Source: Philadelphia Medical Journal
Source type: journal
Document type: editorial
Document title: “Erskine’s Defence of Hadfield”
Date of publication: 5 October 1901
Volume number: 8
Issue number: 14
|“Erskine’s Defence of Hadfield.” Philadelphia Medical Journal 5 Oct. 1901 v8n14: pp. 539-40.|
|Leon Czolgosz (trial: compared with Hadfield trial).|
|Leon Czolgosz; Thomas Erskine; George III; James Hadfield.|
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.