Paul Thomas Murphy: Shooting Victoria

British television has a lot to answer for. From “Upstairs, Downstairs” to “Downton Abbey,” it has perpetrated an image of “historical” Britain as a country filled with a loved, even revered, upper class that gracefully patronizes the lower orders, who in turn are thrilled to roll over and have their tummies tickled by their social superiors. Absent is any sense of political, much less social unrest—there are no bread riots, no Luddites, no machine wreckers. Thus many PBS viewers might be surprised by the violence that accompanied the 19th century’s extreme political instability. And they might be positively shocked to learn that no fewer than seven of Queen Victoria’s subjects made attempts on her life.

In 1812, seven years before Victoria was born, the prime minister, Spencer Perceval, had been assassinated. It was the only political assassination in British history and an indication that the world was hardly a safe place: Between 1830 and 1848 there were seven attempts on Louis-Philippe of France; between 1866 and 1881, six on Alexander II of Russia, the last successful. Empress Elisabeth of Austria-Hungary was murdered in 1898, Umberto of Italy two years later. This is hardly the world of happy, smiling lower orders that we see on the screen.

Television also somehow, magically, makes a single moment stand in for decades, even a century. That Queen Victoria was regarded by most with admiration at the end of her reign, if only for its longevity (63 years, so far the longest in British history), is transformed retrospectively into her being loved and venerated throughout that reign. And this is where problems begin for Paul Thomas Murphy’s entertaining but infuriating “Shooting Victoria.”

The author’s thesis is that the queen’s seven would-be assassins played an integral part in “the great love story between Victoria and the Victorians,” creating a communion between the threatened queen and her sympathetic people. But he skips over the crucial first question: Was there such a love story? He asserts that, from day one, “the public” adored their young queen. At her accession, her popularity was “unparalleled,” he writes. “The nation seemed to share her joy.” In reality, as one diarist noted on the day she ascended the throne in 1837, “the people . . . did not . . . hurrah.”

The arrival of Albert, the German prince whom Victoria married in 1840, is presented in the same fashion. Mr. Murphy depicts the public as full-throatedly for the couple, even as he acknowledges that Albert was initially viewed as an “adventurer.” One of his sources notes, in a passage he leaves uncited, that only a week before the wedding, a “mob” followed the prince down the street, shouting. We don’t know what they shouted, but the plentiful street songs focused on “German sausage”—lewd subtext intended.

As for the so-called assassination attempts, only the fifth, in 1851, put the queen in any danger. In 1840, Edward Oxford, the son of a gold-engraver, who had delusions of leading a new political movement called Young England, shot at the royal carriage as the queen and her consort were taking an airing in the park. Albert’s quick movement to protect the queen, and her own stoicism—she drove to her mother’s house to prove she had not been injured, then calmly resumed her outing in the park—did truly win the admiration of all.

Although Oxford was tried for high treason (he was found not guilty by reason of insanity and spent the rest of his life locked up), it is likely that his gun had only wadding and no bullets in it. Two years later, this was also the case with John Francis, a failed tobacconist who aimed at Albert and then made a second attempt on Victoria when he was not immediately arrested. At this stage, it was decided that the charge of high treason was encouraging those with a lust for fame, and the next assailant, John William Bean—a cripple who, unable to earn a living, hoped for a life of “luxury” like that of the incarcerated Oxford—was charged only with assault. ¬Except for his target, it was tacitly recognized, he was no different from the children who broke streetlights in order to be jailed for a week, in order to find food and warmth.

In 1849, another starving man, William Hamilton, shot at the queen, and the pattern was interrupted only by Robert Francis Pate, who in 1851 hit the queen with his cane as she was leaving a house in Piccadilly. He was clearly what today would be diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. His wealthy family managed to get him transported to Australia; few troubled even to turn out for the trial. Another attempt was made in 1882, by another poor deranged soul, Roderick Maclean, who, when he was not conversing with God, thought “that old lady Mrs. Vic” should have stepped in to support his family when his father lost their money in a bank-crash.

Therefore to reinforce his theory, Mr. Murphy is reduced to presenting a what-if. At the Golden Jubilee in 1887, “what could have been the most serious threat” against the queen, an Irish terrorist act, was planned. On the next page, however, it appears that “there exists no evidence that Clan-na-Gael leaders specified a target.” Despite this, the threat “was certainly real,” the author writes, before acknowledging that one of its leaders was a government informer, and “it is more than likely that he never intended to assist the Jubilee plotters” at all. By this stage, any careful reader has whiplash.

The real pity is that Mr. Murphy is a fine researcher and vivid stylist when he drops his thesis, crafting delightful passages about the intrigues of the royal family and such arcana as the organization of the queen’s household. One department was responsible for cleaning the outside of the windows at Buckingham Palace, another for the insides. They refused to coordinate, and consequently the queen’s windows were always half-dirty.

Hmm, “Cleaning Victoria’s Windows”: I can see the miniseries now.

A sad story, with no ending

The case of Harriet Buswell is perhaps too ordinary to merit interest 150 years after the event. But I find it haunting. Of the four dozen or so cases I looked at researching The Invention of Murder, this is the one I can’t get out of my mind. Maybe because it’s unsolved, but I don’t think so. I think it’s because of the lack of mark it made, similar to the lack of mark Harriet Buswell made – the lack of mark women like her continue to make. These sad ghosts of women, who were ghosts long before they died.

Harriet Buswell was ‘connected’ to a theatre – she danced, said her child, ‘at the Alhambra in silk tights’. In actuality, she sometimes appeared in onstage, but more often earned her living by prostitution.

In the last week of her life, Harriet Buswell was living in lodgings in Great Coram Street, Bloomsbury. At ten o’clock on Christmas Eve 1872, she borrowed a shilling from a fellow-lodger, and went out. She was seen walking to the Alhambra in Leicester Square, and then later she was seen at Regent Circus (now Piccadilly Circus) waiting for a bus with a man. A few hours later, between midnight and one o’clock, she returned to her lodgings with the same man, or another. She took him upstairs before coming back down carrying a bag of apples, oranges and nuts, which she showed her landlady as she stopped off to pay her rent with a half-sovereign (10 shillings) coin.

Other residents heard the man’s footsteps the following morning around 6.30, leaving the house. At midday, when Harriet had still not appeared, the landlady went up: the door was locked. Such was the anxiety, however, that the door was forced. Harriet was found lying with her throat cut, ‘the bed exhibiting a dreadful appearance’, covered in blood, and on Harriet’s forehead was a blood-stained thumb-print. Her purse, a few small bits of jewellery (including a pair of earrings she had borrowed to wear the previous night) and a pawn ticket for five pairs of drawers (underpants) were missing. There was no key on the inside of the door: it had been locked from the outside and removed. Continue reading

When the Telegraph was really a crime-sheet

A shopkeeper named Frederick Gold, who lived near Brighton, travelled up to London once a week to collect his share of the shop’s takings. On 27 June 1881, he took his £38 and returned to Brighton via London Bridge station, with a man named Percy Lefroy buying one of the few other first-class tickets (all of the others were later found to be purchased by women). As the train passed Croydon, a passenger heard ‘four explosions’, and soon after, the residents of cottages fronting the railway saw two people struggling in one of the compartments.

When the train arrived at Brighton station a man named Percy Lefroy, dishevelled, with his collar ripped off, and ‘smothered with gore’, was stopped.

He claimed that as the train entered a tunnel, the two other people in his compartment had jumped him, and he had been knocked unconscious, remaining in that condition almost until the train reached Brighton. When asked why he had a watch-chain in his shoe, he said he had put it there for safekeeping. Nothing was known against him, and he was allowed to go.

That afternoon, however, a railway worker found the body of Mr Gold lying near the line, shot, and with knife wounds; a collar, not his, was found lying nearby, as was a hat and umbrella, which were his, and another hat, in a different size. And his watch was missing.

By the time all of this had been discovered, the only other first-class railway passenger, Lefroy, had vanished from his cousin’s in Croydon. The search for him intensified as it was discovered he had redeemed a pistol from the pawnshop that same day.

The Telegraph published his photograph, and a landladyin Stepney recognized him as her new lodger, who claimed to be an engineer from LIverpool. She notified the police, and Lefroy was arrested.

His trial told a very routine story: he was poor, he was planning to rob someone, and unforunately for him (and for Mr Gold), Gold put up a fight, and was killed. Lefroy was convicted, and in the short-term found fame in cartoons and comic songs. Greyhounds were named for him, as was ‘a black gelding, a good wheeler…a very fine goer’.

In the long run, however, Lefroy has come down to posterity as the first-ever criminal caught through the publication of a ‘wanted’ photograph.

How to Murder your Wife, in 2 easy steps

In his novel Armadale, Wilkie Collins seemed to share the generally low view of professional detectives, as working-class men sticking their noses where they weren’t wanted. And the 1857 Matrimonial Causes Act added to the general perception.

Divorce was now possible without getting a special act passed in parliament, but to obtain a divorce, a woman had to prove adultery with either bigamy, incest or cruelty; a man could divorce for adultery alone. In either case, the need to prove adultery greatly increased the number of private detectives. In Armadale the detective James Bashwood operates out of an office on ‘Shadyside Place’, and in case that hint isn’t heavy enough, he is described as a ‘vile creature…a man professionally ready on the merest suspicion (if the merest suspicion paid him) to get under our beds, and to look through gimlet-holes in our doors.’ Allan Armadale, headstrong and naive, initially rejects the idea of hiring a detective, calling it ‘meddling in…private affairs’.

Not meddling in others’ private affairs, it was thought, had much to recommend it.  It took Dr Edward Pritchard to change some minds. Pritchard was the third of four high-profile doctor-murderers in a quarter-century. Perhaps familiarity was breeding contempt, but people were becoming progressively less shocked with the idea that a middle-class, outwardly respectable professional man might commit murder. Pritchard himself aroused only local interest, not national. For that, it took a discussion on the merits or demerits of professional busybodies vs. professional detachment.

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