Under a bad spell

An Irishman’s Diary about the Pigott forgeries


It’s well known that he who hesitates is lost. But as a famous courtroom scene 125 years ago proved, there are times when hesitancy is strongly advisable. One of them is when a lawyer asks you to spell the word in writing.

The man on the stand was Richard Pigott, now and forever synonymous with the Parnell forgery incident. His cross-examiner was the Newry-born Charles Russell, who was about to provide a text-book example, still studied in law schools, of how to destroy the credibility of a lying witness.

Pigott should have practised hesitancy in more ways that one. In fact, reports suggest that he did pause, in worried confusion, when Russell began by asking him to write a number of specified words on a sheet of paper.

Then, disarmed by the questioner’s easy manner, the witness seemed to relax into the task. He was still relaxed when, in apparent afterthought, Russell asked him also to write the word “hesitancy”: adding, as Pigott put pen to paper again, that he should write it “with a small h”.

The small h was a distraction. It was the other end of the word Russell was after. And sure enough, when Pigott handed him back the sheet, he had written “hesitency”, as was his known habit.

So spelt, the word had appeared in a letter supposedly authored by Pat Egan, a former Fenian and future US diplomat but at the time closely associated with Charles Stewart Parnell.

That letter was one of a number published in 1887 by the Times of London, aimed at ruining the reputation of Parnell and his party by exposing their apparent support for violence, including the Phoenix Park murders.

Parnell had immediately denounced them as “bare-faced forgery”. But it was Egan who identified the “hesitency” as typical of Pigott, a former ally in the Irish nationalist cause and now its bitter enemy. Thus, a courtroom trap was set, and the witness stumbled into it.

The Times really should have known better than to fall for the work of such a forger. In its own crusade against Parnellism, however, it had ignored all warning signs.

Even before he launched his personal vendetta against one-time colleagues, Pigott had a very dubious reputation. The historian FSL Lyons described him (circa 1880) as being “a down-at-heel journalist who combined the propagation of pseudo-extreme nationalist opinions with sidelines in blackmail and pornography”.

By mid-decade, his politics had shifted, but he was in severe need of money and even less particular about how to earn it. Bad spelling aside, his other main tactical error was an attempt to leverage the impending letters crisis, prior to publication, in written correspondence with the Parnellite Archbishop of Dublin, William Walsh.

The archbishop refused to play along, but not before – by betraying his advance knowledge of the plot – Pigott left his opponents a smoking gun. He may have thought his correspondence with the clergyman was covered by the confessional seal. It wasn’t.

The archbishop passed it to Parnell’s legal representatives. And having first seduced the witness into swearing he had known nothing about the Times scoop until it appeared in print, Russell produced his correspondence with the Archbishop, to torturous effect.

During the most stressful part of his cross-examination at the 1889 judicial commission, the hapless Pigott was seen to have large beads of sweat running down his forehead. His increasingly desperate attempts to explain himself provoked much laughter and, among the more sensitive viewers, pity too.

After all, as Lyons wrote: “a hunted human being is not a comic figure”. (He also noted that Pigott had a young family to which he was devoted – “his sole redeeming feature”.)

In any case, masterly as it was, Russell’s cross-examination was never brought to conclusion. After a break for the weekend, it was scheduled to resume on Tuesday February 26th – 125 years ago today. The lawyer was then expected to go in for the kill. In the event, that proved unnecessary.

To the surprise of few, Pigott failed to show on Tuesday morning. He had already given an interview to the radical publisher Henry Labouchère, confessing all. Then he fled to France and Spain. By March 1st, when police caught up with him, he was booked into a Madrid hotel under the absurd name of “Roland Ponsonby”, still trying to salvage something from the disaster.

He was now wanted for perjury, of course. Cornered in his hotel room, he is said to have turned very pale and hesitated one last time, as if his nerve had deserted him. Then he recovered. When he muttered something about luggage and reached into a hold-all, it was the policemen’s turn to hesitate. Pigott, meanwhile, had grabbed a revolver, which he promptly turned on himself.



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