Shooting Victoria? What kind of a title is that for a history?
Why would anyone take a potshot at the venerable (and vulnerable) mother of the British Empire, grandmother to half the royalty in Europe, that frumpish, kindly monarch who lent her name to an era even before she took her final bow?
Well, as it turns out, at least seven men were caught trying to put an early end to Queen Victoria's 63-year reign in separate assassination attempts. None was successful. But one crazed man did manage to put a walnut-sized knot in the tender lady's forehead.
The rest of her attackers could have played the part of the bad guy in American Western films. Somehow, even at close range, they always missed. And each time, the stoic German matron, who ruled over the worldwide British Empire, ignored them in public, while admitting back in the safety of Buckingham Palace that she was shivering in her boots.
There was one final attempt, known as the Jubilee Plot, aimed at wiping out Victoria and most of her extended family – along with a huge chunk of Westminster Abbey – at the royal celebration of her 50th year on the throne, but that plot was so bollixed by Irish Home Rulers that only a few London detectives even knew the plot was in the works.
This is the tale spun by Paul Thomas Murphy, the Victoriana expert from the University of Colorado, whose crisp prose reads more like that of a novelist than an academic with Oxford credentials.
Murphy, through extensive research into police and court documents, royal diaries and letters, and newspaper accounts of the day, manages to weave his tale of muddled assassination attempts into the background of both high and low London society in the second half of the 19th century.
On the high side, we see Victoria and Albert, with the first of their nine children, riding open carriages through cheering crowds at the gates of Buckingham Palace, up Pall Mall for tea with a cousin, or around the paths of Hyde Park and Green Lake. Ladies in waiting, dressed to the nines, were at her side, and horsemen with royal titles shielded her carriage.
Waving to the royals was the height of entertainment during this period when London was the world's No. 1 city, and Victoria was the best-known monarch in the West. Crowds waited anxiously each day for her carriage to leave the palace. What an easy target.
Murphy guides us through Victorian London to all the hangouts of 21st century tourists. It is enlightening to read how much – and how little – the city has changed in 150 years. Piccadilly is there. So is the new Paddington Station. Hyde Park already is the home of street-side orators, but Marble Arch hasn't moved there yet. It still marks an entrance to Buckingham Palace.
Murphy brings the titled upper crust of Westminster to life with all the pomp of a society with more money to spend than time to spend it.
A highlight of the early years is Royal Consort Albert's struggle to build the Crystal Palace for the Great Exposition in Hyde Park, to the annoyance of wealthy neighbors around the park. Such an exposition surely would attract the riffraff from all over Europe.
On the low side, Murphy describes Bethlem, the original Bedlam, and Old Bailey, the courthouse, where barristers in powdered wigs argued precedent-setting cases of high crimes and treason. He takes us through England's struggles with the insanity defense which led to the McNaughtan Rules, still studied today in U.S. law schools.
But Murphy's most vivid writing is his description of Newgate Prison, where London's most notorious criminals were hanged in full public view in the courtyard, only a stone's throw from St. Paul's Cathedral.
If you could spare a quid, you rented an apartment for the day with windows overlooking the scaffold. On hanging day, the courtyard was replete with vendors, and minor officials who spread herbs around the grounds to ameliorate the stench from the prison.
None of Victoria's assailants was hanged, so Murphy describes hangings that took place while her attackers awaited their own fate within earshot of the clamor.
As for the assassination attempts, which hold this huge volume together, Murphy treats each in great detail. Each would-be assassin is a different tale, with a different outcome, starting in 1840 when Edward Oxford fired two shoots at the royal couple, missing both times.
The queen was celebrated as a hero, and her assailant spent the rest of his life confined in various facilities for the insane.
A few years later, a theater hand tried his luck. His defense: "There was no ball in the pistol. It only flashed in the pan." He spent the rest of his life in Australia after being sentenced to Tasmania for disturbing the queen's peace.
This was a tough time for European royalty. Thirty years after Oxford's adventure, a teenager who thought he was an Irish freedom fighter – only the Irish didn't know it – tried to shoot the queen with a broken pistol. He earned a brief stay in Hanwell Asylum on the defense his pistol wasn't even loaded.
A furious queen retorted: "It easily might have been!"
In almost all cases, the perpetrator was described as insane, and the queen was portrayed as the heroic ideal of the monarchy.
Hundreds of thousands cheered her valor and pluck, and in true British fashion, newspapers proclaimed her true safety lay not in the few detectives protecting her, but in the hands of her loving London subjects, who would allow no harm to befall their beloved Victoria.
Edward Cuddihy is a retired Buffalo News managing editor.
Shooting Victoria: Madness, Mayhem, and the Rebirth of the British Monarchy
By Paul Thomas Murphy
Pegasus Books668 pages, $35