Erskine’s Defence of Hadfield
In all the records of medical jurisprudence
there is probably not a more important utterance than Erskine’s
speech for James Hadfield in the court of King’s Bench, on a trial
at bar. The case had some remarkable resemblances (as pointed out
by a writer in the New York Evening Post) to that of the
assassin Czolgosz, but in many respects it was most unlike it. Hadfield
was indicted for shooting at King George III in Drury Lane Theatre,
and was brought to trial in April 1800. He had fortunately missed
his mark, but according to the English law, his offense was treason
and his life was the forfeit. Erskine, then at the height of his
fame as the leader of the English bar, was appointed by the court
as counsel for the well-nigh defenceless wretch, and based his case
entirely on the allegation of delusional insanity. In the opening
sentence of his address to the jury he claimed that the duty imposed
upon him by the court was a privilege. When we consider the state
of public opinion in Great Britain one 
hundred years ago with reference to the atrocity of an attempt to
assassinate the King, and the general ignorance and perversity,
both lay and professional, on the subject of insanity, we may well
concede that Erskine’s task was such a one as nobody but a legal
Hercules could have brought to a successful conclusion.
Hadfield had been a soldier, and in
the war in Flanders had received, in the midst of a desperate charge,
a series of frightful wounds, one of which had penetrated the brain.
His life was saved as by a miracle, but he never recovered his mental
health, and deteriorated into a state of delusional insanity. He
believed that, like the Savior, he was called upon to sacrifice
his life, and under this delusion he fired upon the King.
The difficulty which Erskine had to
encounter was to establish the validity of this defence against
the antiquated and irrational definitions of insanity as expounded
by the English law—definitions which are still too much in evidence
in some of our American courts. This task he accomplished in a masterly
oration, which even to this day leaves little to be criticised by
the most advanced alienist. For its day, and for the circumstances,
it was a revelation, and must always remain a landmark of one of
the most important advances in the medical jurisprudence of insanity.
The court at first had been much against the accused, but it was
won over by the logic and eloquence of Lord Erskine, and finally
ordered the prisoner’s acquittal.
Hadfield’s case differed entirely
from that of Czolgosz in the radical fact that the prisoner had
a good defence. But even so, it would be interesting to speculate
as to what would have been the issue if Hadfield had succeeded in
killing the King. We fear that in that case even the eloquence of
Erskine would not have saved him.