Monday, April 28, 2008

The curious case of John Bellingham

If you have ever fantasized when waiting on some company's voice mail and want to beat the computerized voice to death with a baseball bat you will understand what drove the subject of this post crazy when he felt he could not get government to listen to him. Although I cannot advocate his solution, the story reminds me of what a lawyer friend said to me some years ago – "One thing this business teaches you is how close to the edge so many people live." So, listen to the tale of an Englishman who fought the good fight (but was unfortunately nuts at the time).

John Bellingham was an English merchant from Liverpool in 1804, the same year that saw Burr shoot Hamilton, Jefferson win his second presidential election, Napoleon declared Emperor and Lewis and Clark take off for the Pacific coast. Bellingham went to Russia on business and after completing his work was about to depart from Archangel, the great northern Russian port, when a Russian ship called the Soleure was lost at sea. It had been insured at Lloyds, the British insurance exchange, which, unfortunately for Mr. Bellingham, refused to pay. For reasons which are probably lost to time, the Russians grabbed him as he was leaving and threw him into prison.

He contacted the British consul at Archangel who contacted the Ambassador, Lord Gower. Gower applied to Archangel’s military governor, who had ordered the imprisonment, but, as the governor claimed that Mr. Bellingham was being held for “legal cause” and had acted “in an indecorous manner,” Lord Gower politely stepped aside. For years poor Bellingham tried to get his country’s representatives to ask the Emperor to investigate on his behalf:

“[A]fter being banded from prison to prison, and from dungeon to dungeon, fed on bread and water, treated with the utmost cruelty, and frequently marched through the streets under a military guard with felons and criminals of the most atrocious description, even before the residence of the British Minister, who might view from his window, this degrading severity towards a British subject who had committed no crime to the disgrace and insult of the British nation” he was finally able to have a trial brought through the Russian system and obtained a judgment in his favor.

It was not as good as it sounded though, for he was thrown back into jail, and 2000 rubles was demanded of him to satisfy a bankrupt Russian merchant who claimed Bellingham owed him a debt. He refused to pay, as he was certain he did not owe the money, and was declared a bankrupt, the penalty for which was more jail.

The rule in Russia was that when a foreigner was declared to be bankrupt, creditors were given time to make their claims (the same is true here and now except they don’t hold you in prison).

After 3 months, no claims were made against him, but still he was held, and still Lord Gower remained silent. Although Bellingham later claimed that he could have paid, he preferred remaining in jail to paying what he insisted was a completely unfair penalty. When the Marquis of Douglas came to Russia Bellingham was able to make contact with him and asked only that the Russians be required to prove the debt.

The Marquis went to bat for him, but he was still required to pay the 2000 rubles and, worse as far as Bellingham was concerned, acknowledge the justice of the sentence against him. However, he learned that if he did so, he would be deemed to have previously lied to the authorities and would be sent to Siberia. At least, it was what he was led to believe.

While he was going through this, his twenty year old pregnant wife and baby, waited at the capital, St. Petersburg, and were finally forced to travel on home alone and likely greatly depressed. For six years Bellingham suffered while the British ministry continued to refuse him help. Certainly, this is how he perceived it, although he acknowledged that the Marquis of Douglas gave it a shot and that the ambassador had, at least, initially made an effort. It particularly galled him that another British merchant had his paltry case brought to the Emperor’s attention four times in a month, while his was never heard for six years. Finally, in 1809 the Russian Senate discharged him one midnight and he was ordered to leave the country, which I’m sure he was all too happy to do.

When he got home, he went to work trying to get "redress" from the British government for his troubles. He believed that for him to have been held all that time, his imprisonment had to have been sanctioned by the British minister. No surprise, he was passed about from one John Bull department to the next. He even applied to the Prime Minister, Spencer Perceval, who, given that the Napoleanic Wars were ongoing, and that Britain was on the brink of war with America, might have been a little too busy for Mr. Bellingham’s problems.

In the meantime, Bellingham’s friends at home in Liverpoolm and in London, where he spent 1812 trying to collect the debt he was sure he was going to get, realized that he had become completely unhinged whenever he spoke about the subject. He even went so far as to bring his wife and friend to an official’s home, whom he had told them would confirm that the government was going to finally pay him quite a bit of money. However, the official calmly told them all that it was never going to happen.

Eventually, in April, 1812, he wrote to police magistrates:

"SIRS, I much regret it being my lot to apply to your Worships under most peculiar and novel circumstances . . . . The affair requires no further remark, than that I consider his Majesty's Government to have completely closed the door of justice, in declining to have or even permit my grievances to be brought before Parliament for redress, which privilege is the birth-right of every individual. The purport of the present, is, therefore once more to solicit his Majesty's Ministers, through your medium, to let what is right and proper be done in my instance, which is all I require. Should this reasonable request be finally denied, I shall then feel myself justified in executing justice myself, in which case I shall be ready to argue the merits of so reluctant a measure with his Majesty's Attorney General, wherever and whenever I may be called upon so to do; in the hopes of averting so abhorrent but compulsive an alternative . . . [y]our very humble and obedient Servant. JOHN BELLINGHAM."

He received answers to that "threat", including one from the department of Treasury informing him that he “had nothing to expect, and . . . was at liberty to take such steps as [he] thought fit.” Perhaps a bad choice of words.

In late April he sought out the services of a local tailor to make a special addition to his suit and began frequenting the gallery of the House of Commons. He was then living at the home of one Mrs. Roberts. Although he rarely dined with the family, he was well respected by them, and attended church with his landlady. The family servant, Catherine Figgins, thought he often seemed confused but was remarkably regular in his habits. On May 12th, after a dispute with a washer woman over a dressing gown, he went out, returning around noon to accompany Mrs. Roberts and her son to a museum. He did not return home with them. Other plans, it seems.

At about 5:00 or a little thereafter he was waiting in the lobby of the House of Commons when the prime minister, Mr. Spencer Perceval himself, came through the lobby. There were less than twenty people present at the time.

In spite of the presence of officers, one right near him, Bellingham removed a pistol from the inside pouch he had had the tailor sew into his jacket and put a ball through the chest of the prime minister. It entered his chest and angled towards, perhaps into, his heart.

Perceval ran forward a few steps, looking, in one witness’s opinion, more like the culprit trying to escape than the victim, tried to say "murder" and fell forward on his face. He did not stir.  Mr. William Smith was in the lobby and had heard the shot (no one who later testified had actually seen the shot) and another man tried to raise him up and realized who it was. They took him into a secretary's (undoubtedly a man) office and put him up on a table. His eyes were open and for a few minutes he “convulsively sobbed.”  Dr. William Lynn came in and inspected him, probed the wound (always a bad idea, but that is what they did in those days) and took his pulse. Dead as Bellingham's chances of recompense.

While the PM was being whisked away, a solicitor, Henry Burgess, saw Bellingham sitting on a bench, apparently greatly agitated. Lt. General Isaac Burgoyne, who had been waiting for Perceval, rushed into the room after hearing the shot and was told Bellingham had fired it. He knew Bellingham by sight and rushed up to him. Thinking Bellingham was going to kill himself he pressed his hand down while Burgess took the pistol from his hand. The gun was still warm.

Burgess asked Bellingham why he did it. “Redress of grievances and refusal by the government” or similar words, Burgess later recalled. “I said, you have another pistol in your pocket; he replied, yes; I asked him if it was loaded; he said, yes . . . .” Burgoyne searched him and pulled, among papers and other things, a matching pistol from his pocket. He handed the papers to another member of the house, and, as some others were trying to pull the culprit away, told Bellingham he would not escape him.

Bellingham was completely calm at that point and once again irrepressibly British. He complained of being roughly handled, admitting that he had fired the shot but noting that he had submitted. He was taken into another room and quickly examined. He not only admitted his acts, but cordially noted the slight mistakes made by the witnesses when they were examined in his presence as if he were trying to help the poor excited sods out and unconcerned about his own defence.

Trial came only the next week. After the initial evidence from prosecution witnesses, Bellingham was given a chance to testify and put on a defence. He began to do so by thanking the attorney general for objecting to the defense his friends and counsel put up of insanity on his behalf. At the same time, he also thanked his friends for claiming that he was insane.

His manner was both dignified and humble, displaying the sang froid for which the British were known. He was also quite crazy – let’s listen to him at trial:

“Gentlemen, I beg pardon. This is the first time I ever was in public in this kind of way, and you I am sure will look at the substance of what I say more than the manner of my offering it.

As to the lamentable catastrophe for which I am now on my trial before this court, if I am the man that I am supposed to be, to go and deliberately shoot Mr. Perceval without malice, I should consider myself a monster, and not fit to live in this world or the next. The learned Attorney General has candidly stated to you, that till this fatal time of this catastrophe, which I heartily regret, no man more so, not even one of the family of Mr. Perceval. I had no personal or premeditated malice towards that gentleman; the unfortunate lot had fallen upon him as the leading member of that administration which had repeatedly refused me any reparation for the unparalled injuries I had sustained in Russia for eight years with the cognizance and sanction of the minister of the country at the court of St. Petersburg.

. . . . No man, I am sure, laments the calamitous event more than I do. If I had met Lord Gower he would have received the ball, and not Mr. Perceval. As to death, if it were to be suffered five hundred times, I should prefer it to the injuries and indignities which I have experienced in Russia, I should consider it as the wearied traveller does the inn which affords him an asylum for repose, but government, in the injustice they have done me, were infinitely more criminal than the wretch, who, for depriving the traveller of a few shillings on the highway, forfeits his life to the law. What is the comparison of this man's offence to government? or, gentlemen, what is my crime to the crime of government itself? It is no more than a mite to a mountain, unless it was proved that I had malice propense towards the unfortunate gentleman for whose death I am now upon my trial. I disclaim all personal or intentional malice against Mr. Perceval.”

After Bellingham finished and had given the version of events in Russia which I summarized above, a few female friends, and even the servant of Mrs. Roberts (who had claimed to be to ill to testify herself) tried to paint a picture of derangement on Bellingham’s part.

There was also a strange interlude, where Bellingham’s lawyer asked the door-keeper to see if witnesses from Liverpool had arrived. They had, in fact, just arrived – two of them. They were shown in, took one look at Bellingham, and said, basically, "Oops, wrong crazy person. Never mind."

Lord Chief Justice Mansfield presented the case to the jury in a fashion that would be out of place in American courts, marshalling the evidence and giving his spin on it. It would not be accurate to say that he was impartial. During his opening sentence he burst into tears, squeezed out another clause or so, and then burst into tears again, leading a good part of the courtroom in doing so.

He then gave a tribute of the deceased to the jury stating that for “a man so dear, and so revered as that of Mr. Spencer Perceval, I find it difficult to suppress my feelings.” Of course, not wanting to prejudice the jury, he kindly point out that to them that “to say any thing of the distinguished talents and virtues of that excellent man, might tend to excite improper emotions in the minds of the jury, but would with-hold these feelings which pressed for utterance from my heart, and leave you, gentlemen, to form your judgment upon the evidence which has been adduced in support of the case, undressed by any unfair indignation which you might feel against his murderer, by any description, however faint, of the excellent qualities of the deceased.” Such passes for fairness when you shoot the most important person in the country.

The jury was out a little more than 15 minutes and came back, according to the reporter, with their verdict written on their faces. Bellingham, entirely confident in his acquittal, was stunned to hear himself pronounced "Guilty" and was unable to respond when asked why he should not be sentenced to die.

The sentence, pronounced by the court recorder, ended in traditional fashion:
"That you be taken from hence to the place from whence you came, and from thence to a place of execution, where you shall be hanged by the neck until you be dead; your body to be dissected and anatomized."

Perceval was assassinated many years before anyone tried it on any American president, nearly a half century before anyone succeeded, but he was also the first and last British prime minister killed in this manner, while four American presidents have been done away with, one in fact, Garfield, under relatively similar circumstances to those here (killed by a crazy, disappoined office seeker).

Unlike the unsuccessful parliamentary bomber Guy Fawkes, Bellingham did not get a holiday named after him. However, his ridiculously dignified demeanor and the rather strange trial makes this story read like an Oscar Wilde satire. And that's enough to make these pages.

Is there a moral to this story? How about -- Don't let them get to you, because when they do -- they'll kill you.


  1. Next time, skip the moral. Otherwise, mitzu-yon!


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About Me

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .