Wednesday, October 5, 2011

October 22, 1888 --- The Parnell Forgeries

A Special Parliamentary Commission opens hearings on charges that the Irish leader, Charles Stewart Parnell MP, is directly involved in violence against Crown forces.

The Times -unswerving in its antipathy to the gentleman from County Wicklow - had run a lengthy series entitled "Parnellism & Crime" including printed facsimiles of two letters signed by Parnell. In the first, the Irishman noted that his public disapproval of the Phoenix Park murders (see 6 May) was done purely for political motives; privately, he gloated that the slain Irish Secretary "got no more than his deserts." In the second and more incriminating letter, Parnell encouraged more violence, "This inaction is inexcuseable [sic] ... Let there be an end to this hesitency [sic]."

Parnell condemned both the letters as "villainous and bare-faced forgeries" and left it at that but both his supporters and enemies demanded a full inquiry. The letters had been acquired through Richard Pigott, an ex-editor from Dublin of dubious repute. An old colleague of Pigott’s, now settled in Nebraska, read an account of the proceedings and noted the misspelled words. He wired London: "Dick Pigott is the forger."

After weeks of hearings, Pigott (above) finally had center stage. Parnell's fearsome counsel, Sir Charles Russell, working from not much more than Pigott's inability to spell, soon left the forger in tears. During a weekend recess, Pigott fled London, leaving a signed confession, admitting he forged Parnell's signature against a window pane. He soon blew his brains out in a Madrid hotel room.

In his dramatic summation, Sir Charles, a quavering finger pointed at the table where sat The Times’ editors and their counsel, declared: “In opening this case I said that we represented the accused. My Lords, I claim leave to say that today the positions are reversed. We are the accusers; the accused are there!”  The Times insisted that the overall conclusions of their series had gone unchallenged but the newspaper’s reputation had been sullied and worse, £200,000 had been wasted in legal fees. The expense set the stage for a buyout of the paper by its hated rival, Lord Northcliffe.

Parnell got a rare standing ovation on his return to the Commons but his restored reputation was short-lived. (see 15 November).

Piggott, drawn by Spy, in Vanity Fair.

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