Sir Richard Croft (9 January 1762 – 13 February 1818) is best known as the obstetrician who attended Princess Charlotte during her fatal confinement in 1817. Her death affected him deeply and he committed suicide in the following year. My interest in him is that he was one of the doctors who attended Louis Bazalgette’s young son Evelyn. See my earlier blog entitled ‘The Sad Tale of Evelyn’s Arm’.
An interesting aspect of his death is that there are different versions of the circumstances which are less shocking, and which were probably put about by his family. A false account even appears in several books. For instance, in his book, Charlotte & Leopold: The True Story of the Original People’s Princess, James Chambers states that Croft, while attending a patient, went down to the library while the woman was in the early stages of labour, poured himself a drink and apparently, came across a gun belonging to the woman’s husband. He sat down in a wing chair, put the gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger.
The Times made an initial report on the inquest on Saturday, February 14, 1818, which contains several inaccuracies, even saying that it was his own servant who found him in the morning. This report is transcribed below.
Last night, at eight o’clock, an inquest was held at the house of Miss Cotton, of Wimpole-street, Cavendish-square, before Mr. Stirling, on the body of Sir Richard Croft, M.D.
[The people in attendance endeavoured to keep out our Reporter, not seeing that such an attempt to suppress the truth must lead to misstatements and misapprehensions ten times more injurious than the truth itself. With difficulty, however, the following circumstances were collected, which we lay before our readers, with the deepest regret for the fate of the unfortunate deceased.]
Sir Richard Croft, it appears, was sent for from the country, to attend on a Mrs. Thackerton [sic], a lady who resided at Miss Cotton’s, and who was in labour; Sir Richard was observed to be much depressed in spirits, as it was supposed, from fatigue and want of rest. Mrs. Thackerton being safely delivered, Sir Richard retired to bed at a late hour; but not getting up at his usual hour yesterday morning, his servant went to his chamber to call him, when a most shocking sight presented itself to him; the deceased lay upon his back, his head was shattered to pieces, and himself, the bed, and bed-clothes, covered over with blood; two pistols were lying near him, having been discharged through his head; medical aid was of no avail.
Verdict – Insanity
On the following Monday, February 16, 1818, The Times printed a leading article which conjectured about Sir Richard and his motives in some detail, but was still saying that the pistols was just lying around and were found by him accidentally.
It is with feelings of uncommon pain that we find ourselves obliged to wind up the melancholy affair at Claremont, by relating the violent death of SIR RICHARD CROFT, the accoucheur employed on that occasion. We have collected all the particulars which we are able. and have arranged them under their appropriate title: and we do not know that we can add much here. That the foundation of that malady under a paroxysm of which Sir RICHARD died, was laid in the death of our beloved Princess, there can be no doubt: the habitual anguish of mind also to which he has been subject since that melancholy event, was increased by a labour affording similar symptoms, by extreme lassitude from constant attendance, and by apprehension of a similar result. It was most unlucky that, in such a state of irritated feelings and enfeebled reason, the instruments of destruction should have been accidentally found within the reach of the victim: but it is very clear from all the evidence on the Coroner’s inquest, that Sir RICHARD was not an accountable being when he committed the rash act: the occurrence will, however, continue to occasion no small conversation. The professional skill of Sir RICHARD has ceased now to be a matter of interest, as his family have no longer to live by it, and it may, therefore, be freely criticised. We, however, have yet seen nothing to convince those who judge otherwise than by the event that his essential qualities were inferior to his reputation: and we know that, however acute his feelings were respecting the death of the Princess CHARLOTTE, he always spoke, or appeared to speak, with the confidence of one who was assured of his having done all that could be done. He lamented the lamentable result (it now appears how deeply) but he never indicated any self-reproach, or ascribed any blame to himself. Whether under this bearing, there still lurked some unbetrayed feelings of inadequacy to the high occasion, we know that we can of course speak only of his outward person. The rumours which are in circulation respecting certain additional causes, beyond the grand one already known, for the commission of this unblessed act, are wild and extravagant enough: we have published them not simply because it is romantic. But a more substantial reason for the increase in dissatisfaction in Sir RICHARD’s bosom, was the diminution of his practice: and such an effect, springing from so painful a cause, and united also to wounded pride, and all the other poignant feelings above enumerated, may perhaps be thought sufficient to overturn the understanding of the unhappy man, without the inclusion of supposititious children or changeling Dukes.
In the same edition, the true inquest report was printed. In that, it becomes clear that Croft had planned his suicide for maybe a day or two, carrying around in his doctor’s bag the pistols loaded with ‘slugs and small shot’, which is a combination most calculated to blow one’s brains out.
INQUEST ON SIR RICHARD CROFT
We gave an account of this distressing occurrence on Saturday; but it was necessarily imperfect from the excluding of our Reporter. We therefore now subjoin a more detailed account from another journal:-
Sir Richard Croft was in his 57th year. Lady Croft, who survives him, has been for some time in a very delicate state of health. Her ladyship is a daughter of the late Dr. Denman, and sister of Mr. Denman, the barrister, who lately so distinguished himself on the late state trials at Derby. He has also left three sons and a daughter. One of the sons is in the army, in which he served with great eclat in the late war on the Continent.
Rumour has assigned another cause for the desperate act of the deceased – the shame arising from the discovery of a disgraceful act committed in his professional practice, at an early period of his life, in assisting in the substitution of a child to the injury of the rightful heir. But we notice this rumour solely for the purpose of contradicting it, as totally destitute of foundation, and unworthy of credit.
On Friday night, at 8 o’clock, an inquest was held in an apartment in the house of Miss Cotton, No 86 Wimpole-street, Cavendish-square, before Thomas Stirling, Esq., Coroner for Middlesex, on the body of Sir Richard Croft, M.D. aged 57.
The Rev. Dr. Thackeray, of Windsor, sworn: said, that he is husband to Mrs. Thackeray, and was on a visit to his sister-in-law’s (Miss Cotton’s) house since Sunday last. In consequence of her being taken ill, Sir R. Croft’s attendance was found necessary, and he attended her that night until about 11 o’clock, and conceiving that he was much fatigued, they prevailed upon him to retire to rest, which he did after many entreaties, at about twenty minutes after 11 o’clock on Thursday night. Witness retired to bed about the same hour, and Sir Richard appeared anxious to get up any time they might call him to attend on Mrs. Thackeray; she having exhibited symptoms of an approaching delivery. At about two o’clock in the morning, witness heard a noise, which he thought was like the falling of a chair, but took no further notice. The noise awoke witness, but he went to sleep again; and in about an hour afterwards, he was awoke by the servant maid, who knocked at the door, and told him that his wife was in labour. He went down stairs immediately, to knock at the door of the room deceased slept in, and found it on a jar: he could see into the room. Witness opened the door and went into the room, and found the deceased, Sir Richard, lying on the bed on his back; he held a pistol in each hand: the muzzles of both were at either side of his head. They had been discharged. He was quite dead; thinks he had been dead some time. Witness thinks that he died the instant he shot himself. He could have no intention of destroying himself when he went to bed, as he did not close the door of the apartment. Witness observed to the deceased before he went to bed, that he, witness, was in great agitation. Sir Richard answered, “What is your agitation, compared to mine?” and witness surmised at the time that he was suppressing his emotions. The deceased bled at the nose several times during his attendance. Mrs. Thackeray was safely delivered.
Mr. George Hollings, surgeon, of Green-street, Grosvenor-square, said, that he had observed a considerable alteration in the deceased’s state of mind and his manners for some time past; he had frequently seen him so melancholy, that it was quite distressing to witness it. He used to sigh very much, and his mind was so absorbed that he would not give answers to questions that were put to him: for the last ten says the deceased had been attending a patient who was in a dangerous state; and on witness conversing with him respecting her, deceased had thrown himself on the bed, and would violently strike his forehead as if his brain was very much agitated. He noticed him particularly on Tuesday night as he was attending a lady (a patient); he was so agitated that Dr. Warren asked him if he was ill? He answered in an incoherent manner, “No.” Witness is of opinion, that had a person been present when he had the pistols, he could have obtained no control over him; indeed he should have thought it very dangerous to have such weapons within his reach. A short time ago, witness was in company with the deceased, when he exclaimed abruptly, “Good God, what will become of me!” Witness positively believes the deceased was in a state of derangement at the time he committed the act.
[Here one of the jurymen asked Mr. Hollings, whether, in his opinion, the death of the Princess had been the exciting cause of his temporary derangement of intellect; or, whether he had observed his mind to be diseased previous to that melancholy and generally deplored event? – Mr. Hollings replied, that he had no doubt whatever of the insanity of the deceased having been caused by the unfortunate events at Claremont; that, previous to that time, he had never observed his mind to be disturbed. [In this opinion the other medical gentlemen fully concurred.]
Dr. Latham said, he observed a considerable agitation of late in the deceased; has known him many years, and has been of late frequently in his company. About three weeks ago witness dined with him, at his house in Old Burlington-street; and on witness enquiring after a patient of the deceased’s, he exclaimed, with great eagerness, “That he would give 500 guineas it was over, rather than having to attend her;” he fancying her in danger, but she was delivered safely. On Tuesday last Sir Richard came for witness, but he had left home. Sir Richard’s servant stopped him in the street, and requested, at his master’s desire, the witness would attend on another patient for him, who resided in Sloane-street. Witness repaired to Cadogan-place, Chelsea, and the family were much surprised that Sir Richard did not attend, when he had the case. At half past four on Friday morning, the Rev Dr. Thackeray requested witness to call at his house, and stated what had happened. Witness went immediately, and on entering the deceased’s sleeping-room, he found him lying on his back on the bed; he was quite dead and cold. Witness thinks he committed the rash act in a state of insanity.
Dr Baillie corroborated the above testimony.
At the conclusion of the evidence, the Coroner and Jury retired to take a view of the body of the deceased, which lay in an upper apartment, and was in a dreadful condition, the head being blown to pieces, and the deceased’s bed and bed-clothes being covered with blood; each hand grasped a pistol, which had been loaded with a slug and small shot; the contents entered at the temples. On a chair by the side of the bedstead on which the deceased lay were several of Shakespeare’s plays. The room was very small, and it appeared as if the deceased had been reading. One of the play-books lay inside the fender, and was entitled “Love’s Labour Lost.” One of the jury took up the book and noticed to his brother jury-men that one of the characters used the following expressions in the page which lay open on the hearth: “Good God! where’s the Princess?” The jury remarked this as a singular coincidence, and returned to the jury-room, where the Coroner (Mr. Stirling) summed up the evidence, and the jury, after a short consultation, returned a verdict of – “Died by his own act, being at the time he committed it in a state of mental derangement.”
Mrs. Thackeray, we are happy to state, was safely delivered about 8 o’clock on Friday morning, by Mr. Herbert, an occasional assistant of Sir R. Croft. The lady was kept ignorant of the fatal event, and is in a fair way of doing well.
It is obvious from these accounts that the death of the Princess made Croft terribly depressed, and he could not escape from this misery. There was no other solution for a man in that slough of desperation.
Sir Thomas Lawrence was given the unenviable task of sketching the dead man. He did a pretty good job considering that the head had been ‘blown to pieces’. Since he had known Croft, he was able to sketch him largely from memory.