the root of his motivation to shoot her: it is truly execrable verse, beginning “On your thrown you set and rule us all”—and going downhill from there. Maclean proudly sent it to Victoria. He never heard back. (An aide had replied, noting that “The Queen never accepts manuscript poetry,” but Maclean had moved on before that letter arrived.) The lack of response likely played upon his seething paranoia, and strengthened his hostility towards the Queen. And Maclean’s assault occasioned another poem, memorable in its true awfulness: “Attempted Assassination of the Queen” by William McGonagall, possibly the worst poet ever. My favorite verse is the third:

There’s a divinity that hedges a king,

And so it does seem,

And my opinion is, it has hedged

Our most gracious Queen.

McGonagall’s poem was not the only one to commemorate Maclean’s attempt. Another poem, on the two pronunciations of Maclean’s name, rhyming alternatively with “Queen” and “insane,” I noted in an earlier post. That poem actually appeared at first in Punch. Another poem (or, really, two poems) appeared in Punch soon after the event. The longer poem either lacks accuracy, or employs poetic license, for it commemorates one Eton boy who pummeled Maclean with an umbrella, when actually there were two. Nonetheless, it does a good job of giving credit where credit is due….

03:04 pm, by shootingvictoria1 note Comments

June 13, 1842

On this day in 1842, Queen Victoria became the first British monarch to travel by train—from Slough to Paddington, in 25 minutes. The brand-new Illustrated London News recorded the event. Two weeks before this, John Francis twice presented his flintlock at the Queen. Three weeks later, John William Bean presented his flintlock at her. Coincidence?

01:27 pm, by shootingvictoria Comments

Juan Carlos abdication: Britain's Queen Elizabeth very unlikely to follow suit | UK news | theguardian.com

And she will almost certainly—in September next year—overtake her great-great grandmother Victoria as Britain’s longest-reigning monarch.

11:15 am, by shootingvictoria2 notes Comments

29 May 1842: Queen Victoria attacked—almost.

On this day 172 years ago, John Francis stood on the Mall in London, intending to shoot at Queen Victoria as she and Albert made their short Sunday carriage-ride from Buckingham Palace to the chapel at St. James’s Palace. The carriages passed; Francis pulled out his flintlock pistol—and then stopped. He lost heart, slipped the pistol back into his coat, and fled. Only three witnesses saw him. But one of these witnesses was Prince Albert, who wrote of the moment to his father: “I saw a man step out from the crowd and present a pistol full at me. He was some two paces from us. I heard the trigger snap, but it must have missed fire. I turned to Victoria, who was seated on my right, and asked her, ‘Did you hear that?’ She had been bowing to the people on the right, and had observed nothing.’” Victoria and Albert now knew that an assailant was at large, and they were certain he would make another attempt. And so they rode out the next day in order to flush him out. And they succeeded. The broadside above depicts that second attempt, and though flawed in the details, it accurately shows that Francis got off a shot before the police were able to restrain him. It was that shot that ensured that John Francis became the only one of Victoria’s assailants who was convicted of High Treason and was sentenced to death.

08:43 am, by shootingvictoria Comments

Creating the British Monarchy - Late Night Live - ABC Radio National (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)

A discussion of Shooting Victoria with Phillip Adams of the ABC. 6:30 am my time; 10:30 pm his….

12:22 pm, by shootingvictoria Comments

The Shooting Victoria Tour

A list of ten places—eight in London, and two nearby—with historical connections to the eight assaults upon Queen Victoria:

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1. West Square, Southwark: Edward Oxford, the first of Victoria’s assailants, resided at 6 West Place, West Square for the month before his attempt on 10 June 1840. He was unemployed, having just quit his job at the Hog in the Pound on Oxford Street. Soon after he moved in Oxford bought a pair of dueling pistols, and spent much of his time practicing his stance and aim at a variety of London’s shooting galleries. The actual house he lived in almost certainly no longer exists, but the Square itself is remarkably preserved. Oxford would still recognize it.

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2. Bethlem Hospital, Southwark: Literally a stone’s throw away from Edward Oxford’s home before the attempt is Bethlem Hospital, Oxford’s home after his trial and acquittal on the grounds of insanity. Detained at the Queen’s pleasure, Oxford lived for twenty-four years in the male criminal lunatic’s wing of the hospital—until the wing closed and Oxford and his criminally-insane fellows were shipped to another asylum (see #10, below). The doctors at Bethlem, however, never considered Oxford to be insane. This building today, shorn of its wings, houses the London branch of the Imperial War Museum.

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3. Constitution Hill, Westminster: Flanking the walls of Buckingham Palace at the edge of Green Park, Constitution Hill was the site of no fewer than three assaults upon Victoria: Edward Oxford’s (1840), John Francis’s second try (1842) and William Hamilton’s (1849). Moreover, Arthur O’Connor in 1872 stood on Constitution Hill before clambering over the walls of Buckingham Palace to present a pistol to his Queen at an inner court. While Constitution Hill’s path and road have of course been modernized, Green park and Buckingham Palace are largely the same and it’s not difficult to see the spot exactly as four of the Queen’s assailants did.

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4. The Mall and St. James’s Palace, Westminster: Two of Victoria’s assailants, John Francis (making his first try) and John William Bean, stood beside the Mall five weeks apart in 1842, in order to point their pistols at the Queen as she traveled the short distance from Buckingham Palace to Sunday chapel at St. James’s Palace. Only three people saw Francis’s feeble first attempt, but since one of them was Prince Albert, he and the Queen were alert when they rode forth the next day in order to flush Francis out. Few saw Bean’s actual attempt either—but many saw his temporary capture, but thought it was all a joke. Bean escaped but was arrested at home that night.

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5: Cambridge House, Piccadilly, Westminster: On 27 June 1850 Queen Victoria was leaving the “out” gate of this building after visiting her dying uncle, the Duke of Cambridge, when Robert Pate, standing on the pavement, approached her and slashed her over the head with his cane, blackening her eye and leaving a welt. After the Duke of Cambridge died, Lord Palmerston bought the building and lived there as Prime Minister. The building later became the site of the Naval and Military Club, known as the “In and Out” because of its gates. Cambridge House is currently vacant.

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6: Fortnum and Mason, Piccadilly, Westminster: Down the street from Cambridge House was Robert Pate’s ultimate destination on the evening he attacked Victoria—a destination he never reached: his home on the third floor of Messrs. Fortnum and Mason’s emporium. Pate was by far the richest of Victoria’s assailants, as this fashionable residence in the neighbourhood of St. James’s demonstrates. What were Pate’s rooms are now the men’s department of the store.

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7. Hyde Park 1—the Perimeter: Before Robert Pate attacked the Queen, he was making his usual, obsessive, and frantic perambulation of the royal parks. He was a common sight on the periphery of Hyde Park in 1850, where he appeared to all to wield his cane as a sword to slash at invisible demons. A policeman who witnessed his eccentricity often nicknamed him “Cut and Thrust.”

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8. Hyde Park 2/Albertopolis: During the last week of February 1872, while taking his favorite walk in Hyde Park, Arthur O’Connor, Victoria’s sixth assailant, hatched a wild plan to ensure his eternal fame: he would kill Queen Victoria. He later changed his mind, and decided to threaten the Queen and force her to sign a petition freeing all Irish political prisoners in British prisons. As it happens, O’Connor’s favorite walk adjoined the part of London quickly becoming known as Albertopolis—on the side of the park upon which the Crystal Palace was erected and the Great Exhibition of 1851 took place. In 1872 O’Connor could have seen in the distance the Royal Albert Hall, opened by the Queen a year before, and could have seen the spire rising above a hoarding of the not-yet-opened Albert Memorial.

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9. Windsor Railway Station, Windsor, Berkshire: On 2 March 1882, Roderick Maclean shot at Victoria in her carriage as she and her daughter Beatrice rode out of Windsor railway station towards Windsor Castle. The station has changed considerably since that day, but one building remains—what was then the Queen’s waiting-room, and is now a restaurant. Victoria’s carriage was just feet away from the waiting room from which she had just emerged before Maclean took his shot.

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10. Broadmoor Hospital, Crowthorne, Berkshire: Broadmoor, then known as Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum, was the home of both Victoria’s first and her last assailant. Edward Oxford spent a relatively short time there; he arrived from Bethlem in 1864 and was freed in 1867 on condition that he leave the country. (He shipped to Melbourne, Australia, where he lived until 1900.) Roderick Maclean, on the other hand, lived his disturbed life here for an agonizingly long time—from 1882, the year of his attempt, until his death in 1921. 

04:39 pm, by shootingvictoria1 note Comments

The Beginning and the End

On April 19, 1822: 

Edward Oxford is born in Birmingham, into an extended family of publicans and victuallers. Oxford would himself take up a number of jobs in London pubs as a potboy and barman, until in May 1840 he bought two pistols and on 10 June was the first to assault young Queen Victoria.

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And exactly sixty years later, on April 19, 1882:

Roderick Maclean is tried in Reading for shooting Victoria—then a great-grandmother—at Windsor railway station seven weeks before. He is aquitted on the grounds of insanity and sent to spend the rest of his life at Broadmoor Asylum. The verdict satisfied everyone—everyone, that is, except for Queen Victoria herself. The Queen raged that evening in her journal, her anger embracing both Maclean and her government: “It really is too bad…The bullet found—and yet he is only to be shut up. It is Oxford’s case over again and Oxford himself said—when the other attempts followed—that if they had hung him these others would not have taken place…And this always happens when a Liberal Government is in!” Her anger would eventually provoke her Liberal government to alter the insanity verdict: from “not guilty on the ground of insanity” to “guilty but insane.”

09:14 am, by shootingvictoria Comments