Everyone knew John Freeman and they knew him for all the right reasons. He was one of Melbourne’s model citizens, a respectable churchwarden who had married an impoverished widow with two young children. He was the sort of neighbour who was totally dependable.
What no one knew was that Freeman’s real name was Edward Oxford and that he had been shipped to Australia on account of his criminal past. Twenty-seven years earlier, he had attempted – and very nearly succeeded – in assassinating Queen Victoria.
His attempt on the young queen’s life had gripped the nation when it first became public. What made it so fascinating was the fact that it was born out of a bizarre fantasy that had spun wildly out of control.
The young Edward Oxford was an unemployed drifter with an unhealthy interest in guns. He had first conceived of shooting the queen in the spring of 1840, when he saw her taking one of her evening carriage drives. He noticed that she and Prince Albert travelled in an open phaeton and were rarely accompanied by more than two outriders. He thought how easy it would be to shoot her.
What began as an idle fantasy rapidly became an obsession, one that preyed on his mind. He was particularly excited to learn that the queen was four months pregnant with her first child. If he succeeded in killing her, then he would also kill her heir.
The queen certainly presented an easy target for someone as proficient in shooting as Oxford. Some months earlier he had lost his job as a waiter: ever since, he had spent his time at the shooting galleries in the Strand and Leicester Square.
A week before the assassination attempt, Oxford took himself to a shop in Lambeth owned by a former school friend named Gray. He bought fifty copper percussion caps and asked Gray where he could buy bullets and gunpowder. His old friend sold him powder and told him where he could get ammunition. Oxford soon had everything he needed.
At around 4pm on 10 June, he took up position on a footpath close to Constitution Hill. After a long wait, he heard the sound of horses’ hooves. It was the queen and her husband, Prince Albert. As expected, they were riding without guards.
As their phaeton passed his hiding place, Oxford stepped from the shadows and fired both his pistols in rapid succession. It was not immediately clear if the queen had been hit, for the horses reared up at the noise of the shots and then took off at high speed down Constitution Hill, carrying the queen’s carriage away from danger.
Horrified onlookers dragged Oxford to the ground and pulled the weapons from his hands. He made no effort to struggle nor to hide his attempt on the queen’s life. ‘It was I, it was me that did it,’ he said, somewhat incoherently.
He was arrested that same evening and charged with treason. Once in custody, he asked the police if the queen was injured. He was informed that she was unharmed.
The police found him unusually compliant when they interrogated him. Indeed he was happy to confess to his crime and willingly gave them his home address so that they could search the place. They found a locked casket containing a sword and scabbard, two pistol-bags, powder, a bullet mould, five lead balls and some of the percussion caps.
They also found details of an underground military society called Young England, complete with a list of officers serving in this clandestine organization. Each member was said to be armed with a brace of pistols, a sword, rifle and dagger. The police even unearthed correspondence between Oxford and his fellow members.
But once they investigated Young England more closely, it was found to exist only in Oxford’s fertile imagination. The society, its members and its rules were a complete fabrication.
Oxford’s Old Bailey trial was postponed for almost a month as police undertook a thorough investigation of his motives. They also searched the crime scene, but were unable to find the bullets that Oxford said he had fired. Now, he dramatically changed his story, saying that the guns had contained only gunpowder.
When the trial finally opened amidst huge publicity, Oxford seemed strangely detached. Witness after witness testified that he came from a long line of alcoholics with a tendency towards mental instability.
The jury eventually acquitted him on grounds of insanity. The queen was furious, but there was nothing she could do. Her only satisfaction was seeing him sentenced to be detained ‘until Her Majesty’s pleasure be known’.
Oxford spent the next twenty-four years in the lunatic asylum of Bethlem in south London. He proved a model prisoner: courteous, friendly and obliging. He taught himself French, German and Italian, along with Spanish, Greek and Latin. He also spent his time drawing, reading and playing the violin, and was later employed as a painter and decorator within the asylum. No one could quite believe that this was the same man who had tried to kill the queen.
In 1864, he was transferred to Broadmoor, by which time it was clear he was a danger to no one. He was finally released in 1867, on the condition that he should leave for one of the Empire’s overseas colonies and never return. He was given a new alias, John Freeman, and duly shipped to Melbourne where he married a local widow. He became a regular churchgoer and wrote newspaper articles highlighting the state of the city slums.
His wife remained in total ignorance of his criminal past: she went to her grave unaware that her husband had once been the most notorious criminal in Great Britain.
This article is an extract from Giles Milton’s, Fascinating Footnotes From History (John Murray, 2015). To find out more about Giles, visit www.gilesmilton.com.
This article was first published on HistoryExtra in October 2015.