Born plain Charles Russell, in Newry, Co.Down, the man who would become Baron Killowen, and who would torment the infamous forger Richard Pigott in the witness box, in his defence of Charles Stewart Parnell, was one of five children. He was also the only sibling in the Russell family who did not enter the religious life. His three sisters all became nuns, his brother a Jesuit priest.
He was a highly successful Queen’s Counsel in London, a moderate nationalist MP, and rose to become Lord Chief Justice of England, the first Catholic to hold the office in centuries. However, it is for his forensic grilling of the dubious journalist, turncoat, and pornographer, Richard Pigott at the Times Commission hearings in 1889 that he is justly celebrated.
Pigott had fallen on hard times by the 1880s—he had, at one point, been a relatively prosperous newspaper proprietor who, in 1868, went to jail on a point of principle after a defence of the Manchester Martyrs in one of his newspapers. He had been affiliated to the Fenians, but accusations of his embezzlement of IRB funds put paid to that association. In 1881 he sold his newspapers to Parnell, but went through the four thousand pounds he received from the Land League, in short order.
Pigott had sold the Times a pup … at least twice over. He had passed on, for payment, a letter that suggested Parnell supported those who carried out the brutal Phoenix Park murders of the Chief Secretary of Ireland, Lord Frederick Cavendish, and the Under Secretary, Thomas H.Burke, in May 1882. Parnell vehemently denied the veracity of the letter. A Commission was established which, in essence, pitched the Times newspaper against Parnell, and most of the senior members of his party.
The letter in question, published in facsimile by the Times in April 1887, was one of a number that had been forged, quite cleverly, by Pigott himself. He had, however, left a couple of hostages to fortune in the material he had supplied to the Times. Pigott was not quite as literate as one might have expected a former newspaper editor to be. He was a dreadful speller. Observers who closely examined the cache of correspondence he had provided to the Times noted a couple of howlers. In one case, for example, he had spelt the word ‘hesitancy’ as h-e-s-i-t-e-n-c-y.
When he began his cross-examination of this crucial Times witness Russell puzzled the onlookers by handing Pigott a sheet of paper and asking him to write a number of words on it. One of those was ‘hesitancy’. He then casually took back the paper, glanced at it, and ignored it for most of the next two days.
Russell then proceeded to reduce Pigott to a gibbering wreck, catching him out in his elaborate system of deception. Before the future Lord Chief Justice was finished, most of the observers, and even the three learned presiding judges, had been reduced to tears of laughter, at Pigott’s many contradictions, and obvious lies.
Then, as a coup de grace, Russell returned to the mysterious page. After a few more barbed questions he pointed out that in one of the letters retained by the Times, and handed over to the defence under ‘discovery’, the word hesitancy had been mis-spelt. The erroneous spelling, he demonstrated, was precisely that chosen by Pigott the previous day, when asked to write the word on the enigmatic piece of paper. Pigott went a couple of stages beyond gibbering wreck, and no one in the court had the slightest doubt, but that he had forged all the letters upon which the Times depended to make its case.
Pigott fled shortly after the commission of inquiry adjourned, admitted his guilt in a letter to the tribunal, and shot himself dead in Madrid a few days later, in order to avoid arrest. Parnell subsequently sued the Times for defamation in a London libel court, and won £5000. In subsequent years, at public meetings, when a heckler wished to suggest that a platform speaker had ‘sold out’ or betrayed his cause, the aggrieved party would yell ‘spell hesitancy’ at the top of his voice.
Charles Russell, inquisitor extraordinaire, destroyed the credibility of the hapless forger, Richard Pigott one hundred and twenty-eight years ago, on this day.