Irish Legal Heritage: Richard Pigott and the Forgeries Commission

Irish Legal Heritage: Richard Pigott and the Forgeries Commission

Caricature of Richard Pigott
(By Leslie Ward, published in
Vanity Fair, 9 March 1889)

Richard Pigott was a journalist who worked with several nationalist newspapers across the island of Ireland, including the Ulsterman and the Nation. For most of his life, Pigott appeared to support the Fenian movement and had been imprisoned for seditious libels on the government during his career.

However, a falling out with members of the Land League ultimately led to Pigott’s demise.

In 1887, Pigott’s vendetta against Charles Stewart Parnell culminated in him selling forged letters to The Times which implicated Parnell in the 1882 murders of Lord Frederick Cavendish and Thomas Henry Burke in Phoenix Park.

On 18 April 1887, The Times published a letter which it had been given by an associate of Pigott, dated 15 May 1882 – nine days after the murders:

“Dear Sir – I am not surprised at your friend’s anger, but he and you should know that to denounce the murders was the only course open to us. To do so promptly was plainly our best policy, but you can tell him and all concerned that though I regret the accident of Lord Cavendish’s death I cannot refuse to admit that Burke got no more than his deserts. You are at liberty to show him and this and others whom you can trust also. But let not my address be known; he can write to the House of Commons. Yours very truly, Chas. S. Parnell” (emphasis added)

Parnell vehemently denied writing this letter and those that followed, and requested a Commission of three judges inquire into the allegations made against him as a member of parliament. Parnell and the others implicated in the letters also sued The Times for libel.

The Forgeries Commission opened its proceedings on 17 October 1888, and cross-examination of Pigott highlighted spelling mistakes (such as the one above) to which he was accustomed to making were the same in the forgeries. In February 1890, the Commission issued its report clearing Parnell and the others of having “any knowledge direct or indirect of the conspiracies which resulted in the Phoenix Park murders” – by which point, a disgraced Pigott had fled to Madrid and shot himself in a hotel room.

Seosamh Gráinséir

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