Most people know Sir Robert Peel as the man who founded the first modern police force in the world, London’s Metropolitan Police. It must have been a good move as he went on to become Prime Minister, living in the famous 10 Downing Street but little did anyone expect that he would soon be involved in a situation that would forever shape criminal law and the general policy that those who are insane or suffering from severe mental illness can not to fully accountable for their actions in a court of law.
In early 1843, an unlikely political assassin helped to reshape the law on insanity. His name was Daniel M’Naghten, a wood-turner who had until then lived a quiet, industrious and completely anonymous life in his native Glasgow until he reached around 30 years of age when Daniel was bothered by paranoid thoughts.
These mostly involved authority figures such as the police or Church officials, but developed into a fixation on the Conservative Party who were in government at the time and a belief that he had been singled out for persecution.
This being the time before there were secret ballots, Daniel concluded that the Tories had got it in for him because he was known to have voted against their candidate in an election.
It led him to travel to London, where he spent the next few weeks loitering around Westminster and Whitehall forming a plan to murder Robert Peel, the Prime Minister himself.
On the afternoon of January 20, 1843, Daniel M’Naghten stalked a lone figure walking along Whitehall towards Downing Street and shot Peel in the back at close range.
There has been a terrible if understandable case of mistaken identity and rather than shooting the Prime Minister, M’Naghten had unwittingly mortally injured Peel’s private secretary, Edward Drummond who sadly took five days to die from his wounds.
Despite having the opportunity to do so, Daniel M’Naghten made no effort to escape and was arrested at the scene. In his subsequent statement to police, M’Naghten blamed ‘the Tories’, who he said ‘follow me wherever I go’, and added: ‘In fact, they wish to murder me.’
At his trial at the Old Bailey, M’Naghten pleaded insanity. It was an assertion the prosecution felt it had little choice but to accept otherwise, the Crown would have been obliged to take M’Naghten’s wild accusations against the Tories seriously.
And with the additional weight of testimony from M’Naghten’s doctors, the prosecution agreed to withdraw the case. The jury was given no option but to deliver a verdict of not guilty on the grounds of insanity.
Daniel M’Naghten was ordered to be held indefinitely at Bedlam, the infamous institute for the insane which gave its very name to madness and mayhem. The acquittal was greeted with public uproar. If M’Naghten, a man who was capable of running a successful business and had the wherewithal to plan and execute such a killing, could successfully claim to be insane, where would it end?
The controversy led to a debate in the House of Lords, and the setting down of ‘rules’ on insanity that are still applied in English courts today.
Known as the ‘M’Naghten rules’, these essential points include proving that the accused has a ‘disease of the mind’ and that their mental faculties are affected.
One of the quirks of the case was that M’Naghten was never actually judged against the rules that still bear his name two centuries later. They were created several months after he had been committed to an asylum for the rest of his life and in 1864, he became one of the first patients of Broadmoor, where he died a year later aged 52.
Fascinatingly, there is an interesting addendum to this forgotten bit of history which raises the possibility that the truth may have been completely different.
When Daniel M’Naghten was arrested in Whitehall, the police found he was carrying a bank receipt for £750, equivalent to £45,000 today. What on earth would a man with his background be doing with such a huge sum of money and why would someone so rich try to bump off the Prime Minister? Could it be that his insanity a cover story? Was he in fact a hired hitman tasked to assassinate the Prime Minister?
Just how mad was the most famous criminal lunatic in English legal history? We will likely never know.