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During Queen Victoria?s 64-year reign, no fewer than eight attempts were made on her life. Murphy follows each would-be assassin and the repercussions of their actions, illuminating daily life in Victorian England, the development of the monarchy under Queen Victoria and the evolution of the attacks in light of evolving social issues and technology.
There was Edward Oxford, a bartender who dreamed of becoming an admiral, who was simply shocked when his attempt to shoot the ...
During Queen Victoria’s 64-year reign, no fewer than eight attempts were made on her life. Murphy follows each would-be assassin and the repercussions of their actions, illuminating daily life in Victorian England, the development of the monarchy under Queen Victoria and the evolution of the attacks in light of evolving social issues and technology.
There was Edward Oxford, a bartender who dreamed of becoming an admiral, who was simply shocked when his attempt to shoot the pregnant Queen and Prince consort made him a madman in the world’s eyes. There was hunchbacked John Bean, who dreamed of historical notoriety in a publicized treason trial, and William Hamilton, forever scarred by the ravages of the Irish Potato Famine. Roderick MacLean enabled Victoria to successfully strike insanity pleas from Britain’s legal process. Most threatening of all were the “dynamitards” who targeted her Majesty’s Golden Jubilee—who signaled the advent of modern terrorism with their publicly focused attack.
From these cloak-and-dagger plots to Victoria’s brilliant wit and steadfast courage, Shooting Victoria is historical narrative at its most thrilling, complete with astute insight into how these attacks actually revitalized the British crown at a time when monarchy was quickly becoming unpopular abroad. While thrones across Europe toppled, the Queen’s would-be assassins contributed greatly to the preservation of the monarchy and to the stability that it enjoys today. After all, as Victoria herself noted, “It is worth being shot at—to see how much one is loved.”
On the morning of 4 May 1840, Edward Oxford stepped out of his lodgings in West Place, West Square, at the Lambeth border of Southwark, and set off eastwards into the heart of that densely populated, proletarian district south of the Thames. He was eighteen, though his diminutive stature and baby face made him look much younger. He was—unusually for him—suddenly prosperous, with £5 in his pocket. And, for the first time in ages, he was free: unemployed by choice, and finally able to pursue the ambition that had been driving him for some time. He set off into what Charles Dickens called the "ganglion" of Southwark's twisted streets, his destination a small general goods store on Blackfriars Road.
Behind him lay one of the very rare green expanses within the gritty boroughs of Lambeth and Southwark. West Square, where Oxford, quitting his job in the West End, had moved four days before to be with his mother, his sister, and her husband, was one of the very few gardened squares on that side of the river. The square was meticulously maintained and gave this neighborhood an unusual air of gentility. And directly to the west of the square, a stone's throw away, a bucolic English-style garden relieved the area from the surrounding urban sprawl. This greenery, however, was not part of a public park—no such thing existed in Southwark at the time—but rather the connected grounds of two institutions. Directly adjacent to West Square stood the Bridewell House of Occupation, a home and school to indigent children. And behind this rose the cupola of an immense neoclassical building: Bethlem Hospital for the Insane.
Southwark had been for the last twenty-five years the latest location of Bedlam, or Bethlem Hospital, which had held many of London's insane since the fourteenth century. Behind Bethlem's walls operated a carefully structured world within a world designed to deal with different degrees and classifications of insanity. And, at the extremities of the hospital, segregated from the rest of the hospital and, with high walls, from the world outside, lay the feature that made Bethlem unique: it housed England's only purpose-built facility for the criminally insane. Communication between the worlds inside and outside the asylum was largely restricted to sound: the occasional shrieks of the patients might have carried as far as West Square; the clanking and clattering of industrial South London must have intruded upon the disturbed thoughts of the patients.
But on this day, if Edward Oxford was even aware of Bethlem's world within a world, he was headed away from it, literally and figuratively. He had his entire life largely kept himself—his dreams and his plans—to himself. Today, however, that would change. Today, Oxford would take a major step toward recognition by all of London—by the world. Today, he would buy his guns.
Back in his room at West Square, Oxford kept a locked box. When, five weeks later, the police smashed its lock and opened it, they found the cache of a secret society: a uniform of sorts—a crepe cap tied off with two red bows—and, neatly written on two sheets of foolscap, a document listing the rules and regulations of an organization optimistically named "Young England." The documents revealed Young England to be a highly disciplined insurrectionary body. All members were expected to adopt an alias and to be well armed and prepared for covert military action: "every member shall be provided with a brace of pistols, a sword, a rifle, and a dagger; the two latter to be kept at the committee room." Every member, as well, was expected when necessary to be a master of disguise—ready to play "the labourer, the mechanic, and the gentleman." And, apparently for mutual recognition on the day of the insurrection, every member was to keep "a black crape cap, to cover his face, with the marks of distinction outside." These marks of distinction denoted rank in the organization, and the two red bows on Oxford's cap made him a captain, a position of true command, as captains were members "who can procure an hundred men." Oxford had chosen the rather transparent alias of "Oxonian," one of the four captains named in this document.
It was, on paper, an organization of over four hundred armed members. And when this document became public, many believed Oxford to be a part of a wide-ranging conspiracy to overthrow the Queen's government. But Young England was entirely Oxford's own creation, and this manifesto, though signed by a fictitious secretary Smith, was in Oxford's own handwriting. His hundred troops and the generals existed only in his own mind. This fantasy was to Oxford a compelling—now, controlling—one, for that fantasy gave him a stature wholly denied him in everyday life, as well as a profound sense of self-worth and purpose in a life that heretofore lacked both.
He was in the process of creating and collecting the props with which to support this fantasy. He had the cap. The sword would come. Today he would buy what he needed most to perform fully the role of a Captain of Young England: a matching brace of pistols. The shop selling the pistols was a short walk through Southwark, up the London Road, past the obelisk at St. George's Circle and the philanthropic institutions for the blind and for repentant prostitutes. Oxford likely knew nothing of what went on inside these places, but he did know the streets and the shops of Southwark well. Although he had just moved in with his family, he had lived here as a child, attending school in Lambeth; and, until the age of fourteen, he assisted his mother with a coffee shop she had run on the Waterloo Road. Oxford slipped into the human press traveling up Blackfriars Road, the bustling thoroughfare leading to Blackfriars Bridge and to the City, and ducked into Hayes's general goods store.
He wanted guns that would make an impression, that befit the important plans of Captain Oxford. Style was everything to Oxford, accuracy secondary. Hayes had exactly what he needed: a pair of dueling pistols with handsomely carved stocks. These pistols incorporated the very latest advance in firearms—the percussive cap. For the past two hundred years, most firearms had been flintlocks, on which a snapping, grinding flint would ignite loose powder, which ignited the powder in the barrel of the gun, firing the ball. By the 1830s, and because of refinements in percussive gunpowder—that is, gunpowder that would explode not upon ignition, but upon impact—flintlocks became increasingly obsolete, more and more likely to be found in pawnshops. Newer, flintless pistols fired when a cocked hammer engaged and struck a percussive cap. Like flintlocks, however, these percussive pistols were muzzle-loaded. The pistols Oxford was buying could each be fired only once; to fire again, he would have to reload powder, wadding, and ball through the front of the gun, and replace the percussive cap.
Although dueling was technically illegal, the practice was carried on, Wimbledon Common being a favorite venue. Indeed, just two months before, Prince Louis Napoleon, then in exile in London, was involved in a duel there with his cousin, the Comte Léon—a contest broken up before it started by Inspector Pearce of the Metropolitan Police (whom Oxford would soon meet). Dueling pistols, then, were still available for purchase. But these particular pistols hardly suited the purpose of the duelist, unless that purpose was to miss: they were not weapons of quality. They were priced at two guineas, or 42 shillings—overpriced, according to one gunmaker, who later valued them at less than 30 shillings. Certainly, there were cheaper pistols to be had, but a guinea apiece hardly suggested fine workmanship. Experts would later describe them as "coarsely and roughly finished," designed more for show than effect. They were manufactured in Birmingham, the center of the British firearms industry at the time, but they bore no maker's mark—an obvious sign of their shoddiness. When Charles Dickens later described Oxford's pistols as "Brummagem firearms," he intended to emphasize their utter worthlessness as weapons, virtually guaranteed to miss their targets. Oxford was certainly no expert on firearms, but he must have had some sense of the limitations of these pistols when he asked the young clerk assisting him how far a bullet would carry from them: twenty or thirty yards, he was told.
That was enough for his purpose. What was important was that he look the part: Captain Oxonian, standing steadily as he took one shot, and then another; like a duelist, a highwayman, a bravo—a dashing, handsome, romantic figure, a gentleman worthy of the world's attention. The guns were perfect for that effect. And they were guns that he could afford. With typical Victorian haggling, he bargained down the price of the pistols from 2 guineas (or £2 and 2 shillings) to £2. With the two shillings he saved, he bought a powder-flask and two bags for the pistols. The clerk took Oxford's money and entered the transaction on a slate, which his employer, Mr. Hayes, logged into his account book the next day.
Oxford made his way back past the obelisk and through the warren of side streets, to 6 West Square. Though the lodgings, kept by Mrs. Packman, were new to Oxford, his mother, his sister, and his brother-in-law had been living there for some time. Their choice of residence suggests a position of some comfort in the upper ranks of the working class, at least. A clergyman lived there, as did some of the professionals who staffed Bethlem. Oxford's mother, Hannah, had attempted a number of businesses of her own—a public house, a coffee shop—but all had eventually failed. Others in her family were more successful, however, and helpful to her: she apparently supported herself with a legacy. Oxford's brother-in-law, William Phelps, husband of his older sister, Susannah, was a baker who worked at a local soda-water factory but was on the verge of a major career change: he was days away from joining the Metropolitan Police. Oxford's family, then, fit the upscale proletarian precincts of West Street. Oxford himself, however, was far less comfortably situated. He had engaged with Mrs. Packman for a separate room, and for a separate rent. Oxford had no legacy, and no employment. The rent would quickly prove too much for him to pay, and he would very soon fall into arrears.
Oxford found his mother Hannah at home and lost no time showing her his pistols. While she knew nothing of his locked box of secrets, she did know of his childhood obsession with gunpowder and weaponry, remembering his fascination with toy cannons and remembering the arm injury he suffered as a boy, nearly blowing himself up while playing with fire and gunpowder, burning his eyebrows off and keeping him up for two nights screaming with pain. She knew, as well, that her child ached to be somebody. He had often spun out for her grandiose plans to rise in the world. A favorite dream of his came straight out of Captain Marryat's thenpopular novels—the very sort of fiction Oxford loved to read. He would join the Royal Navy and move quickly up the ranks. "He said he would allow me half his pay," Hannah would later say in court, "and how proud I should be of my son when I saw his name in the papers, Admiral Sir Edward Oxford!" All he needed to realize that ambition, he told her, would be a midshipman's place, which he could obtain for £50. He had begged her to return to her family in Birmingham to get it for him. On this day, he proudly showed her his pistols as a sign of his higher stature and a promise of his coming renown.
She was not pleased. Her son had just given up his job as a barman at the Hog in the Pound, a popular public house on Oxford Street across the river. Hannah had been exhorting him to find a job since he moved in, but he made it clear to her that he was in no hurry to do that: "He said nothing was stirring, and he should rather wait till a good place offered itself than answer advertisements." And now he had wasted a huge portion of his £5—a full quarter's pay for a barman—on these pistols. "How could you think of laying your money out in such folly!" she cried out, exasperated. Oxford, humiliated, lied to her. He had not paid for these new pistols, he explained; he was simply holding them for a friend.
And then, as often happened, the shame and inadequacy he felt turned to a blind rage, the sort of rage that had previously manifested itself in his breaking anything that he could grab hold of. His mother simply could not understand how important these pistols were to him, could not understand that he was not just a barman and was not destined to live a barman's life. He was not a servant; he was Oxonian, Captain of Young England!
He raised one of the pistols and pointed it, cocked, at his mother's face.
That same day—4 May 1840—a diminutive young woman sat quietly a mile and a half across the River Thames in her home in the very greenest part of London, while an artist sketched her face. Queen Victoria was only two years older than Edward Oxford, a few weeks away from her twenty-first birthday. For the last three years she had sat on the British throne. The artist was her current favorite, George Hayter, who, as her official portrait painter, had depicted many of the important events in her short life. He had, at the request of her Uncle Leopold, painted her when she was a thirteen-year-old princess and heir apparent. He had painted her with her court in full pomp at her 1838 coronation. And, most famously, he had in 1838 depicted her as every inch a queen, yet very much an innocent, in her state portrait: she sits, enthroned and crowned, in a flowing, virginal white dress bedecked with the heavy robes of state, gazing to the side and upwards beyond her scepter with a hint of a wide-eyed surprise interrupting her placidity, as if she contemplated the many coming years of her reign with wonder and confidence.
And now, Hayter was sketching her for another commemoration of an important event in her reign—indeed, a turning point: Victoria's marriage to Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, which had taken place just three months before. Hayter was this time intent on capturing a very different Victoria than he had in the state portrait. In the finished wedding portrait, Victoria and Albert stand together, surrounded by and yet apart from the crowd. Victoria is dressed in white satin, a circlet of white flowers in her hair; Albert is dressed in the brilliant red uniform of a British field marshal. To Victoria's other side stands her beaming uncle, the Duke of Sussex, who gave her away, and to Albert's side stands Victoria's mother (and his aunt), the Duchess of Kent, staring intently forward. The rest of the guests form a semicircle around the wedding party, the men generally in red uniforms and the women in white, imperfectly reflecting the colors of the royal couple: Victoria and Albert literally shine in the spotlight created by the rays of the sun as they pour through an upper window of the Chapel Royal of the Palace of St. James. Victoria's expression is very much as it was in the state portrait, gazing upward in surprise and wonder. But the object of her gaze has changed completely: instead of contemplating an unseen and solitary future, it is Albert alone who is the object of her attention.
Victoria was in love with Albert, deeply and wholly, and she had no doubt whatsoever that the marriage to him was good, and right, not only for herself but for the nation as well, elevating her and it into something greater. The day after her wedding, she wrote from Windsor to her (and Albert's) Uncle Leopold, to proclaim as much:
I write to you from here the happiest, happiest Being that ever existed. Really, I do not think it possible for any one in the world to be happier, or as happy as I am. He is an Angel, and his kindness and affection for me is really touching. To look in those dear eyes, and that dear sunny face, is enough to make me adore him. What I can do to make him happy will be my greatest delight. Independent of my great personal happiness, the reception we both met with yesterday was the most gratifying and enthusiastic I ever experienced; there was no end of the crowds in London, and all along the road.
Excerpted from SHOOTING VICTORIA by PAUL THOMAS MURPHY Copyright © 2012 by Paul Thomas Murphy. Excerpted by permission of PEGASUS BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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