"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, September 7, 2020

Thomas Pitt, Georgian Era Holy Terror

"He was studious and reckless; scientific and hare-brained; tender-hearted, benevolent, and barbarous; unreasonably vindictive and singularly forgiving. He lived a humorous ruffian, with flashes of virtue, and died a hero, a martyr, and a Christian."
-Charles Reade, describing Thomas Pitt

It is often said that there is a fine line between genius and madness. It can also be argued that there is an even finer line between dashing rogue and out-of-control menace to society.

This brings us to the subject of today's post. Thomas Pitt, 2nd Baron Camelford, spent his brief life manically swerving between both sides of that particular divide.

Pitt was born into an exceptionally wealthy and influential Cornish family on February 19, 1775. His uncle, William Pitt, as well as William's namesake son, both served terms as Prime Minister. However, despite his grand heritage, Pitt had a lonely, desperately unhappy childhood. His family virtually ignored him practically from his birth, shuttling him off to various boarding schools in Britain and Switzerland, where his prestigious social position allowed him to do pretty much as he liked with no fear of contradiction. This appalling combination of lack of parental love and absence of official discipline does much to explain why the young man grew up with a decided feral streak.

At a very early age--perhaps as young as six--Pitt began a naval career. His curious gift for mayhem first emerged on the pages of history in 1791, when he was serving on HMS Discovery. The Discovery was on an important expedition bound for the Cape of Good Hope, and ending at Nootka Sound, off the coast of North America. During the voyage, Pitt continually made a seagoing pest of himself. The captain, George Vancouver, had him repeatedly flogged for various harebrained offenses (most notably wooing a girl in Tahiti by gifting her with iron he had stolen from the ship.) The boy's behavior was so uncontrollable that Vancouver finally threw up his hands and placed his unruly crewman in irons.

In 1793, his fellow sailors were undoubtedly relieved when Pitt's father died and Thomas was summoned home to assume his title and manage the family estate. Rather oddly, the new Baron paid little heed to the news. He continued serving on various ships for three more years before finally making his way to London. His proud, undisciplined spirit continued to nurse a grudge against Vancouver. He sent his former captain a challenge to a duel. Vancouver--by then a prematurely old, ailing man--sent a dignified reply stating that he had only followed his official duties. However, Lord Camelford was free to take his complaints to a naval board of inquiry.

Pitt was disgusted by such a tame method of righting his perceived wrongs. He went straight to Vancouver's house and verbally attacked him so viciously that the captain was genuinely terrified. Vancouver felt he needed some sort of protection from this aristocratic maniac, but realized that Pitt's wealth and social status left him virtually immune from any normal legal or civil actions. Not knowing what else to do, Vancouver made an appointment with the Lord Chancellor to discuss his quandary.

In a case of supremely unfortunate timing, while walking to meet the chancellor, he was spotted by Pitt. The Baron dashed over to the captain and began walloping him with a cane, an incident that became immortalized in a caricature drawn by Pitt's friend James Gillray. In a classic example of adding insult to injury, Gillray's drawing cruelly depicted Vancouver as a sniveling coward. Despite his long and meritorious naval career, this one cartoon turned the poor captain into a public laughingstock. (It must be said that Vancouver wound up having the last laugh. Before he died in 1789, he completed three large journals detailing his many voyages of discovery. When published, they became a massive success, insuring that he would go down in history as one of his nation's great mapmakers and explorers.) Thanks to his rank, after this fracas Pitt was merely bound over to keep the peace for one year and quickly hustled back to sea.

Pitt showed no signs of mellowing. In 1797, he shot to death two seamen who resisted his efforts to press them into his service. He also killed a fellow officer for perceived insubordination. He horsewhipped a storekeeper for poor service. His rank continued to protect him from serious punishment, but his commanding officer quickly had more than enough of Pitt and packed him back to England. Feeling he still had not had his share of trouble, Pitt decided to single-handedly invade France, which was then at war with Britain. This escapade led to his arrest on suspicion of spying, although it was soon realized that someone this nutty could hardly be acting as an espionage agent.

Pitt, strangely enough, was popular in many circles. Tall, with a slim, but muscular figure, the handsome, blue-eyed Baron was often seen as a charming swashbuckler rather than an antisocial menace. Disliking his family's ornate, if somewhat depressing home, he instead took up residence above a grocer's. He decorated his new abode with a variety of imposing-looking weaponry, and gave himself up entirely to his favorite occupations: boxing and feuding.

In 1799, he was fined for knocking a man down a flight of stairs. In January 1802, all of London put on an illumination to celebrate the recent peace with France. Every house in the city was sporting lit candles in their windows...every house, that is, except for Baron Camelford's. Evidently out of sheer perversity, Pitt flatly refused to take part in the festivities, and his residence remained stubbornly, insultingly dark. An outraged crowd soon gathered around his lodgings to launch an attack on the offender. The Baron gleefully marched out to face the mob alone.

It did not turn out well for him. Despite being armed with "a good stout cudgel, which he laid about him right and left," he was simply hopelessly outnumbered. The Baron found himself "rolled over and over in the gutter" until he finally staged a retreat, "for once in his life crest-fallen."

Later that same year, Pitt took it into his head to assassinate Napoleon. Before he could get very far in this particular whim, he was detained in Paris and packed back home.

Early in 1804, this astonishingly stormy petrel got into what would prove to be his last quarrel. He and an old friend, Thomas Best, got into some petty argument over a courtesan, which the pair--well-matched in hot-headedness--decided could only be settled by a duel. Best was a famed sharpshooter, but Pitt, characteristically, paid no heed to the danger. At dawn on March 7, the two met in a dewy meadow in Kensington. Camelford, who fired first, missed. Best responded with a shot that went through his adversary's body. Three days later, the Baron died from his injuries, at the age of only 29. One of his last acts was to leave written instructions ordering that Best not be punished for his death.

It is interesting, if ultimately pointless, to wonder what would have become of Pitt had he made old bones.   Hard as it may be to believe, Pitt had his good qualities. He was fearless, intelligent, generous, and possessed of a strong sense of humor, with an innate, if deranged, sense of nobility. Would he have carried on his feckless ways indefinitely, springing from one self-made disaster to another? Or would he have learned some sense of self-discipline and responsibility, maturing into a wiser, if considerably duller, respectability? There is no way to know.

It is oddly cheering to note that Thomas Pitt could not even die and be buried like a normal human being. His will stated that he wished to lie on the shores of Switzerland's Lake St. Pierre, a place he had fond memories of from his childhood, "where the surrounding scenery may smile upon my remains." He asked to be buried under a certain tree, where "I formerly passed many hours in solitude, contemplating the mutability of human affairs."

Unfortunately, this surprisingly sensitive and peaceful desire was never realized. His family instead buried his body in St. Anne's Church in Soho, where, according to rumor, it promptly disappeared. For years afterward, this alleged vanishing turned him into a national punchline. "What has become of Lord Camelford's body?" was the 19th century's "Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead."

Undoubtedly Pitt himself would have been the first to laugh at the joke.


  1. I have been long surprised, reading about Camelford previously, that in an swashbuckling age, he didn't meet his end, similarly handed to him, much earlier.

    1. It does seem like he managed to outrun the odds.


Comments are moderated. Because no one gets to be rude and obnoxious around here except the author of this blog.