Pages

May 17 1812: Bellingham, Byron and the Execution

On May 17, 1812, John Bellingham is waiting to be executed on the following day. The execution is to take place one week after he assassinated Spencer Perceval and less than three days since his trial and conviction. Preparations are being made throughout London for the event. Executions drew crowds to relish in a grand spectacle literally of life and death. Wordsworth is trying to arrange to see the execution from a stand in Westminster Abbey. Lord Byron has rented a room with a window view opposite the erected gallows of Newgate Prison. He plans to see the execution with two of his friends. On May 17, Byron is at Melbourne House to see Lady Caroline Lamb, who will describe him as being "pale and exceedingly agitated." Byron will speak of Bellingham, leaving her early that night, saying that "he must see him die".    

Meanwhile, Bellingham has been on a diet of bread and water since his sentence was passed. Any instruments that can be used to commit suicide have been removed from his prison cell. Bellingham is not allowed to shave which causes him some concern as he fears that he may not appear as a gentleman on the scaffold on execution day. May 17 is a Sunday and Bellingham is visited by some ministers. Throughout, Bellingham retains an unshakable conviction of the justness of what he has done. He writes a note that day blaming his lawyers for his conviction: "I lost my suit solely through the improper conduct of my attorney and counsel, Mr Alley, in not bringing my witnesses forward (of whom there were more an twenty): in consequence, the judge took advantage of the circumstance, and I went on the defence without having brought forward a single friend -- otherwise I must inevitably have been acquitted." He ignores the fact that his lawyers had only been retained the evening before his trial.


Bellingham is comforted by the fact that a public subscription has raised a large amount of money to support his wife and his children. In death he will be able to provide a greater degree of comfort for them than he had been able to do while alive. The night before his death he will also write to his wife: "With the purest intentions, it has always been my misfortune to be thwarted, misrepresented and ill-used in life; but however, we feel a happy prospect of compensation in a speedy translation to life eternal. It's not possible to be more calm or placid than I feel, and nine hours more will waft me to those happy shores where bliss is without alloy."
The fact that the subscription was so successful shows how many supported or at least sympathized with Bellingham. There was an element of nobility that some ascribed to him as some sort of modern Brutus who had the courage to assassinate a tyrant. Even those who disapproved were fascinated by what he had done. On the one hand, Bellingham showed every sign of being insane in terms of his obsessiveness with had happened to him and his plan to have his wrongs remedied by murdering the Prime Minister. On the other hand, the methodical calculation and his calm disposition throughout seems to have been admired. Even Southey who was very upset by the murder of Perceval wrote on May 11: "As for Bellingham, I do not class him with those wretches who applauded him: the man had that in him which would have been greatness if he had not been insane. It was an insanity, however, which ought not to have exempted him from punishment." The editorial of the Bell’s Weekly Messenger grapples with the same mixture of insanity and calculation in its editorial of May 17 arguing:  
The ultimate result, therefore, might possibly have the character of madness, in the same manner as the act of a drunken man might be immediately imputed to his intoxication, but as the madness and the intoxication were the works of a preceding will, they are therefore fully imputable, and objects of human punishment.


The full editorial from the Bell’s Weekly Messenger, Issue Number 842, can be found here and is reproduced below together with Bellingham's the letter to his wife.
Bell’s Weekly Messenger, Issue Number 842, May 17 1812
The afflicting incident which fills everyone’s eyes, heart, and attention, leaves no room for any other subject than itself, and if twenty battles were gained in Portugal, or War declared against us in America by twenty repeated acts of Congress, both the battles and the war would be disregarded. We have no hesitation most freely to avow, that we share in all these feelings, and that we have neither judgement nor inclination to attend to any thing but to the final catastrophe which so nearly concerns ourselves. In this part of our Paper, we can but repeat, with little variety, what we have said in a preceding article. The loss of Mr. Perceval is at once the greatest public and private calamity, which has happened for the last fifty years in the domestic occurrences of the Country. It is the loss of a good man and of a just and energetic Minister, in a period which requires both the example of virtue, and the exercise of vigour.

The degree and manner in which the Prince Regent felt this misfortune, so peculiarly near to himself, are sufficiently evinced in the answer to the Addresses of the House and City, and more immediately in the promptitude which was so immediately shewn in the trial of his murderer. It is very unusual to mention or acknowledge private virtues, or the features of private character, in answers to Addresses to the Throne, but this rule of dignity or convenience was very properly departed from on the late unhappy occasion. The merits of Mr. Perceval deserved every distinction which it was possible to give them, and it is not the least part of the praise-worthy conduct and feeling both of the Prince and his Ministers, that their feelings, and the expression of them, have been such as to pass beyond the usual limits of established forms and decorum.
The trial of the murderer will he read with the interest which attaches to the tragedies of real life. There was but one possible plea, and that was insanity. But there was assuredly no part of the actions or of the conduct of the miserable felon, which would make out the existence of such insanity, within a time which could be presumed to have given birth to the murderous resolution. The evidence of such insanity must have been sought either in the act itself, or in the general recent conduct of the criminal. The act itself had no other character of madness than what is common to the atrocious excess of the revengeful passions. And it appears sufficiently from the evidence, that the general conduct and management of the criminal were that of a sane and self-possessed mind.
The truth seems therefore to be, that it was the act of a most wicked and malignant nature working itself up to its highest possible pitch, and, in the language of the criminal himself, maturing and familiarizing a most horrible purpose to the mind, by frequent and intense meditation, and gradually formed resolution. The ultimate result, therefore, might possibly have the character of madness, in the same manner as the act of a drunken man might be immediately imputed to his intoxication, but as the madness and the intoxication were the works of a preceding will, they are therefore fully imputable, and objects of human punishment.
We have deemed it necessary to say so much, because we learn with regret, somewhat bordering upon horror, that a part of the country are so forgetful of the national character, and of the ordinary feelings of men, as to express exultation on this most disgraceful occurrence, and to have publishedAnd clamorously avowed their hopes of the escape of his murderer. Happily, however, this feeling is confined to the lowest and to the basest part of the populace, and we feel persuaded that no honest mind will acknowledge or countenance it.
The annuity settled on Mrs. Perceval, and her eldest son, and the sum allotted for the children, are honourable to the liberality of the nation. The monument voted to Mr. Perceval is likewise a just tribute to his eminent talents, and truly British virtues.
John Bellingham's letter to his wife read as follows:
MY BLESSED MARY, --It rejoiced me beyond measure to hear you are likely to be well provided for. I am sure the public at large will participate in, and mitigate, your sorrows; I assure you, my love, my sincerest endeavours have ever been directed to your welfare. As we shall not meet any more in this world, I sincerely hope we shall do so in the world to come. My blessing to the boys, with kind remembrance to Miss Stephens, for whom I have the greatest regard, in consequence of her uniform affection for them. With the purest intentions, it has always been my misfortune to be thwarted, misrepresented and ill-used in life; but however, we feel a happy prospect of compensation in a speedy translation to life eternal. It's not possible to be more calm or placid than I feel, and nine hours more will waft me to those happy shores where bliss is without alloy.Yours ever affectionate,
 JOHN BELLINGHAM.

No comments:

Post a comment