One of the most intriguing aspects of my research for Shooting Victoria, I found, was that in delving deeper and deeper into the public records of the eight attempts, I found myself delving deeper and deeper, as well, into the minds of the Queen’s seven assailants—curious, complex, disturbed worlds, every one of them. And while I chose to avoid applying modern psychological science to their Victorian world in the book (finding that Victorian psychological science, with its entirely different nomenclature and its distinct underlying assumptions suited the task of attempting to explain their behavior quite well enough), I did find that some of them did present textbook cases of mental illnesses defined in twenty-first century terms. Young Edward Oxford (#1 of the seven), for example, would surely be diagnosed as bipolar if he were a teenager today. John William Bean (#3) clearly suffered what would in 2012 be diagnosed as clinical depression: he lived under that dark cloud his entire life, and in the end it killed him. Robert Pate (#5) would today be treated for his extreme obsessive-compulsive behavior. And Roderick Maclean —who conversed with God and believed the world leagued in a plot against him—would today certainly be medicated as a schizophrenic.
Of the seven, Arthur O’Connor—#6—presents the most complex case of mental aberration of all; the nature of his illness is much more difficult to label accurately in modern terms than any of the others. Symptoms, certainly, are apparent, and indeed O’Connor himself at various times attempted to set out the symptoms of his own illness. But accurately summing him up as falling into one specific category of insanity, modern or Victorian, is to my mind impossible. One obvious symptom of his illness was an extreme grandiosity, a need to be—often shifting to a belief that he was—the greatest of the great O’Connors. And once he made contact with Queen Victoria, he dared to believe that she would recognize his greatness, and, through her, the world would finally accord him the recognition he knew he deserved. On 11 June 1873, O’Connor, more than a year after his attempt and then in exile in Morpeth, New South Wales, Australia, wrote a long, personal—and excruciatingly poetic—letter to the Queen. The excerpt from this letter, above, shows O’Connor laying bare to his monarch his ambition: the Queen, he expected, would dismiss that half-poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, from the poet laureateship, and appoint O’Connor in his place.
The letter never reached the Queen; her Home Secretary at the time, Henry Bruce, made sure of that. In noting his reception of O’Connor’s letter, Bruce made his own diagnosis of the boy: “The man must be mad,” he wrote; “his self-conceit is intolerable.” O’Connor would spend nearly 50 years in a variety of asylums, his illness in almost all of them reduced simply to the effects of self-abuse. A closer study of his life (and his very few works)—a study at least begun in Shooting Victoria—suggests a much more complicated and interesting mind than that.