England entered the nineteenth century having lost the American states and was at war with France. The slave trade had been halted and the country was in torment, with industrialisation throwing men and women out of work as poverty haunted their lives. As the merchants of England and America saw their businesses stagnate and profits plummet, everyone blamed the government and its policies. Those in charge were alarmed and businessmen, who were believed to be exploiting the poor, were murdered. Assassination indeed stalked the streets.
The man at the centre of the storm was Prime Minister Spencer Perceval. From the higher reaches of society to the beggar looking for bread, many wanted him dead, due to policies brought about by his inflexible religious convictions and his belief that he was appointed by God. In May 1812 he entered the Lobby of the Houses of Parliament when a man stepped forward and fired a pistol at him. The lead ball entered into his heart. Within minutes he was dead.
Using freshly-discovered archive material, this book explores the assassin’s thoughts and actions through his own writings. Using his background in psychology, the author explores the question of the killer’s sanity and the fairness of his subsequent trial.
Within its pages the reader will find an account of the murder of Spencer Perceval and a well-developed portrait of his assassin.
Thanks to Rosie Crofts at Pen & Sword for sending me this book to review.
The author covers the life and background of John Bellingham, his increasingly deluded state of mind, and business misadventures. He wasn’t honest with himself or the world at large. His wife, Mary Bellingham, was abandoned on several occasions with their growing family as he was imprisoned in Russia when he refused to pay his debts and then chased after ‘justice’ for the imagined wrongs against him. His letters to her and a business partner, Parten, as well as various officials are used to explore the delusional state he fell into in Russia, but it is obvious from his earlier writings that he was something of a narcissist and a liar who could never take responsibility for his actions.
Spiralling into deeper delusions while able to continue normal business, he focused his anger on the Prime Minister, the equally loved and despised Spencer Perceval. He came to believe that Perceval was deliberately preventing his petition for ‘compensation’ from going to Parliament. It was obvious for several years to his wife and cousin that John Bellingham was hearing what he wanted to hear and reading in the refusals and polite responses what he wanted to hear. He was seriously mentally ill by the time he stepped into the Lobby of the Houses of Parliament and waited for the tardy Prime Minister to arrive at the debate on a chilly May afternoon in 1812. He shot Perceval through the heart with a flintlock pistol previously hidden inside his coat. He was arrested immediately by other MPs and was tried withing days. Within two weeks of the murder he was hanged. His trial was rushed, his defence weren’t allowed time to call witnesses from Liverpool, and had only been instructed the night before his first appearance in court. Found guilty he refused to repent, despite the exhortations of religious ministers of various stripes and went to his death calmly and with the expectation of going to heaven. It was shabbily done, by a terrified government convinced of conspiracy around every corner in a time when the understanding of mental illness was weak, to say the least.
His wife remarried and his sons took her maiden name, various Ministers and members of the aristocracy financially supported Mary and the boys during the early days, and her uncle took them in as her millinery business failed. It was this business that had kept them going while John kept at is campaign, wasting her money and any he made as a merchant. Association with the assassin finally killed it.
This book was easy to read, covered the information available about John Bellingham and his family, made some effort to understand his state of mind – given that no doctors were consulted or appeared as witnesses at the trial – and used several primary resources to support the author’s claims of delusions and disassociated personality. Connolly is a very persuasive writer. I managed to read the 150+ pages in less than 4 hours. I kept thinking ‘I really must put this down and sleep’ but I was transfixed, I wanted to know what happened next. We did not cover this in GCSE history, I can tell you. Actually, we didn’t cover this period in history at all. Bit of an oversight in the curriculum there I think.
The title could do with some work, since it implies the focus is on the murder of Spencer Perceval rather than the life and state of mind of the assassin, John Bellingham, which is the true focus of the book. Maybe reverse the title and subtitle? Other than that and some minor typographical errors that I am used to seeing in books from Pen & Sword, this was a good book.