On 15th May 1800 James Hadfield attempted to assassinate George III at Drury Lane Theatre by firing a pistol at him during the playing of the national anthem (Appignanesi, 2008; Argent, 1978; Brooking, Ritter & Thomas, 1992; Highmore, 1822; Ingram, 1991; Jay, 2003; Ray, 1838; Shelford, 1833; Tuke, 1892). His shot missed. Hadfield then said to the king "God bless your royal highness; I like you very well; you are a good fellow” (Highmore, 1822). Hadfield was arrested and his statement at the time was "It is not over yet – there is a great deal more and worse to be done" (Argent, 1978). Later, however, he changed his story and maintained that he had "not attempted to kill the King". Nevertheless, because his intended victim had been the king, Hadfield was put on trial for treason (Argent, 1978; Highmore, 1822; Ray, 1838; Shelford, 1833; Tuke, 1892). He was defended by Thomas Erskine (Appignanesi, 2008; Argent, 1978; Ingram, 1991), deemed to be the best lawyer in England at the time. Erskine succeeded in convincing the judge and jury that Hadfield had only appeared to make an attempt on the King’s life in an effort to get himself killed, in accordance with his delusional belief that he must die at the hands of others (Highmore, 1822; Tuke, 1892a). This delusional belief and Hadfield’s apparent madness may have been as a result of head injuries (Argent, 1978; Highmore, 1822; Jay, 2003; Shelford, 1833; Tuke, 1892) he sustained at the Battle of Tourcoing (a battle in the French Revolutionary Wars) in 1794. Before being captured by the French, he was struck eight times on the head with a sabre, the wounds being prominent for the rest of his life. (When Hadfield died in 1841 his post-mortem revealed extensive brain damage (Jay, 2003)).These wounds had also resulted in his discharge from the army on the grounds of madness (Argent, 1978; Highmore, 1822; Shelford, 1833). After returning to England, he became involved in a millennialist movement (Jay, 2003; Shelford, 1833) and came to believe that the Second Coming of Jesus Christ would be advanced if he himself were killed by the British government (Argent, 1978). He therefore attempted the assassination of the King, which he hoped would bring about his own judicial execution (Jay, 2003). Hadfield pleaded insanity but the standard of the day for a successful plea was that the defendant must be "lost to all sense … incapable of forming a judgement upon the consequences of the act which he is about to do". Before 1800, if a defendant was acquitted on the grounds of insanity, he was simply allowed to go free because there was no law in place that allowed the government to detain him (Brooking, Ritter & Thomas, 1992). If the judge presiding over the case thought that it would be dangerous to release the defendant and wanted him detained, a separate civil commitment hearing had to be held before the person could be incarcerated. In some cases, the authorities were able to use the Vagrancy Act of 1744 to confine criminals, but in the majority of cases the defendants were sent home or put into the care of their family.
Hadfield's planning of the shooting appeared to contradict a claim of insanity. Erskine chose to challenge the insanity test, instead contending that delusion "unaccompanied by frenzy or raving madness [was] the true character of insanity" (Argent, 1978; Highmore, 1822). Two surgeons and a physician testified that the delusions were the consequence of his earlier head injuries (Argent, 1978). The judge, Lloyd Kenyon, 1st Baron Kenyon, at this point halted the trial declaring that the verdict "was clearly an acquittal" but "the prisoner, for his own sake, and for the sake of society at large, must not be discharged". However, according to the Vagrancy Acts of 1714 and 1744, Hadfield could only be held until he had recovered his mind and the concern was that he would be released in a period of lucidity and make another attempt on the King’s life at a later date.
Just four days after the trial Hadfield had started, the prosecution proposed “A Bill for Regulating Trials for High Treason and Misprision of High Treason in certain cases, and for the Safe Custody of Insane Persons Charged with Offenses” (Appignanesi, 2008; Argent, 1978; Jay, 2003). This bill included both of what was to become the two separate pieces of legislation known as the Criminal Lunatics Act 1800 and Treason Act 1800 (Argent, 1978). The terms of the Criminal Lunatics Act applied to people charged with treason, murder, or felony (Fry, 1864; Highmore, 1822; Shelford, 1833) who were acquitted on the grounds of insanity or who appeared to be insane when apprehended, brought in for arraignment, or summoned for discharge due to a lack of prosecution (Jones, 2003). The procedure for dealing with such people read: “If [the jury] shall find that such person was insane at the time of the committing such offence, the court before whom such trial shall be had, shall order such person to be kept in strict custody, in such place and in such manner as to the court shall seem fit, until His Majesty’s pleasure shall be known” (Fry, 1864; Williams, 1816). In essence, the Criminal Lunatics Act required the detention of someone who had committed a crime in a bout of insanity rather than leaving it to the discretion of the judge and jury, even if such detention meant forever. It did not say who was to be declared insane, nor where they should be kept if found so, but subsequent case law determined that those found to be unfit for trial, under the terms of the Act, whether because of deafness, mental defect or madness, became legally “insane”, and from this time forward the term insanity has held more of a legal definition than it has in medicine (Grubin, 1996; Tighe, 2005). Argent (1978) makes a good argument that this Act was not merely a law concerning the mad, but that it was rather a panic measure to combat revolution, as had occurred in France just a few years before.
Hadfield attempts to shoot George III
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