John Bellingham: Lone Assassin or Conspirator in the Death of Prime Minister Spencer Perceval?
Andro Linklater, Why Spencer Perceval Had To Die: The Assassination of a British Prime Minister New York: Walker, 2012.
This is a timely book, marking as it does the bicentenary of the only assassination of a British Prime Minister, on 11 May 1812. It is also a well-written work by an accomplished author concerned to tell a good tale. Linklater has added some original research, uncovering new Liverpool dimensions to the story.
The basic facts of the case are well known. On the fateful evening of 11 May 1812, Prime Minister Spencer Perceval entered the lobby of the House of Commons, where he was shot at point blank range. The assassin, one John Bellingham, made no effort to escape and was immediately seized along with his pistols, his papers and other personal possessions.
Bellingham, a Liverpool-based merchant temporarily residing in London, freely confessed that he did it and that he acted alone. Further, he insisted that he bore no personal animosity towards Spencer Perceval. The motivation for his act of assassination, which he proclaimed openly and at his subsequent trial, was his deep sense of justice denied by the British government.
He had been a British merchant trading in Russia when things went wrong. He got into disputes with commercial rivals, fell afoul of the Russian authorities, was imprisoned in St. Petersburg, and ended up bankrupt. Linklater excellently explains these highly convoluted business affairs, which formed the basis of Bellingham's longstanding grievance against the British government. In John Bellingham's mind, the British diplomatic representatives in Russia did not help him sufficiently when he was in trouble. Therefore they owed him substantial compensation, and he embarked on an obsessive campaign to recover his imagined entitlements.
Back in England in 1809, for the next several years Bellingham lobbied all relevant government departments, corresponded with MPs, and even had a pamphlet outlining his case printed at his own expense and distributed to politicians. Once all possible avenues of redress were exhausted, he proceeded to what he considered the last stage. He would exact justice by assassination; in his twisted legal reasoning, he was innocent of murder since he bore no malice towards the victim.
In his prison cell and in court, he was remarkably lucid and rational. He did not claim insanity as a legal defence, but, contrary to his wishes, his legal counsel tried this strategy. It did not work, and the jury, after retiring for only fourteen minutes, returned a verdict of 'Guilty.' Bellingham was executed on 18 May 1812 in a 'rush to judgement' that is still a controversial aspect of this affair.
Further complicating the whole matter was the fact that Spencer Perceval was very unpopular in some quarters. To many he was the arch-reactionary Tory of that era: anti-Catholic, anti-Irish, anti-Reform and hostile to Freedom of the Press. He was also the Parliamentary architect of the Orders in Council, the laws restricting foreign trade that were part of the economic warfare against the Napoleonic Empire. Added to this was his staunch opposition to slavery and determination to close down any loopholes in the 1807 British abolition of the slave trade. The result of these measures, in 1812, was a government-manufactured recession that many felt could be blamed on one man---Spencer Perceval. Individuals and large crowds frequently expressed their support for John Bellingham. This suggested the question initially on everyone's mind in May 1812, and which still preoccupies Linklater in 2012: In spite of the perpetrator's persistent denials, was the assassination of the Prime Minister part of some wider conspiracy?
In tackling this question, the author highlights two related problems, one historiographical and the other analytical. The first of these concerns the basic fact that little has been written on the Perceval assassination apart from two books, one by Mollie Gillen in 1972 and a more recent study by David Hanrahan in 2008. Linklater is aware of the Gillen book, which he alternately praises and criticises in passing comments (Linklater, 243, 262). Curiously, however, Linklater's 2012 investigation does not refer to Hanrahan's book or cite it in the bibliography, although it was published just four years ago. In addition, he does not seem to be aware of an important 2004 analysis of the legal aspects of the Bellingham case by Kathleen Goddard (Goddard, 1-25).
This raises issues as to the level of basic background research done by the author and the advice given to him by the editors at his publishing house, since they are apparently unaware of these recent works on the same topic. Moreover, the main purpose of Linklater's book is to assert a new conspiracy theory about the Perceval assassination, and his lack of familiarity with Gillen and Hanrahan's research--which found no evidence of such a conspiracy--has hampered his inquiries.
In the analytical portion of the book, Linklater makes an original argument for a conspiracy behind the Spencer Perceval assassination. He contends that commercial interests in Liverpool who had been economically devastated by the Prime Minister's steadfast support for the Orders in Council and the eradication of the slave trade had the most to gain by Perceval's removal from office. He claims that these persons must have backed John Bellingham with money to the extent of £ 85 for the five months that he spent in London just before the assassination. Linklater dismisses contemporary newspaper accounts that the money came from Mrs. Bellingham, who was partner in a millinery business (Linklater, 155). Instead he points the finger at one Elisha Peck, an American merchant resident in Liverpool, "or someone remarkably like him" (Linklater, 210).
The evidence for this accusation is very weak, and consists of a promissory note found in John Bellingham's lodgings for £ 20 drawn on a bank connected to Peck. Elsewhere, buried in an endnote, the author admits that "It is impossible to trace the source of Bellingham's money" (Linklater, 266). This type of reasoning has all the hallmarks of classic conspiracy theorising. Faced with a shortage of evidence, the author presents one explanation when several others are equally viable.
The money that Bellingham used to support himself in London could easily have been from funds that he siphoned off from an unrelated commercial scheme, passed through the usual Liverpool bank. He could have had a windfall from gambling or inheritance, or a gift that he kept secret from everyone. He had promised his wife to stay away from the Russian lobbying efforts and this would explain why no trace remains of something that he kept hidden from his family.
Far more destructive to the Linklater thesis is a piece of evidence that he has not dealt with, but which appears in the books by both Gillen and Hanrahan. Soon after the assassination the government received a very articulate and well-informed letter from someone in Liverpool who signed himself "Anonymous." This person, with obvious insider knowledge of the Bellingham family circle, explained that Mrs. Bellingham "has been at once deprived of the support of her husband, and of all the little property she was possessed of, which his expensive residence during five months in London has squander'd…." (Anonymous to Lord Gower, 20 May 1812, quoted in Gillen, 141 and Hanrahan, 169).
The most likely source of Bellingham's London maintenance money was his wife, and with that, the conspiracy theory collapses. Once this explanation is removed, what are we left with as the background to the tragic events of 11 May 1812? John Bellingham, a man obsessed with a commercial grievance against the government, shot the Prime Minister. He acted alone, and the great point of debate amongst both his contemporaries and all the historians who have since examined the assassination is this: Was Bellingham insane at the moment he pulled the trigger? Opinion is divided, but according to the law as it was interpreted in 1812 he could be viewed as sane and therefore guilty.
The fact that he committed his act of assassination in the middle of an economic crisis, complete with food riots and Luddite machine wrecking disturbances, may have encouraged him to act. Likewise, the extremely hostile voices that he heard in the Liverpool mercantile community vilifying Spencer Perceval for the Orders in Council may have spurred him on. These are background factors, which do not add up to a conspiracy unless solid documentary evidence can be presented.
Unfortunately, this book is based on faulty preparatory scholarship and thus faulty reasoning: its conspiracy theory will not convince any historian familiar with the sources for the period (Porter, online version, no pagination). The author has expended a great deal of effort on following a false trail, when familiarity with the existing secondary literature might have made for a more constructive study.--Fred Donnelly
Mollie Gillen, Assassination of the Prime Minister: The Shocking Death of Spencer Perceval (London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1972). Kathleen S. Goddard, "A Case of Injustice? The Trial of John Bellingham," American Journal of Legal History 46/1 (2004), pages 1-25. David C. Hanrahan, Assassination of the Prime Minister: John Bellingham and the Murder of Spencer Perceval (Chalford, Stroud, Gloucestershire: Sutton, 2008). Andro Linklater, Why Spencer Perceval Had To Die: The Assassination of a British Prime Minister (New York: Walker/Bloomsbury, 2012). Bernard Porter, "Rotten, Wicked, Tyrannical," London Review of Books, vol. 34, no. 13, 5 July 2012.