20th April 1882

Queen Victoria’s would-be assassin stands trial

Robert Maclean was born in Scotland, but the act that made him famous – his attempt on Queen Victoria’s life as she left a train on 2 March 1882 – occurred in Windsor. It was the eighth time in four years that Victoria had been the target of an assassination attempt.

The following day’s Dundee Evening Telegraph indicated that things were not as dramatic as they might first have seemed as “although two chambers of the revolver taken from the sham assassin were loaded with ball, there is reason to believe that the barrel fired was loaded with blank cartridge… On being arrested, [Maclean] made no attempt to deny or extenuate his offence beyond the explanation that ‘he was starving’… the natural inference from the brief facts gleaned from the prisoner is that misery had affected his intellect, but nothing either in his conversation or demeanour is said to betray insanity.”

Maclean in the dock

However, Maclean’s mental health was apparently not as good as the Dundee Evening Telegraph had been led to believe. He went on trial at Reading Assizes on 20 April, with the prosecution telling the jury that he was guilty of high treason for having fired a loaded weapon at the monarch. Rather than argue against the prosecution’s description of events, the defence explained that Maclean had spent time in a “lunatic asylum” and that he’d had an epileptic fit a week before travelling to Windsor.

“Medical men who had examined him were of the opinion that the man was not accountable for his actions, and [the defence] believed that was also the belief of the medical men who had examined the prisoner on behalf of the Crown,” according to a report in the following day’s Elgin Courant and Morayshire Advertiser. Maclean had a long-term head injury, which still needed treatment, and one of his friends, an artist, testified that “he had no doubt that [Maclean] was absolutely insane”. He produced letters, written by Maclean and sent to his sister stating that unless the English people stopped wearing blue, he would commit murder.

Medical experts testify

A string of medical experts, who had cared for Maclean over the years or examined him in the aftermath of the incident at Windsor likewise testified that he was of “unsound mind”. Some used what would now be considered more prejudicial language still.

The case was heard in less than a day, and the jury deliberated for just five minutes before returning with a verdict. They declared Maclean not guilty of treason, on account of him being mentally unstable. He was sent to Broadmoor Asylum where he lived for close to 40 years, eventually dying at the secure hospital in June 1921.



Other events that occured in April

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