Wednesday, January 19, 2011

January 24, 1895 --- The Death of Lord Randolph Churchill

Lord Randolph Churchill dies in his Mayfair home after a long, public battle with the unmentionable disease, syphilis. The story varies. One version has it that Churchill contracted the disease while at Oxford: he awoke, after a night of revelry, in bed with an old whore with "one long yellow tooth in her top jaw that waggled as she spoke." Or was it a Parisian mistress?  Regardless, syphilis is a disease that destroys in stages, offering long periods of remission and apparent health.

The first serious onset came in 1881. A promising MP, Churchill was married and the father of two sons.  He quit public life for several months and, it is assumed, all physical relations with his wife as well.  The disease returned in 1886, the year when Churchill's career peaked as Chancellor of the Exchequer.  Ravaged by mood swings and heavily drugged with digitalis, Randolph's behavior became increasingly combative.  He vexed his colleagues and - over a minor point - suddenly resigned his office.  He was now being treated by a renowned London specialist, Dr Buzzard (!), but no treatment could halt his decline.  The resignation effectively ended any major role he might play in serious politics. 

After 1886, his infrequent appearances in the House of Commons were painful to behold.  After one such rambling, slurred effort, the Parliamentary correspondent for The Times stated that he had witnessed "nothing more tragical ... in our generation."  In Lord Rosebery's poignant phrase, Lord Randolph was "chief mourner at his own protracted funeral."  An 1894 world tour was disastrous. In Japan, Randolph tried to strangle his valet.  In India, his physical collapse was near total.  His final weeks in London were spent in great pain. 

When the end came, the cause of death was listed as "general paralysis of the insane," the unstated left understood.  Winston, his eldest son, recalls racing across snow-covered Grosvenor Square to reach his dying father's bedside.  Ever the defender of his father's memory, Winston Churchill died on the same date, seventy years later.

[Illustration from The National Portrait Gallery]


  1. Lord Randolph was a chain smoker, which undoubtedly contributed to his bronchial pneumonia. He also drank quite copiously. He worked frenetically hard, and suffered from exhaustion and what might be described as a kind of 'man flu'. But by nature he was brittle, moody, irascible, and tecthy, which tended to exaggerate his emotions and condemn himself to social-political scandals. However what is clear is that he might have survived had he given up smoking. The theory that he had syphillis is probably now disredited, and may have been an inaccurate contemporaneous diagnosis, that with the benefit of hindsight was without medical understanding. It may also be derivative of a wider term "general paralysis" that a more precise determination has come down to us. If indeed he had a tumor it would possibly have been as much the cause of drinking and smoking as sexual dalliance. Churchill's defence of his brother and conservative asperity decline an analysis of ribald philandering usually attributable to characters such as the libertine Prince of Wales. A military country family, the Churchill's were occasionally depressive, often colonial, and at times puritanical. Randolph's acerbic, argumentative personality was sparky, but his undoubted devotion to his wife is not suggestive of marital infidelity or whoring. This could not necessarily be said of some members of the royal family. Affairs were social death: and Sir Charles Dilke, a Liberal MP fell from grace through a much- publicised court case. Allegations could be ruinous and social death to a career. Randolph's deterioration in health was certainly precipitated by an unwise attempt to domineer Lord Salisbury. There is also a hint of unconventional wisdom in his American wife's republican heritage and Randolph's subsequent determination to reorganize the party's National Convention. The fall and lost income, coupled to sense to dejection from failure to rise to the challenge of the Exchequer broke his health for good.

    1. The Churchills were occasionally... There should be no apostrophe in Churchills. It is simply a plural, not a possessive.

  2. There appears to be a strenuous effort, in light of the patriotism and respect felt towards his son Winston, to airbrush away the cause of Randolph Churchill's premature death. All of the recorded symptoms, if presented to a physician today, would point to neurosyphilis. This was, sadly, the disease of its day. I'm not sure why people want to distort the truth - maybe they wouldn't want people questioning whether Winston's father had extra-marital relations. There was almost no public figures who didn't at this time; it was a given that men of power took mistresses. Or there may be those who would worry that Winston could then be impugned with charges of madness inherited from his father's illness as there is a genetic element with syphilis, but it seems clear that he was conceived prior to his father contracting the disease.

  3. Why is there not the possibility that Randolph contracted the disease from his wife? She was notably promisuous by nearly all accounts.

  4. Just saw "Young Winston" - a regularly re-run film on BBC - where the doctors asked Lord Randolph's wife(5 years before his death)whether she had recently had 'relations' with him. Relieved that she said no, they dissuaded her to have any in the future.. I imagine the film makers would have cleared that episode with the family, given its delicacy even today.