26 Apr 2021

History:

Lost Capitol Hill: A Trial fit for a King

Francis Scott Key

Last week, we looked at the attempt by Richard Lawrence to assassinate President Andrew Jackson in 1835. We had left Jackson unscathed. Lawrence remanded to prison, and was there examined by two doctors, who found him to answer their questions in an “artless and unreserved manner.”

The examination was reported on in detail by the Alexandria Gazette on February 9, 1835. During it, Lawrence stated that he had visited the President a few days earlier, asking him for money to return to England. Unsurprisingly, Jackson demurred. Otherwise, he said that he was a painter, that he had the guns because he had traded weapons he had received from his father for them, and that they had always worked previously.

When it got to why he had made the attempt, he stated that it was not because he himself wanted to be President, he, in fact, had no great preference for who would have succeeded Jackson. However, he thought Jackson a tyrant, and that was enough.

When asked why he felt Jackson was a tyrant, he said “it was common talk with the people, and that he read it in all the papers.” Also, the President was “the source of all his difficulties,” though other than his current inability to find steady employment, he did not say what these difficulties might be.

Finally, he described how he had watched Jackson during the funeral service, but had waited until the party had left the House of Representatives before striking because he “did not wish to interfere with the funeral ceremony.”

A contemporary print of the aftermath of the assassination attempt. Lawrence is on the ground, Jackson is waving his cane around. From the 1835 book Shooting at the President!: The Remarkable Trial of Richard Lawrence, for an Attempt to Assassinate the President of the United States (LOC)

This piece was reprinted in the Canton, Ohio, Vaterlandsfreund, a German-language newspaper. They added before it the news that Lawrence’s pistols had been tested by District Attorney Francis Scott Key (pictured at the beginning) and others, and that they had worked perfectly, both with the gunpowder with which they had been loaded, and when reloaded with more gunpowder from Lawrence’s pouch. The only reason that was later offered for both pistols to have failed to fire was that they weather had been particularly humid that day, and that the pistols were known for being vulnerable to moisture.

The trial ended up being a bit of a circus. It began with an application for a doctor to visit Lawrence in order to determine his sanity. When the physician began his exam, all began well, until he asked the prisoner about his claims on the throne of England. Lawrence promptly answered that he was, indeed, the rightful king of England, and that he would have the name “Richard the Fourth” when he ascended.

The trial itself began on April 11, 1835. While Lawrence’s outward impression was neat and “gentleman-like,” when he was granted leave to address the court, he stated:

I am under the protection of my father at home. The Throne of Great Britain and the Throne of this country of right belong to me. I am superior to this tribunal. I ask you to consider whether-to consider whether you are safe in the course of proceedings.

When then the jury was called in and sworn in, he warned them: “Swear on that book, but remember that I am the King of England, and of this country, and will most assuredly punish you.” Instead, of course, it was the jury who judged him, declaring him not guilty by reason of insanity, and having him taken away to the jail, which also served as an insane asylum at the time. Lawrence would spend time in an asylum in Baltimore, before being returned to D.C. when St. Elizabeths opened. He died there in 1861.


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