Today in London’s radical history: it’s not madness to think the Tories are persecuting you…

Daniel McNaughton (or McNaughtan, M’Naghten) was the son of a Glasgow wood turner, who tried to assassinate Prime minister Robert Peel, but instead killed Peel’s private secretary Edward Drummond. He was acquitted on grounds of insanity, thus leading to the McNaughtan Rules of Madness, which have dominated insanity defenses in the English-speaking world ever since

Traditionally MacNaughtan has been said to have been mad, harboring a delusion that there was a conspiracy against him,, orchestrated by the Tories, Catholic priests and the help of Jesuits.

However more recent analysis has led some to conclude dedicated political revolutionary who “aimed not merely to murder Sir Robert Peel but to destroy the very foundation of aristocratic government in England” in favour of a more democratic system.

On 20th January 1843, MacNaughtan shot Drummond, coming out of the Prime Minister’s residence, mistaking him for Peel. McNaughtan was arrested by a constable who had witnessed the incident and was taken to BowStreet police station.

Drummond died five days later.

Under interrogation in Bowstreet police station, McNaughtan is aid to have claimed that “the Tories in my native city have compelled me to do this. They followed me to France, into Scotland and all over to England. In fact, they follow me wherever I go… They have accused me of crimes of which I am not guilty; they do everything in their power to harass and persecute me. In fact they wish to murder me.”

At his trial it was argued by the defence lawyer that McNaughtan was insane, and thus not responsible for his ctions, and therefore not guilty. Various experts on insanity discussed ‘homicidal monomania’ and ‘partial delusion’; when prosecution experts agreed with the defence, the case collapsed. McNaughtan was acquitted of murder; and considering insanity, he was forcibly institutionalized for the rest of his life under Criminal Lunatics Act 1800. He was first remanded to Bethlem Royal Hospital for 20 years; and in 1864 he was transferred to Broadmoor Asylum, and he died on 3rd May 1865 at the age of 52.

The establishment and the press protested the verdict. Queen Victoria was displeased to a greater extent and wrote to Sir Robert Peel for a wider interpretation of the verdict.

On 6th March 1843, there was a discussion in the House of Lords, and Lord Chancellor put five questions to a panel of His Majesty’s judges. The five questions were replied on 19th June 1843, and they were construed as McNaughtan’s rules, which have acted as guidelines in criminal cases ever since: “Nothing is an offence which is done by a person who, at the time of doing it, by reason of unsoundness of mind, is incapable of knowing the nature of the act or that he is doing what is either wrong or contrary to the law.”

However, some have questioned whether McNaughtan’s background and political beliefs indicate that he was rational, and that while the defence may have saved his life, he has been wrongly cast as a nutter ever since…

McNaughtan had known and worked with well-known Glasgow political activist and lecturer, Chartist Abram Duncan. McNaughtan became known as a political radical, eager to debate the points of the charter with anyone in his shop. It became generally known that he hated the Tories, whom his father supported.

By 1837 the Tories had political control of Glasgow. In 1838 McNaughtan’s shop rent was raised from nine to twelve pounds and he became eligible to vote. In the local election of 1839 he voted against the Tories.

McNaughtan’s suspicions about ‘persecution’ may have also reflected the very real activities of the tories, church, police and allied authorities in general to counter the rise of the Chartists. Networks of paid informers and private spies, including soldiers, old-aged pensioners, superintendents and inspectors of factories and mills reported on political meetings; police infiltrated the movement and speakers at Chartist meetings were prosecuted. The Chartist movement was strong in Glasgow and the government concentrated much of its intelligence gathering efforts there. The Church was also heavily involved in denouncing those uppity plebs involved in agitating for reform.

With the backing of the aristocracy, Peel became prime minister for the second time in 1841; with the country was in financial crisis. Peel blatantly acted in the interests of the aristocracy, while ignoring the suffering of the poor, and stepped up the harassment of the Chartists and other agitators by initiating criminal prosecution of their leaders.

McNaughtan’s act has to be seen in the context of the times: not only had radical Chartists atttempted to organise uprisings in 1839-40, but three attempts to assassinate Queen Victoria also took place in 1842. 18-year old Edward Oxford attempted to assassinate her, was tried for high treason, but was acquitted on grounds of insanity. The defense portrayed Oxford as a confused imbecile, but the Queen believed him perfectly sane. Many suggested a Chartist conspiracy. On 29 May, John Francis fired a pistol at her, was convicted of high treason and was sentenced to transportation for life. On 3 July, John Bean attempted to shoot the Queen, even though his gun was loaded only with paper and tobacco. Prince Albert encouraged Parliament to pass the Treason Act of 1842 and Bean was sentenced to 18 months imprisonment.

There seems to have been a concerted effort to portray McNaughtan as a madman, as there was with Oxford. The information that Peel was the intended victim was suppressed. Scotland Yard told Peel that McNaughtan was in touch with other men. Victoria recorded in her diary:

“Had a letter from Sir Robert Peel, with very curious enclosures, relative to MacNaughten who is clearly not in the least mad. A most mischievous paper was found in his lodgings in Glasgow—quite shocking.”

The document was never made public. A second document that was referred to in a letter to the Queen was said to have contained “information… [which] will prove that MacNaghten is a Chartist, that he attended political meeting sat Glasgow and that he has taken a violent part in politics.”

The claim of insanity was based on the fact that he killed the wrong man and that he thought he was being persecuted by the Tories. But McNaughtan’s mistake was understandable – Peel and Drummond looked similar, traveled together, and there were few public images available for everyone to know what Peel looked like. And what was not dealt with in court is whether or not McNaughtan was in fact being persecuted by the Tories, who had the motive and means to do so. Half the people in the UK today could reasonably claim that the Tories are persecuting them – because the bastards ARE persecuting them.

Some interesting research can be found at:


An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online


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