JOHN ELLIOT, M.D.
Acquitted of a Serious Crime, he killed himself, by Hunger-Striking because of a Vindictive Sentence for a Minor Offence
DR ELLIOT was tried upon an indictment under the Black Act, with wilfully and maliciously discharging two pistols, loaded with powder and divers balls, at the person of Miss Mary Boydell. The second count charged him with firing one pistol, loaded with powder and one or more bullets, at the said Miss Boydell.
The evidence produced for the prosecution was as follows.
Mr George Nicol, bookseller to his Majesty, swore that, when walking up Prince's Street in company with Miss Boydell, he heard the loud explosion of a pistol close to his ear. It was so near, and the concussion of the air so strong, that it struck his ear like a blow. He turned round and, seeing the prisoner quite close to him with a pistol in his hand, which afterwards, however, turned out to be two pistols strongly tied together, seized him by the throat and said: "Are you the villain that fired?" The man said he was, and a footman who came up at the same moment either wrenched the pistols out of his hand or took them up as he dropped them. Then, having seen the lady taken into a shop, Mr Nicol went with the prisoner to Justice Hyde's. In going there the prisoner expressed great joy at what he had done, and, in particular, said that now he should die in peace, as he had sent the lady before him. Two more pistols were found in his pocket, apparently loaded to the muzzle, and those Mr Nicol delivered into the hands of Justice Hyde, and had not seen since. During the examination a lady came into the office and said she was happy to find that Miss Boydell was not dangerously wounded; upon which the prisoner, clashing his hands together, seemingly in an agony of disappointment, exclaimed, "Is she not dead?" and from this time, and during the continuance of the examination, he burst into a torrent of abuse against the lady, the alderman and his family.
These facts were clearly and circumstantially corroborated by the evidence of the livery-servant, and of Mr Griffith, a shoemaker in Prince's Street, who saw him fire the pistol, and who assisted in securing him.
Mr Nicol then swore that almost one half of the lady's cloak was burned, and that there were two marks on her gown, just below the shoulders, which seemed to correspond with the marks of the pistols as they were tied together.
A surgeon swore that Miss Boydell had two contusions just below the shoulder-blades which corresponded with the marks on the gown, and which evidently proceeded from blows received from some hard substance. Being asked if pistols loaded with bullets discharged so near the body could have made such marks he said he did not know; but it was certain that a pistol put quite close home to any resisting body, and discharged so as not to have the assistance of the air, lost much of its force.
Mr Silvester, on the part of the prisoner, called a Dr Symmonds to prove that he was insane. The doctor gave it as his opinion that he was so, and he had formed this opinion from a letter he had received from him in January, the purport of which was a philosophical hypothesis that the sun was not specifically a ball of fire, but that his heat proceeded from the quality of the atmosphere that surrounded his body. Some part of this paper was read, and, so far from betraying symptoms of insanity, it had all the marks of quick and cultivated parts. The hypothesis, however false, was ably argued; and as to the absurdity of the doctrine itself, the recorder aptly asked the doctor whether, if he judged of his intellect merely from a vague supposition as to the nature of the sun's heat, he might not equally declare Buffon and many other philosophers to be mad.
Mr O'Donnell, the successor of Mr Elliot, said he had observed symptoms of insanity in him, although he attended his patients very regularly and very properly. This inconsistency drew from Mr Garrow some sharp questions, which Mr O'Donnell said did not, by the way in which they were put, enable him to give so clear an account of the case as he otherwise would do if not puzzled by the counsel.
Two people with whom he lodged also said they remarked insanity; but he was a good, quiet lodger, and they saw no harm in him.
The recorder said it was necessary that the jury should be convinced that one or both pistols was loaded with ball. It was evident, first from the exultation, and afterwards the disappointment, expressed by Elliot, as well as by his declarations, that his intention was to take away the life of the lady -- that he had deliberated on the fact, and had coolly prepared the means, But it was for them to inquire whether, in the anxiety incident to so horrid a project, he had not either blundered in the loading, or had chosen the wrong pair of pistols; for if they were not convinced that one or both of them was loaded with ball they must acquit the prisoner. Here one of the jurymen said: "Surely, my Lord, nothing can be more clear than that the pistols were not loaded with ball." On this the recorder said that if they were all of this opinion it was needless for him to enumerate the evidence in defence of the prisoner.
The jury, after some consultation, brought in a verdict of guilty of shooting, but they did not find that there was ball.
On this the recorder directed them to acquit the prisoner, which they did.
The recorder said this was no ground for exultation to the prisoner. His crime in the eye of Heaven was the same, and he should order him to be detained to be tried for the assault; and it was a duty which the prosecutors owed to society to bring him to his trial in that way. This officiousness of justice proved fatal to poor Elliot. He was a man of extreme sensibility, and being convicted of the assault, and a vindictive sentence passed, he adopted a determination to starve himself to death; and, in spite of entreaty and force, persisted in not swallowing any sustenance, till he died a victim of the misplaced punctilio of law.