Assassinations of British prime ministers have been exceptionally scarce since the days of Walpole, and in almost three centuries of British politics, only one chief minister of government has been killed by an assassin. His name was Spencer Perceval, and the man who took his life was a Liverpudlian named John Bellingham.
Spencer Perceval was born in 1762, the second son of the second Earl of Egmont. He was educated at Harrow and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he graduated as Master of Arts in 1781. In 1783, Perceval's mother, the Baroness Arden, suddenly died, and left her fortune to her eldest son. Young Perceval struggled on, and studied hard to learn law at Lincoln's inn. In 1786, he was called to the Bar, and soon obtained a reputation as a diligent and brief-hungry barrister. He also displayed a talent for voicing his strong political views, and in 1796 he entered Parliament as the member for Northampton and became an ardent supporter of the Tory prime minister William Pitt. When Henry Addington succeeded Pitt as premier in 1801, he persuaded Perceval to join the new government as Attorney General. Perceval worked hard at his new job, and when Pitt formed his second administration in 1804, Perceval still kept his position. In 1807, the Duke of Portland became prime minister in the House of Lords, and Spencer Perceval was made the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and in those times that meant that he was also the Leader of the House of Commons. In 1809, King George III, who thought so highly of the new Leader of the Commons, he called him, 'The most straightforward man I have ever known,' asked him to become Prime Minister, and Perceval accepted.
In the Spring of 1812, a 42-year-old bankrupt Liverpool insurance-broker and exporter named John Bellingham entered a gunsmith's shop in the Strand, London, and bought two pistols and ammunition for four guineas. Bellingham then left the gunsmith's and headed for the wide-open spaces of Primrose Hill for a bit of shooting practice, before returning to his lodgings in New Millman Street.
Bellingham was a bitter and disillusioned man. He had once been in the lucrative business of exporting timber to Russia, but had lost everything when a business contact went bankrupt. Unable to pay the resulting mammoth debts, Bellingham was thrown into prison. Upon his release he visited Russia and complained to the authorities there with such vigor that they imprisoned him. Bellingham repeatedly wrote to the British Ambassador to intervene on his behalf and secure his release, but the ensuing tangle of British and Russian red tape achieved nothing, and Bellingham remained in the cold Russian prison cell for months.
When he was finally released, Bellingham returned to England and began a feverish campaign to get his case reviewed and to receive compensation. He wrote countless indignant letters to his MP and even informed the Prince Regent of his unjust incarceration. But all the protests came to nothing, and no redress was given. On one occasion, Bellingham stormed into Whitehall and demanded action, but he met a wall of unsympathetic officialdom. At the top of his voice told one Whitehall official that he was going to take legal action against the government because of the neglect it had shown, and the official roared back, 'Go to the Devil!'
So John Bellingham decided to vent his anger at British bureaucracy by shooting the Prime Minister, preferably in the midst of the House of Commons and in the presence of all it's members. But first Bellingham would have to do a spot of reconnoitering at the scene of the intended crime, so he made it his daily habit to visit the Commons, where he lurked about the Central Lobby, observing the route the Prime Minister took when entering the Chamber. He also became a frequent visitor to the Commons coffee room.
And now for a supernatural twist to this tale...
On the night of 3 May that year, a Mr John Williams, who was a banker of Redruth in Cornwall, had a vivid dream in which he found himself standing in the lobby of the House of Commons. In this dream he saw a small man dressed in a blue coat and white waistcoat enter the lobby. Moments later, another man in a snuff-coloured coat with yellow metal buttons suddenly drew a small pistol and fired it at the man in blue. The dream was so realistic that the dreamer could actually discern the ball from the pistol striking the left side of the victim's chest, where it left a little neat spot.
Shocked at the incident, the dreamer turned to a group of people in the lobby and asked them who had been shot, and someone replied that the victim was the Prime Minister, Spencer Perceval. The group of bystanders then charged at the murderer to apprehend him.
At this point in the dream, Mr Williams awakened and gave an account of the strange dream to his wife. She assured him that it was only a bad dream and Mr Williams went back to sleep. Almost immediately, the same dream replayed in his mind, and Mr Williams woke up feeling quite uneasy, and told his wife that he had just experienced the same dream about the assassination of Perceval. Mrs Williams assured him that it was only a nightmare an nothing more. Mr Williams turned over and later went back to sleep for a third time, and the same dream of assassination returned to haunt him.
On the following, Mr Williams began to think about the significance of the recurring dream, and wondered if he ought to travel to London to warn Mr Perceval. Later, at work he related the events of the bad dream to several business acquaintances and asked them for advice. His friends told him that he would be ridiculed as a madman if he were to go to London on the strength of a mere dream, so Mr Williams decided not to go to the capital, but all the same, he scanned The Times newspaper each day to see if there had been any shooting incidents at Westminster.
On the afternoon of Monday, 11 May, Spencer Perceval left Number 10 Downing Street and, seeing it was a pleasant sunny day, he dismissed his carriage and decided to walk to the House. At around 5.15 p.m., Perceval entered the lobby of the House, and a few seconds later, Bellingham drew his pistol from his right-hand breeches pocket. He stepped out from behind a pillar, raised his pistol, aimed at Perceval, and in full view of all the constituents, he fired. The ball blasted a small neat hole in the left side of the Prime Minister's chest. Perceval cried, 'Murder!' and staggered three paces, fell on his side, then hit the floor face-down. Mr Goodiff, an Officer of the House attacked the assassin and grabbed his arm. He asked Bellingham if he shot the Prime Minister, and the Lancashire businessman replied, 'I am the unhappy man who ha shot Mr Perceval. My name is John Bellingham. I know what I have done. It was a private injury, a denial of justice on the part of the government.'
Bellingham was instantly recognized by Sir Banastre Tarleton and Mr Gascoyne, two Liverpool MPs who were in the Lobby at the time. Gascoyne also sprung upon Bellingham and twisted his arm while someone removed the smoking pistol from his hand. The assassin was then body-searched, and the second pistol was found on him.
Meanwhile, Perceval was carried into the nearby office of the Speaker's secretary and laid on a sofa. When Doctor Lynn of Great Smith Street arrived ten minutes later, he found he could do nothing; Spencer Perceval was dead.
All the doors of the House were locked and Bellingham was taken along several private passages to the prison rooms in the upper storeys of the Commons, where he was interrogated by the Cabinet council for over seven hours.
Perceval's body was taken to his wife and five children, who were devastated by the killing. News of the murder traveled quickly across the nation, and there were many in the upper echelons of British society who believed that the assassination was but the starting shot of the long-awaited British Revolution. The paranoid aristocrats remembered the revolution across the English Channel in France that had taken place a little over two decades ago and shuddered. The social unrest among the poverty-stricken lower classed because of the introduction of machines into the workplace seemed ready to explode any day, and the riotous activities of the Luddites were become more organized. To make matters worse, the country's economy was at an all-time low because of the astronomical costs of the Napoleonic War. But one individual who learned of the assassination was more dumbfounded than shocked. He was John Williams of Cornwall, the man who had mysteriously foreseen the shooting in a recurring dream. Williams immediately traveled to London and purchased a coloured etching of the Prime Minister's murder. He was astounded when he examined the printed picture, because every detail depicted was identical to the details he had witnessed in his dream, from the colours of the coats and the exact position of the gunshot wound in the chest, to the facial features of the petite Perceval and tall, aquiline-nosed Bellingham.
One hundred and sixty-eight years after the Perceval assassination, another prominent figure was assassinated, but this time a Liverpudlian man was not the assassin, but the victim of one, and this killing was also said to have been foreseen.
On 8 September 1980, an American psychic named Alex Tanous was being interviewed by Lee Spiegel for NBC Radio's Unexplained Phenomena show. The interview was going out live and was being held in the office of the American Society for Psychical Research, which is located on West 73rd Street in New York City.
Spiegel asked Tanous to prove his alleged powers of second sight by making a prediction, preferably one that would be of particular interest to the radio station's audience, who belonged to the eighteen to thirty-five age group. Tanous paused for a moment, as if concentrating, then said, 'A very famous rock star will have an untimely death, and this can happen from this moment on. I say 'untimely' because there is something strange about this death, but it will affect the consciousness of many people because of his fame. The star will be foreign-born but living in the United States.'
After uttering this prediction, Tanous glanced through the windows of his office at the building opposite - a superior high-rise known as the Dakota Apartments.
Three months later, on the night of 8 December, a limousine pulled up outside the Dakota Apartments at 10.50 p.m., and Yoko Ono left the vehicle. Her husband John Lennon followed her a few moments later, clutching several reels of tape from a recording session he'd been working on. As John walked under the archway leading to the Dakota building, he heard a voice behind him call out, 'Mister Lennon.'
John turned to see tubby 25-year-old Mark Chapman, crouched in a combat stance, a mere twenty feet away with a .38 Undercover Special handgun pointing at him. A heartbeat later, Chapman pumped four hollow-point bullets into one of Liverpool's most famous and adored sons. The songwriter who had urged the world's leaders to 'Give Peace A Chance' staggered up the steps of the building's entrance and fell flat on his face. Minutes later, John Lennon was placed on the back seat of a police car which rushed him to the nearest hospital with its roof-lights flashing and siren screaming. As the police car jumped the traffic lights on Broadway, police officer James Moran, who had been a keen Beatles fan in his youth, leaned back and talked to John Lennon in a vain attempt to keep him conscious. Moran was deeply shocked at the shooting, but to his dying idol he managed to say, 'Are you John Lennon?' With his life rapidly ebbing away, John faintly replied, 'Yes.'
And that was the last word John Lennon uttered. He was the 701st person to be gunned down in New York City that year.
Chapman is currently serving a 'twenty years to life' sentence at Attica State Prison in northern New York State. He is kept in solitary confinement to prevent any of the prison's other 2,000 inmates from attacking him. He may be eligible for parole around the year 2001. Chapman's motive for killing the ex-Beatle is still unclear. The official theory was that he was simply a psychotic Lennon fanatic trying to make a name for himself, but there is something more sinister about the killing. Chapman was dismissed as a "lone nut" - the same expression that was used to describe Lee Harvey Oswald seventeen years earlier in Dallas. In fact the murder of John Lennon has several striking parallels with that of John F. Kennedy. When Lennon's body was taken to the morgue, the gunshot wounds in the cadaver were so close together that one pathologist remarked, 'Good shot group' - which is a firing-range term used by the police and the military to describe skilled marksmanship. Yet Chapman was said to be a novice with firearms. But the grouping of the gunshot wounds in Lennon's body was so tight that pathologists at the morgue got mixed up trying to count them as they conducted their post-mortem.
The assassin's choice of weapon - the Undercover Special - known on the street as a "Saturday Night Special", is an extremely reliable gun. It is deadly accurate and never jams or misfires, yet it is small and sleek enough to fit into the back pocket of your jeans. In may 1972 would-be assassin Arthur Bremner used one to blast Alabama Governor George C. Wallace. The bullet that impacted into the politician's spine left him wheelchair-bound for life.
Besides the mystery of Chapman's expert choice of weapon and his inexplicable marksmanship, there is the fuzzy account of the killer's journey from his home in Honolulu to New York that just doesn't stand up to the most cursory examination. According to the official version of events, Mark Chapman persuaded his wife to take out a loan of two and a half thousand dollars from her employer's credit union, and without her knowledge he used this sum to finance the assassination. He bought his well-chosen gun and dumdum bullets, and flew overnight from Honolulu to New York on a United Airlines plane. But the distinguished British barrister Fenton Bresler, who researched the Lennon murder for eight years, unearthed a plethora of sinister missing links. Firstly, he discovered that United Airlines had no direct flights from Honolulu to New York. One actually has to fly by way of Chicago. Chapman did not mention this. Further investigations made by Bresler convinced the barrister that the killer spent three unaccounted for days in Chicago.
Bresler got in touch with the New York County district attorney's office and told them about the three 'missing' days, but they denied that the facts had any substance. Bresler believes that the days in question from 2 to 5 December - were covered up by the authorities. During that period, he claims, Chapman was being 'programmed' to kill by the CIA with brainwashing drugs and repeated hypnotic suggestion. Is Bresler right? Was there a top-level conspiracy to assassinate John Lennon? Let us examine some less-publicized facts about the late ex-Beatle. The FBI and the CIA had files on Lennon dating back to the 1960s that detail the star's participation in antiwar demos. There are two reports in one dossier on Lennon for May 1972 with the heading 'Revolutionary Activities'. The FBI and CIA apparently saw Lennon as a cult-like leader who had the latent ability to overthrow the established government of the United States; a political subversive who could easily produce a stirring song along the lines of 'Power to the People' to incite millions of Americans to demonstrate against the reactionary policies of the newly-elected president Ronald Reagan. As early as 1972, Lennon knew he was under constant surveillance. He said at the time to reporters, 'I'd open the door. There'd be guys on the other side of the street. I'd get into my car, and they'd be following me in a car. Not hiding. They wanted me to see that I was being followed.'
By September 1973 Lennon's telephone was bugged, a fact to which even the Justice Department later admitted. In December 1975, Lennon said, 'We knew we were being wire-tapped. There was a helluva lot of guys coming in to fix the phones.'
In the light of these cloak-and-dagger details, Bresler's conspiracy theory seems less outlandish. Furthermore, the week John Lennon was shot, he was due to fly to San Francisco to participate in a rally for Japanese-American workers on strike. He was so enthusiastic to get to the demonstration, he had already bought the airline tickets.
In November 1992, Mark Chapman broke his silence over the Lennon murder when he agreed to be interviewed by American television reporter Barbara Walters in Attica State Prison. Chapman dismissed the commonly held belief that he had killed John Lennon to become famous. He also told Walters that he was horrified by the amount of fanmail he regularly received from people wanting his autograph.
'That tells you something is truly sick in our society,' Chapman told Walters in a broken voice.