Killing of Sir Alexander Boswell

by Unknown

Among the new books in England is one entitled "Modern State Trials" by William C. Townsend, in two octavos. In the Times of the second of January we find a reviewal of it, characteristically pungent. "Why Mr. Townsend conceived it necessary to dignify his collection with the above solemn title," says the critic, "we are at a loss to conjecture. Madame Tussaud does not invite a curiosity-seeking public to her museum of horrors by disguising the naked hideousness of her groups, or by lending them a factitious grace which it is hardly their interest to borrow. The publication is essentially popular, was meant for general perusal, is made up of any thing but technical details, and gives nothing to, as it receives nothing from, purely professional lore. A batch of interesting trials is very commendable, and need not be afraid of occupying its own ground. That of Courvoisier for the murder of Lord William Russel, of the Wakefields for the abduction of Miss Turner, of Lord Cardigan for shooting in a duel, and of John Ambrose Williams for a libel on the Durham clergy, cannot by any stretch of fancy be converted into state prosecutions, though they fairly enough find admittance into a book which treats of our causes celèbres. The 'state' trials of the volume before us are the ha'porth of bread to the gallons of sack. The legitimate is paraded to call attention from the spurious, the vulgar is to find respectability by walking arm in arm with the classical. There was really no necessity for the 'sham.' A crooked stick on a heath has its picturesqueness as well as the Corinthian column. We may be very interesting rascals though we do not poke our walking-canes into the face of majesty, or go out on a fool's errand against the Queen's lieges with Mr. John Frost." The author's style is described as very unsatisfactory, though full of pretension. He is "very bombastic, very inexact, and strangely independent in the current of his thoughts and in the arrangement of his words." But the Times admits nevertheless the interesting quality of the work, and in its own better language gives the following résumé of one of the most celebrated cases stated in it:—

"Of all the trials contained in these volumes none have a more melancholy interest, perhaps, than that of Mr. Stuart, who was tried on the tenth of June, 1822, before the High Court of Justiciary at Edinburgh, for killing Sir Alexander Boswell in a duel. Mr. Stuart was, of course, acquitted. He had been the aggrieved party; he had found it necessary to the vindication of his honor to call his unfortunate antagonist to account; he had been forced, by the cruel exaction of public opinion, to expose his life to the weapon of a man he had never offended, and who, indeed, in his heart, bore his involuntary murderer no malice; and public opinion, expressed in the verdict of a jury, knew better than to sentence to death the wretched victim of its own brutal and unwarrantable edicts. Fortunately for the interests of humanity, we have at length reached a period when it becomes unnecessary to protest vehemently against the iron rule of an authority more despotic than that of absolute kings, and far more cruel and oppressive than the laws which but a few years ago attached the penalty of death to the commission of almost pardonable offences. Society, with the acquirement of other useful knowledge, has learned to appreciate the iniquitous folly of murder perpetrated in cold blood, without the slightest excuse. The nation which above all the countries of the world takes credit for adapting its laws to the requirements of a rapidly advancing civilization, has had courage to inquire why the savage vestige of an exploded system should still dishonor its history and interfere with its social progress. Duelling, as part and parcel of the national manners, has ceased in England. No doubt random shots will yet from time to time be heard, and weakness in its despair will occasionally seek refuge in cowardice, which it mistakes for valor; but the mind of the majority is made up. Duelling henceforth must be the exception, not the rule. Public opinion will harmonize with the law, and honor it. It will protect the injured, and hand over the offenders to the legitimate consequences of their own misdeeds. It will not call upon a man first to endure wrong, and then to lay bare his breast to the bullet of his aggressors.

"Our fathers were less fortunate than ourselves in this respect. Their dilemma was fearful. The law took no account of those delicate injuries under which sensitive honor pines, though no bruise or wound appears to indicate the mischief; and, in self-defence, refinement set up the bloodiest code brutality under the guise of chivalry could imagine or invent. A quiet gentleman, sitting from morning till night in his library, interfering with the pleasures and pursuits of none, amiable in every relation of life, a stanch friend, a fond husband, a devoted father, as useful a member of society as you might find in a day's journey, and obnoxious only to political opponents, who fear him more than he dislikes them, is called a 'liar,' a 'coward,' and a 'heartless ruffian.' He is nothing of the kind; he is proudly conscious of this fact; his accusers do not even believe it; the world—that portion of it in which he moves—is satisfied that he is a remarkable instance of truth, of courage, and extreme tenderness of spirit. The revilers have made a great mistake or committed a disgraceful outrage. In either case, since they are not amenable to law, you would think they might safely be left to acquire better information and improve their manners. Not a bit of it. The quiet gentleman's enemies have aimed a blow at his reputation. They are good shots—which unfortunately he is not—and now they must aim another at his life; society 'allows it,' and society 'awards it.' The quiet gentleman makes his will, kisses his children, shuts up his books, sighs, and 'goes out.' The quiet gentleman is killed; a million men could not restore the life one man has taken. Society is distressed beyond expression; so is the murderer, who is all sorrow and tenderness for the departed. There is general weeping, and great unavailing regret, and much commiseration for the widow: and then a mock trial, and no end of speechifying, beautiful remorse on the part of the survivor, lovelier tributes to the memory of deceased, a verdict of not guilty, and a dismissal of the murderer and his accomplices into the world, which is worthy of them as they are worthy of it. The picture represents a common event of the time of George the Third. Let us confess that, degenerate as we are, we have changed, in some respects, for the better since those 'good old days!'"

"Let us also bear in mind the main cause of our improvement! It is due to the majesty of law, to state that, had she been less faithful, society would have grown more reckless. Public opinion and the law of the country have had a hard fight for the mastery, and had the latter given way but an inch, the former would have found us to-day in the hands and at the mercy of the bullies. Judges have never hesitated to declare that murder which juries by their verdicts have as perseveringly regarded as justifiable homicide. In vain have eloquent counsel risen to prove that the prisoner bore his antagonist no ill-will; that he did not 'wickedly and maliciously' challenge his victim to fight; that he had recourse to the sole means within his power to right himself with the world; that society would have branded him eternally for a coward had he held back; that he took up his weapon in self-defence precisely as a man levels his gun at the house-breaker or the midnight assassin;—the expounder of the law has still been proof against sophistry which, once accepted, must tend inevitably to social disorganization. The deliberate resolution to kill a fellow-creature has nothing to do with self-defence. To destroy another in cold blood is murder in the sight of the law, and can assume no other aspect. But what availed it that the judge stood firm by the statute, when juries as pertinaciously backed the sentiment of the world and refused the law permission to take its course? It availed much. The unseemly conflict has been carried on until at length civilization has become shocked by the spectacle. The effect of the ever-recurring encounter is something worse than ridiculous. It has taken years to bring us to our senses, but we are rational at last. Public opinion exercises its good sense, and since it cannot bring the law into harmony with its desperate folly, deems it expedient to shape its own views in conformity with unbending law. To slay in a duel is to commit murder, though men do not hang for the crime. To be a murderer with benefit of clergy is but an odious and irksome privilege after all!

"Sir Alexander was the eldest son of Dr. Johnson's Boswell. The inimitable biographer was fortunate in his offspring. His sons inherited all the virtues of their father, and none of his foibles. The social good humor, the cleverness, the appreciation of learning, the joviality,—every good quality, in fact, of Bozzy was reflected in his children, who had the sense to discern and avoid the frailties that had rendered the sire ridiculous in his own day, and illustrious for all time. James Boswell, the youngest son of the biographer, an accomplished scholar, superintended several editions of his father's great work, and was held in high esteem by his contemporaries. He was a Commissioner of Bankrupts when he suddenly died in London, in the prime of life, on the 24th day of February, 1822. Sir Alexander, who had been created a baronet in 1821, attended his brother's funeral in London, and returned to Scotland to meet his own death immediately afterwards. Sir Walter Scott, warmly attached to both, was, we are informed, much affected by the unexpected death of the baronet, who had dined with the novelist only two or three days before the catastrophe, and, as usual, had been the life and soul of the party assembled. 'That evening,' writes Mr. Lockhart, 'was, I think, the gayest I ever spent in Castle-street; and though Charles Matthews was present and in his best force, poor Boswell's songs, jokes and anecdotes had exhibited no symptom of eclipse.' Four years afterwards Sir Walter dined in company with Charles Matthews again. The event is commemorated by a singular and characteristic entry in Scott's Diary. 'There have been odd associations,' he writes, 'attending my two last meetings with Matthews. The last time I saw him before yesterday evening, he dined with me in company with poor Sir Alexander Boswell, who was killed within a week. I never saw Sir Alexander more. The time before was in 1815, when John Scott, of Gala, and I, were returning from France, and passed through London, when we brought Matthews down as far as Leamington. Poor Byron lunched, or rather made an early dinner with us at Long's, and a most brilliant day we had of it. I never saw Byron so full of fun, frolic, wit, and whim; he was as playful as a kitten. Well, I never saw him again. So this man of mirth has brought me no luck.'

"Sir Alexander had made the final arrangements for his duel the very day he dined with Sir Walter. The circumstance in no way interfered with the flow of spirits of a man who had, indeed, invited a violent death by nothing more criminal than an over indulgence of ill-directed mirth. The details of the duel are of the usual kind. In the early part of 1821, a newspaper called the Beacon, destined not to survive the year, was set up in Edinburgh in the Tory interest. The object of the publication was to counteract the effect of Radical doctrines, which were making great way in the northern metropolis under favor of the agitation that had been set up on behalf of Queen Caroline. Sir Walter Scott himself had been consulted upon the propriety of establishing the journal, and had offered with others to help it by a gift of money at starting. The Beacon served any purpose but that of directing the public mind in the path desired. The management of the paper, with which by the way the law officers of the Crown foolishly connected themselves, was in all respects disastrous. The proprietors shrank from the responsibility which the bitter invective and satire of the more youthful and unscrupulous editors hourly accumulated on their shoulders; the articles of the paper were made the subject of Parliamentary discussion; and to avoid consequences which it was not difficult to anticipate, the concern, which had opened with flying colors in January, was suddenly and ignominiously shut up for ever in August.

"Glasgow took up the weapon which Edinburgh dropped. A newspaper appeared in the former city as the avowed defender of the cause and assailant of the persons previously upheld and attacked by the defunct Edinburgh journal. The Sentinel, as the Glasgow paper was called, would hold his ground though the Beacon was put out. It is much easier to bequeath hatred and rancor than to communicate talent and genius. The Sentinel was abusive and licentious enough, but it had little to recommend it on the score of ability. The Beacon had made a personal attack upon Mr. Stuart, a gentleman connected with some leading Whig families, and the Sentinel, in pursuance of its vocation, fastened upon the same luckless gentleman. The libel of the Edinburgh journalist had been arranged. Mr. Stuart found out its author, and libeller and libelled were prevented from doing further mischief by being bound over to keep the peace. To keep the peace, however, in those days was to be wanting in the very first element of chivalry, and, accordingly, Mr. Stuart was pronounced by the Sentinel a 'bully,' a 'coward,' a 'dastard,' and a 'sulky poltroon.' Furthermore, he was 'a heartless ruffian,' 'a white feather,' and 'afraid of lead.' To vindicate his character Mr. Stuart raised an action of damages, and, curiously enough, he was twitted in the very court of justice to which he appealed for protection, for not having recourse to the hostile measure which in his despair he at last adopted, and for pursuing which he was tried for his life. Abuse went on in spite of the action of damages; Mr. Stuart finally addressed himself to the agent for the printer of the newspaper, and the agent gave up the manuscripts from which the libels had been printed. Mr. Stuart went to Glasgow to inspect them. He discovered his assailant. The author of the worst calumnies against him was Sir Alexander Boswell, 'a gentleman with whom he was somewhat related, and with whom he had never been but upon good terms.' Mr. Stuart appealed to a friend. He called in the advice of the Earl of Roslyn, who obtained an interview with Sir Alexander Boswell, to whom he submitted two propositions. One was, that the baronet should deny that the calumnies were his; the other, that Sir Alexander should confess that the libel was but a poor joke, for which he was sorry. 'I will neither deny nor make apology,' answered Sir Alexander.

"A duel was now a matter of course. Sir Alexander left a paper behind him, confessing that the meeting was inevitable, and Mr. Stuart made all his preparations for death. One stands amazed in the presence of such horrible play, such terrific childishness. The parties met; they fired together, and Sir Alexander fell. Boswell, who would not allow that he had written a squib, proudly fired in the air; Mr. Stuart took no aim, and yet killed his man. When the deed was done, the murderer, frantic, and 'dissolved in all the tenderness of an infant,' reproached himself with exquisite simplicity that he had not taken aim, 'for if he had, he was certain he would have missed him!' whilst the dying man expressed a corresponding anxiety lest 'he had not made his fire in the air appear so decided as he could have wished.' So men speak and act who take leave of their reason to play the fool in the high court of honor! A line tells the rest of the history. Sir Alexander is removed from the field and taken to the house of a friend. Mr. Stuart flies to the house of his friend, runs into a room, shuts the door, sits down in agony of mind, and bursts into tears. In due time he is put on his trial for murder, the jury unanimously find him Not Guilty, and Lord Chief Justice Clerk congratulates him on the verdict, although five minutes before he had deliberately stated that 'duels are but illustrious murders,' and that 'no false punctilio or notion of honor can vindicate an act which terminates fatally to another fellow-creature.'"