Book: Crime's Strangest Cases

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Every murder is unique. Each victim, after all, is different. But the classification of murders into distinctive types lends a certain commonplace air even to some of the foulest acts. A classic example of the old adage, ‘familiarity breeds contempt’.

But it was not John Bellingham’s aim in life to be a commonplace murderer and those present at his trial at the Old Bailey in May 1812 saw the 42-year-old from St Neot’s, Huntingdonshire, convicted of a crime that was, and remains to this day, unique in British history. John Bellingham assas sinated the Prime Minister.

The esteemed victim, Spencer Perceval, was a Londoner who chose the law as a profession and was called to the bar in 1786. After acting for the government in a number of high-profile cases he was earmarked by Prime Minister William Pitt for higher things and he rose via the office of Attorney General and Chancellor of the Exchequer to become Prime Minister in 1809. Perceval was a Tory but no hint of scandal or sleaze ever tainted his name and he was a family man of high honour – 10 Downing Street echoed to the sound of eleven children during his stay in office. ‘Little P’, as he became known, was seemingly a thoroughly nice chap; sure, he had vitriolic opponents, but in truth not a serious enemy in the world.

Except John Bellingham. Tall and bony with a long, thin face, Bellingham was a clerk who had worked for years in a London counting house before branching out to take jobs in Russia and then Hull, where he hoped to make money importing timber. Alas, his Russian contacts let him down and Bellingham suffered huge financial losses, which led him to a spell in prison. It was from his cell that he first began the campaign of blame that was to lead to his immortality as an assassin, and his criticism of the Russian authorities after his release was such that he was soon put behind bars in that country, too.

From there he sent letter after letter of complaint to the British ambassador demanding intervention for his release, but all to no avail. Bellingham’s rage rose to fever pitch and he determined that, on his release, someone would pay.

On his return to England his campaign to clear his name and seek what he genuinely believed to be his right to com pensation continued relentlessly. Again, he got nowhere and when a Whitehall civil servant one day told him to ‘go to the Devil, and take whatever action you like!’ that was enough to tip Bellingham over the edge.

Straightaway he stalked to a gunsmith’s shop in the Strand, spent four guineas on two pistols and ammunition and passed the rest of the day in target practice on Primrose Hill.

For several days afterwards he lurked around the entrance and lobby to the House of Commons staking out the lie of the land, and on Monday, 11 May 1812, he struck the blow that none before or since has dared to emulate.

It was a fine day and Spencer Perceval, in times far less security-conscious than our own, walked to the Commons from 10 Downing Street rather than take a carriage. It was 5.15 in the afternoon when he entered the lobby and from behind a pillar John Bellingham emerged.

In full view of a crowd of constituents and sightseers, the crazed assassin raised a pistol and fired at close range into Perceval’s chest. As the Prime Minister lurched forward gasping, ‘I am murdered,’ Bellingham was seized without a struggle and as Perceval was pronounced dead at the scene Bellingham addressed police: ‘I am the unfortunate man who has shot Mr Perceval. My name is John Bellingham. I know what I have done. It was a private injury, a denial of justice on the part of the government.’

Amid a climate of sensation and outrage, Bellingham was taken to Newgate Prison and stood trial at the Old Bailey later that week, at seven o’clock on Friday, 15 May. He pleaded guilty and he also begged for clemency but, not for the first time, Bellingham’s protestations were ignored by authority.

Despite his defence playing the ‘insanity’ card it took the jury just fifteen minutes to find him guilty and the only man ever to assassinate a British prime minister was hanged on the gallows outside Newgate Prison on Monday, 18 May, within a week of his infamous deed.

It was a strange affair indeed but some would say it is even stranger that Spencer Perceval remains a unique victim, bearing in mind the vitriolic state of political affairs in recent years. Oddly, there was a moment in January 1983 when British visitors to Canada might have been forgiven for choking on their breakfast cereal as newspaper headlines there read, MINISTERIAL HORROR: MURDER OF MRS THATCHER.

This undeniably eye-catching line turned out to refer to Jo Ann Thatcher, the former wife of Saskatchewan’s Minister for Energy and Mines, Colin Thatcher. In another sensational affair it was the minister himself who opted to blow his former wife’s brains out in an act of revenge after she had divorced him and won the largest settlement ever awarded by a Canadian court.

What a blessed relief it wasn’t the Mrs Thatcher dispatched to keep her fellow Tory, Spencer Perceval, company.

Or do I hear a dissenting voice? Shame on you!

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Next: 1845 A New Line of Enquiry