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Daniel M’Naghten, assassin

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Daniel M’Naghten

(1813–3 May 1865)

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Daniel was a Scottish woodturner who assassinated English civil servant Edward Drummond while suffering from paranoid delusions. Through his trial and its aftermath, he has given his name to the legal test of criminal insanity in England and other common law jurisdictions known as the M’Naghten Rules.

M’Naghten was born in Scotland (probably Glasgow) in 1813, the illegitimate son of a Glasgow woodturner and landlord, also called Daniel M’Naghten. After the death of his mother, M’Naghten went to live with his father’s family, became an apprentice and later a journeyman at his father’s workshop in Stockwell Street, Glasgow. When his father decided not to offer him a partnership, M’Naghten left and, after a three-year career as an actor, returned to Glasgow in 1835 to set up his own woodturning workshop.

For the next five years, he ran a successful woodturning business. He was sober and industrious, and by living frugally was able to save a considerable sum of money. In his spare time, he attended the Glasgow Mechanics’ Institute and the Athenaeum Debating Society. He taught himself French so that he could read La Rochefoucauld.

In December 1840, M’Naghten sold his business and spent the next two years in London and Glasgow, with a brief trip to France. In the summer of 1842, he attended lectures on anatomy in Glasgow, but otherwise, it is not known what he did with his time. Whilst in Glasgow in 1841, he complained to various people that he was being persecuted by the Tories and followed by their spies. No-one took him seriously, believing him to be deluded.

Scottish Reformer - Daniel M'Naghten, assassin

In January 1843, M’Naghten was noticed acting suspiciously around Whitehall in London. On the afternoon of 20 January, the Prime Minister’s private secretary, civil servant Edward Drummond, was walking towards Downing Street from Charing Cross when M’Naghten approached him from behind, drew a pistol and fired at point-blank range into his back. M’Naghten was overpowered by a police constable before he could fire a second pistol.

At first, it was thought that Drummond’s wound was not serious. He managed to walk away, the bullet was removed and the first newspaper reports were optimistic, but complications set in and Drummond died five days later.

M’Naghten appeared at the Bow Street magistrates’ court the morning after the assassination attempt. He made a brief statement in which he described how persecution by the Tories had driven him to act:

“The Tories in my native city have compelled me to do this. They follow, persecute me wherever I go and have entirely destroyed my peace of mind… It can be proved by evidence. That is all I have to say.”

The speed and efficiency with which M’Naghten’s defence was organised suggest that a number of powerful people in law and medicine were waiting for an opportunity to bring about changes in the law on criminal insanity.

Both prosecution and defence based their cases on what constituted a legal defence of insanity. Both sides agreed that M’Naghten suffered from delusions of persecution. The prosecution argued that in spite of his “partial insanity”, he was a responsible agent, capable of distinguishing right from wrong, and conscious that he was committing a crime. The jury, without retiring, duly returned a verdict of not guilty on the ground of insanity.

After his acquittal M’Naghten was transferred from Newgate Prison to the State Criminal Lunatic Asylum at Bethlem Hospital under the 1800 Act for the Safe Custody of Insane Persons charged with Offences. His admission papers describe him in the following words: “Imagines the Tories are his enemies, shy and retiring in his manner.” Apart from one hunger strike, which ended with force-feeding, McNaghten’s 21 years at Bethlem appear to have been uneventful

In 1864, M’Naghten was transferred to the newly opened Broadmoor Asylum, where his admission papers describe him as: “A native of Glasgow, an intelligent man” and record how, when asked if he thinks he must have been out of his mind when he shot Edward Drummond, he answers: “Such was the Verdict – the opinion of the Jury after hearing the Evidence.” During his later years at Bethlem, he had been classified as an “imbecile.” He developed diabetes and heart problems in Bethlem; by the time he was transferred to Broadmoor, his health was declining, and he died on 3 May 1865.

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