F W Boreham tells this story in one of his many books:
“I was in London in 1888, when the Parnell Commission became the centre of world-wide excitement. Lord Frederick Cavendish, the Secretary of State for Ireland, and Mr. Burke, the Under-Secretary, had been murdered by Fenians in Phoenix Park, Dublin. The London Times charged Mr. Parnell, the leader of the Irish Party in the House of Commons, with complicity in the crime; and, to prove it, published a photograph of a letter in Mr. Parnell's handwriting condoning and approving the murders. Mr. Parnell at once declared that the letter was a forgery, and the Parnell Commission—one of the longest and most sensational legal cases of all time—was set up. It ended dramatically.”
“The Times had bought the letter from a man named Pigott for about five thousand pounds. Pigott claimed to have purchased the letter in Paris. Everybody felt that the crucial moment would come when Pigott, in the witness-box, was subjected to the merciless cross-examination of Sir Charles Russell. The great day came. On Wednesday, February 20, 1889, it was known that, immediately after the luncheon adjournment, Pigott would face his ordeal.”
“To the astonishment of the Court, Sir Charles Russell simply handed Pigott—a squat, corpulent, frock-coated figure, obviously extremely nervous—a sheet of paper. `Mr. Pigott' he said, blandly and politely, `would you be good enough, with my Lords' permission, to write some words for me? Perhaps you will sit down in order to do so!' He then dictated several words—‘livelihood', `likelihood', 'proselytism', and so on. And finally, as if it were purely an afterthought; he added the word `hesitancy'. Then, amidst breathless silence, he took the sheet of paper from the witness. Everybody could see from his expression that Sir Charles Russell had got what he wanted, and some even heard Frank Lockwood, Russell's junior, who had glanced at the document, exclaim: `We've got him!' Pigott had spelt the last word 'hesitency'. The same word was misspelt in the same way in the letter in The Times! Pigott left the box—and blew his brains out. The case that had absorbed the attention of the world had reached its climax and conclusion in the substitution of an `e' for an `a'! It was a case of a single letter. Hesitancy: hesitency…..What does it matter? But see how much it reveals!
Might! Right! It is merely a case of a letter. But at this moment millions of people are hazarding their happiness, their homes, their wealth, their very lives to prove that the two words are not synonymous. Might is not right! And rather than bow down to the champions of Might, people who love Right will gladly die.
Source: F W Boreham, ‘Shibboleth’, A Late Lark Singing (London: The Epworth Press, 1945), 143-148.
Image: Sir Charles Russell.