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Though the bouts of mental illness that would earn him the title of "Mad King George" still lay in his future, the 61-year-old King George III was still popular with the British people. Which made the bizarre assassination attempt that occurred on May 15, 1800 so hard to understand. Attending a play at the Drury Lane Theatre with members of his family, the King was in his usual royal box and standing at attention while the national anthem was being played. It was at this point when a man in the audience stood up and fired a pistol at him. The shot was unnervingly accurate with one bullet fragment later being found lodged in the royal box, just 14 inches from where the king's head had been. Another piece was found lodged in the nearby box reserved for Lady Milner, Audience members were outraged and members of the orchestra took the would-be assassin down before dragging him into the music-room (musicians were a hardy bunch in those days).
Since London didn't have an organized police force at the time, it was largely left up to the King's son, Prince Frederick, Duke of York and Albany, to examine the gunman and try to understand his motive. The gunman, later identified as 28-year-old James Hadfield, greeted the prince with a hearty, "God bless you, your Royal Highness. I like you very well; you are a good fellow." The Duke was likely astonished to discover that he knew Hadfield, who happened to be one of his orderlies.
While little is really known about Hadfield's early life, he had been severely injured in the Battle of Tourcoing in 1794. Serving under Prince Frederick's command, Hadfield had been struck repeatedly by French cavalrymen. Their swords had left him with multiple head wounds and likely brain damage, not to mention horrific scars that he would bear for the rest of his life. According to one account, he was also run through with a bayonet and "left in a ditch among the slain."
After being taken prisoner, the critically wounded Hadfield was placed in a POW hospital and his recovery was, well, rocky. Obviously suffering from the effects of his brain damage, Hadfield began showing a marked change in behaviour as well as grandiose delusions. When someone in the hospital asked him where he was from, Hadfield replied that he came from London, and that he was King George. He then asked to borrow a mirror and began inspecting his appearance, including stroking his face and head. His fellow POW, doubtless more than a little worried, asked Hadfield what he was doing. "I am feeling for my crown of gold," came the cheerful reply. "I am King George, and I live in Red Lion Street, Clerkenwell."
Though he seemed stable enough after his return to the United Kingdom, Hadfield's family certainly noticed how he had changed. As his brother would later relate during his trial, James often told people that he was a member of the royal family, God, or Jesus Christ. He had also apparently become involved with one of the various millenialist movements that were sweeping the British Empire during that era. With the loss of the American colonies and the growing tension with France as Napoleon Bonaparte was consolidating power, changes at the international level were inspiring various religious crackpots to proclaim that the Second Coming of Christ was at hand. Richard Brothers and Joanna Southcott were already raising followers with their visions of the impending Kingdom of God and there were numerous imitators as well.
It was one particular millenialist, Bannister Truelock, who reportedly influenced Hadfield to shoot the king. A shoemaker by trade, Truelock's religious mania had an unfortunately influence on poor Hadfield with his own grandiose delusions. As it turned out later, he and Hadfield worked out between them that killing King George would usher in a new age of peace in the world (nobody was every quite sure how). Truelock would later be sent to Bethlem Royal Hospital for his role in the shooting.
As for Hadfield, he went on trial for high treason with the eminent barrister, Thomas Erskine, speaking in his defense. While Erskine entered a plea of insanity, he still needed to prove that his client was insane, which meant satisfying what was known as the "wild beast" test of insanity. To be proven insane, Erskine had to demonstrate that Hadfield was unaware what he was doing, no more than an infant or a "wild beast" who was incapable of reason. Up until 1800, that typically meant that the insanity defense was reserved exclusively for the most severe cases of mental illness. Despite his bizarre behaviour, Hadfield had been more-or-less able to live in the community, albeit with the help of his family.
Erskine's main argument in Hadfield's defense was that his client had shot at the king in order to get himself shot and killed (an early version of "attempted suicide by cop"). This was part of his grandiose delusion of becoming a martyr. The prosecutor insisted that Hadfield had been perfectly sane and had even said, "It is not over yet – there is a great deal more and worse to be done" after being arrested. That meant he was guilty of treason and facing a possible death penalty.
To bolster the case for an insanity plea, Thomas Erskine called in as many of Hadfield's family members as he could to testify. Much of the testimony provided by David Hadfield during his brother's trial focused on the bizarre delusions and how James' behaviour had deteriorated in the days leading up to the shooting. Among other things, he had talked about dining with the King while he was sleeping and threatened to kill his own sister's child. On the day of the shooting, his behaviour had been especially bizarre though nobody had any inkling of what he had been planning.
While the court had no real dispute with the idea that Hadfield was insane, especially considering his horrendous head wounds and the likelihood of brain damage, there was still the question of what to do with him afterward. When the jury declared James Hadfield not guilty due to "being under the influence of insanity" at the time the act was committed, there was an immediate call to reform the law to ensure that he could be safely locked up. Under existing law, an insanity verdict meant that he could only be held as long as he was clearly insane. This led to worries that Hadfield might pretend to be sane long enough to be released and become a danger to society once more.
As a direct consequence of the Hadfield trial, the House of Commons passed the Criminal Lunatics Act that same year. Under existing law, the government had no legal right to detain people declared not guilty by reason of insanity. While the judge could order a civil commitment trial to keep potentially dangerous people locked up, most insanity cases were simply released into the care of their families. Since nobody trusted Hadfield enough to run the risk of leaving him free, the new Criminal Lunatics Act (a.k.a. "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"), was deemed to apply to anyone committing treason who had been found not guilty by reason of insanity.
The carefully worded Act stated, in part, that: “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." In other words, people like Hadfield could be held indefinitely unless they could prove they were no longer a danger.
James Hadfield was detained at Bethlem Royal Hospital (a.k.a. "Bedlam") for the rest of his life. Despite a brief escape (he he was recaptured at Dover trying to flee the country), he was returned to Bedlam and became one of the first patients in the new, expanded hospital. He died of tuberculosis in 1841.
While Hadfield is largely forgotten today, he represents one of the first legal cases involving a mentally ill assassin. Though the later trial of Daniel M'Naghten would be far more influential, James Hadfield's case also set a legal precedent that would be followed for centuries afterward. It also represented a wake-up call concerning how easy it was for one disturbed individual to plan and attempt a political assassination. There would be many others.
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