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The Queen’s Solution
After eight attempts on her life, Victoria had enough of ‘innocent by reason of insanity’
On the afternoon of March 2, 1882, a slouching, miserable-looking man shuffled down the platform of the Great Western Railway Station at Windsor, some 23 miles west of London. He paused furtively in a doorway and then slipped through, out of the cold and into the little paradise of the station’s first-class waiting room. Grime and weariness made Roderick Maclean appear older than his 28 years. His chin was black with stubble. He wore shabby shoes, a shabby bowler, and a shabbier overcoat.
Inside the waiting room it was quiet, but Maclean could hear a growing commotion outside; the 4:50 train was loading and about to leave the station. The stationmaster, John George Smythe, glanced into the waiting room, and caught sight of Maclean: “Did you know this is a first-class waiting room—not the place for you? What are you doing here?”
“I am waiting for a train.”
“The next train from London; what time does it arrive?”
“Five-five [5:05]: you had better go into the other room and not here.”
Roderick Maclean walked back onto the cold platform and out of the station, skirting a small, sumptuous waiting room reserved exclusively for Alexandrina Victoria, Britain’s queen. The queen’s train was due in from London at 5:25; Victoria would disembark and walk through her little waiting room to the front of the station, where a closed carriage awaited. Maclean turned left, stopping within a few feet of the road across which Victoria’s carriage would pass. In his pocket was a pistol.
Victoria was 62. She was more vital and healthy than she had been at 52 or even 42, during the dark decade after the death of her husband, Albert, when she continually pleaded broken health to avoid appearing in public. She had regained her zest for life and had taken up her duties with renewed energy. “What nerve! What muscle!” Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli said of her in 1880. She had ruled for 45 years, and was the only monarch most of her subjects could remember having. With time, fertility, and royal precedence, she had become the grandmother of Europe, her children married into the royal houses of Russia, Denmark, and Germany, and her many grandchildren beginning to marry, carrying her and Albert’s bloodline across the continent.
Even her appearance was monumental. With age, her defining characteristic—a diminutive stature—had been trumped by another: stoutness. In public appearances and portraits, she presented a vision of solidity and calmness, the central, placid, and unshakable face of Empire.
And now, in 1882, that horrible Mr. Gladstone was her prime minister. William Gladstone, as far as she was concerned, had embraced a democratic radicalism that she was certain would bring ruin upon her nation. He spoke to her, she said, as if she were “a public meeting.” She kept him, he noted, at “arm’s length.” The queen’s unease with her government heightened a general insecurity she felt as the decade advanced. Life in the 1880s, it seemed, was becoming difficult for rulers. Not one, but two dramatic assassinations had occurred the year before.
Alexander II, emperor of the Russians—and her son Alfred’s father-in-law—was the first to die, the victim in March 1881 of a dynamiting in Saint Petersburg by nihilists who called themselves the People’s Will. “Feel quite shaken and stunned by this awful news,” Victoria wrote in her journal on the day he died. Soon afterward—and mindful perhaps that, the previous January, a Fenian bomb had resulted in a death near an army barracks in Manchester—she sent her private secretary, Henry Ponsonby, to the Home Office to discuss increased security for Buckingham Palace.
The second victim of assassination in 1881 could hardly have been further removed from Russia’s Alexander. On July 2, 1881, in Washington, D.C., President James Garfield was shot twice by Charles Guiteau, a failed lawyer, preacher, newspaper editor, insurance salesman, and federal office seeker. The first bullet grazed the president’s arm. The second plunged into his back, shattering a rib and lodging below his pancreas. The wound was serious, but not fatal. The 15 or so doctors who examined him, however, ensured that he would die, as they searched in vain for the bullet over the next few days by plunging their unwashed fingers into the wound. Victoria sent at least six messages of concern during Garfield’s long decline. Immediately upon his death on September 19, she ordered her court into a week’s mourning—an unprecedented token of respect for an American president.
At Windsor Station, the royal train slid to a halt. From the saloon car behind the queen’s own, Victoria’s private secretary, two equerries, a lady-in-waiting, and her maids of honor emerged to take up positions in a miniature royal procession. Ponsonby offered the queen his arm. The stationmaster had put out a red carpet, roped off from the public, leading from the train to the queen’s waiting room. Beyond the waiting room, three royal carriages stood ready. After a respectable few minutes’ wait, the royal party, which also included the queen’s daughter Beatrice, emerged from the train and made their way through a cheering crowd. When the party had entered the waiting room, the crowd hastened to reassemble on the street side to cheer the queen out of the station. To give them time, the queen waited another respectable minute before leaving the waiting room.
The science of security was not far advanced. When Victoria emerged from the station, every officer in the yard stopped surveying the crowd to look at her. The queen’s carriage set off, to the cheers of the crowd—the shouts of Eton College boys, Victoria later wrote, drowning out the rest. Seated with her mother, Princess Beatrice could see the boys from her side of the carriage, and past them, about 40 feet away, an unkempt-looking man. He stepped forward, leveled a revolver in the carriage’s direction, and fired.
Victoria heard the sharp report; she thought it came from a train engine. The crowd turned its attention to the shooter, who stood still, his arm outstretched as if he were about to shoot again. The chief superintendant of the Windsor police was nine feet from Maclean and was the first to reach him, shouting “scoundrel!” and grabbing him by the neck. A young Windsor photographer jumped at Maclean and seized his right wrist; he pushed at his fingers until the pistol clattered to the ground. Two Eton boys belabored Maclean over the head and shoulders with umbrellas. Victoria’s carriage rushed from the station.
As news of the attempt spread, messages of sympathy and congratulations jammed the special telegraph wire to Windsor Castle. Among these were telegrams from the emperor of Russia, as well as the king of Spain, the emperor of Germany, and legislatures in Athens, Bucharest, and Ottawa. A message from President Chester Arthur was deemed by the queen particularly affecting.
The day after the shooting, Victoria rode in an open carriage among the people of Windsor and Eton. She wrote in a letter, “It is worth being shot at to see how much one is loved.”
Every day, the papers trumpeted new discoveries about Roderick Maclean’s past—his homicidal gestures toward his family, his paranoid and frantic letters to his sister, and tales (both actual and apocryphal) of eccentric behavior in the towns through which he had wandered—all suggesting that Maclean was seriously mentally ill. Within 48 hours of the shooting, the head of the Metropolitan Police’s Criminal Investigations Department dismissed the possibility of a political conspiracy, informing the home secretary that the “present attempt on the life of Her Majesty the Queen was the work of a lunatic.”
The prime minister readily agreed. Standing before the House of Commons, Gladstone proclaimed that every attempt upon the queen (there had been eight in all, since 1840) had been an act of apolitical madness. The horror he felt at learning she had again been attacked, Gladstone said, was mitigated by one “remarkable consideration”:
That whereas in other countries similar execrable attempts have . . . been made by men of average, or more than average, sense and intelligence, and whereas there the real, or at any rate the supposed, cause has been private grievances or public mischief, in this country, in the case of Her Majesty, they have been wholly dissociated from grievances, wholly dissociated from discontent, and upon no occasion has any man of average sense and average intelligence been found to raise his hand against the life of Her Majesty.
In sum, the very thought of harming the queen was irrational.
Victoria saw the matter differently. While her subjects might find relief in thinking Maclean mad, she adamantly refused to consider him anything but sane—as she had considered all her assailants. “He had fourteen bullets on him, and the act was clearly premeditated,” she wrote her daughter Vicky. If Maclean had thought the crime through, he was sane and a traitor, and the queen expected her government to establish his guilt.
Maclean’s trial went to a jury on the afternoon of April 20 and within 10 minutes the court had its verdict: By reason of insanity, he was declared not guilty; he was to be kept in custody at the queen’s pleasure. A week later, Maclean entered Broadmoor, Britain’s asylum for the criminally insane, never to leave. The newspapers displayed satisfaction with the verdict. Victoria did not.
“Am greatly surprised & shocked at the verdict on McLean!” she confided in her journal. “It is really too bad.” While Maclean’s confinement in Broadmoor would keep him distant, she did not feel protected. On the contrary, she believed his acquittal signaled to all notoriety-seekers that they too could shoot at the queen and get away with it. If an assailant such as Maclean “is not to be considered responsible for his actions,” she wrote, “then indeed no one is safe any longer!” Her astonishment quickly grew into imperious, Queen-of-Hearts rage.
She held her own government most responsible for this threat, and she wanted action. Within hours of the verdict, she demanded that the prime minister find a way to remove “not guilty, on the grounds of insanity” as a possible verdict in treasonous cases such as Maclean’s.
Gladstone, eager to rehabilitate his ever-more dysfunctional relationship with the queen, set out quickly to do just that. But somehow, as judges were consulted and new wording took shape, the scope of the proposed special verdict grew. The change—from “not guilty, by reason of insanity” to “guilty, but insane”—would henceforward apply to every felony committed by a seriously disturbed person, not just to treasonous acts. The penalty would be the same—detainment at the queen’s pleasure; but the stigma of guilt was new. The Trial of Lunatics Act was passed in August 1883.
Victoria pointedly did not thank Gladstone for anything else in the busy parliamentary session of 1883, but she did thank him for this measure. “It will be,” she wrote, “a great security.”
Perhaps it was. Certainly, Victoria was never shot at or assaulted again, and the special verdict of “guilty, but insane” never had to be applied in a case concerning her. Instead—and for the next 81 years—it was applied to every poor insane soul who committed a felony. The first person stigmatized by this verdict was Johanna Culverwell, a woman with a history of mental disturbance. Culverwell was charged with the death of her six-week-old son, whom she had left in a pan of water and found drowned when she returned. Declared “guilty, but insane,” she, like Maclean, was detained at Victoria’s pleasure. But she, unlike Maclean, was deemed morally responsible for her action. Not until 1964 was the Trial of Lunatics Act amended to restore the verdict of “not guilty, by reason of insanity.”
Paul Thomas Murphy ’79 taught interdisciplinary writing at the University of Colorado, Boulder, for 20 years before turning to writing full time. His essay is drawn and adapted from Shooting Victoria: Madness, Mayhem, and the Rebirth of the British Monarchy (2012) by permission of Pegasus Books. © 2012 by Paul Thomas Murphy.