“I used to be psychic, but I drank my way out of it” – Mark E. Smith
The Right Honorable Spencer Perceval (1762-1812) has the dubious distinction of being the only British Prime Minister ever assassinated. Sadly, he wasn’t even the preferred target of the assassin John Bellingham, who would really rather have shot the British ambassador to Russia, but had to settle for a target of opportunity. Sadder still is the fact that a completely unrelated Cornish mine manager had a vision of the whole affair eight days before it happened in one of the best know presentiments in English history, and wrestled with the notion of warning the doomed Prime Minister, opting to keep his mouth shut, with obvious dire consequences for Perceval. On the other hand, Perceval himself had a keen interest in clairvoyance and appears to have had his own premonition regarding his imminent murder. The universe must sometimes get very frustrated with our thickheadedness, when it’s just trying to do us a solid.
In the midst of the crisis that led to this war, the Prime Minister, while on his way from Downing Street to the House of Commons on the afternoon of 11th May 1812, was stopped in the street by a Member of Parliament and asked to hurry to an urgent debate. Perceval, who had always been interested in prophecies and had written a pamphlet and some articles on the subject, appears to have had a premonition that his death was near, for he had made his will and gave it to his wife, mumbling something about his ‘impending fate’ (Minney, 1963, p170).
John Bellingham was a Huntingdonshire native, raised in London, and spent many years working as an import/export agent in Arkhangelsk, Russia. In 1803, a Russian ship owned by Soloman Van Brienen and insured by Lloyds of London had been lost at sea, but an anonymous letter was sent to the insurers suggesting the ship had been purposefully sabotaged in some kind of insurance scam. Van Brienen suspected Bellingham had written the letter and called in a 5000 ruble debt on Bellingham, who could not afford to pay. The Russian authorities were not about to let him leave the country to avoid payment, and revoked his travel credentials, essentially trapping him in Arkhangelsk. On top of that, Van Brienen had some sway with the local Governor-General and managed to get Bellingham tossed into a Russian jail several times. Bellingham eventually managed to petition the Tsar and was allowed to return to England in 1809. Between 1809 and 1812, Bellingham repeatedly petitioned the British government for compensation he felt due to him over his Russian imprisonment. Relations with Russia had been severed in 1808, so the government refused to get involved, and a clerk at the Foreign Office in April 1812 blithely suggested Bellingham was welcome to, “take whatever measures he thought proper”. Bellingham bought two pistols.
Meanwhile, John Williams (with no personal connection to either Perceval or Bellingham) was having a series of disturbing dreams that he told to many friends at the time, and related in his own words in 1812.
About the second or third day of May, 1812, I dreamed that I was in the lobby of the House of Commons (a place well known to me). A small man, dressed in a blue coat and white waistcoat, entered, and immediately I saw a person whom I had observed on my first entrance, dressed in a snuff-coloured coat with metal buttons, take a pistol from under his coat, and present it at the little man above mentioned. The pistol was discharged, and the ball entered under the left breast of the person at whom it was directed. I saw the blood issue from the place where the ball had struck him, his countenance instantly altered, and he fell to the ground. Upon inquiry who the sufferer might be I was informed that he was the Chancellor, I understood him to be Mr. Perceval, who was Chancellor of the Exchequer. I further saw the murderer laid hold of by several of the gentlemen in the room. Upon waking, I told the particulars above related to my wife; she treated the matter lightly, and desired me to go to sleep, saying it was only a dream. I soon fell asleep again, and again the dream presented itself with precisely the same circumstances. After waking a second time, and stating the matter again to my wife, she only repeated her request that I would compose myself, and dismiss the subject from my mind. Upon my falling asleep the third time, the same dream, without any alteration, was repeated, and I awoke as on the former occasions in great agitation. So much alarmed and impressed was I with the circumstances above related that I felt much doubt whether it was not my duty to take a journey to London, and communicate upon the subject with the party principally concerned. Upon this point I consulted with some friends whom I met on business at the Godolphin mine on the following day. After having stated to them the particulars of the dream itself and what were my own feelings in relation to it, they dissuaded me from my purpose, saying I might expose myself to contempt and vexation, or be taken up as a fanatic. Upon this I said no more, but anxiously watched the newspapers every evening as the post arrived. On the evening of the 13th of May (as far as I recollect) no account of Mr. Perceval’s death was in the newspaper, but my second son, returning from Truro, came in a hurried manner into the room where I was sitting and exclaimed, “Oh ! father, your dream has come true. Mr. Perceval has been shot in the lobby of the House of Commons; there is an account come from London to Truro written after the newspapers were printed.” The fact was Mr. Perceval was assassinated on the evening of the 11th. Some business soon after called me to London, and in one of the print shops I saw a drawing for sale, representing the place and the circumstances which attended Mr. Perceval’s death. I purchased it, and upon a careful examination, I found it to coincide in all respects with the scene which had passed through my imagination in the dream. The colours of the dresses, the buttons of the assassin’s coat, the white waistcoat of Mr. Perceval, the spot of blood upon it, the countenances and attitudes of the parties present were exactly what I had dreamed – signed, John Williams (Sidgwick, 1888, p324-325).
Despite the fact that “there does not seem to have been any connection between Mr. Williams and Mr. Perceval, nor does there seem to have been any reason why it should have been revealed to him rather than to any one else” (Stead, 1921, p192-193), the actual events that transpired were a precise match for William’s prescient dreams. Williams had never actually seen Perceval in real life, nor had he been to the House of Commons, but a few weeks after the assassination, he visited London.
About six weeks after, Mr. Williams, having business in town, went, accompanied by a friend, to the House of Commons, where, as has been already observed, he had never before been. Immediately that he came to the steps at the entrance to the lobby, he said: ‘This place is as distinctly within my recollection in my dream as any in my house,’ and he made the same observation when he entered the lobby. He there pointed out the exact spot where Bellingham stood when he fired, and which Mr. Perceval had reached when he was struck by the ball, and when and how he fell. The dress, both of Mr. Perceval and Bellingham, agreed with the description given by Mr. Williams, even to the most minute particulars (Baring-Gould, p429).
Perhaps Williams was simply adhering to Karl Popper’s maxim, “We have become makers of our fate when we have ceased to pose as its prophets”, as he declined to warn Perceval of the existential threats communicated to him in his dreams. Existence is rarely so clear in its communications as it was with Williams, although were life not so evidently an exercise in absurdity, it might have considered contacting folks who actually had some closer acquaintance with Perceval or Bellingham if the intention was to affect some direct action. Or maybe this snarky little universe just wants to be able to say, “I told you so”.
Baring-Gould, S. 1834-1924. Cornish Characters and Strange Events. London: J. Lane, 1909.
Leadbeater, C. W. 1854-1934. Clairvoyance. 2nd ed. London: Theosophical Publishing Society, 1903.
Minney, R. J. 1895-1979. No. 10 Downing Street: a House in History. [1st American ed.] Boston: Little, Brown, 1963.
Stead, W. T. 1849-1912. Real Ghost Stories. New ed., London: Stead’s publishing house, 1921.
Panchadasi, Swami. A Course of Advanced Lessons In Clairvoyance And Occult Powers … Chicago, Ill.: Advanced thought publishing co., 1916.
Sidgwick, H. “On the Evidence for Premonitions”. Society for Psychical Research (Great Britain). Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research v5. London: Trübner and Co., 1888.