"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
The young man — the boy — stood under the elms. It was around noontime on the hot, sunny Sunday of 3 July 1842, and he had positioned himself behind and apart from the crowd of high-spirited Londoners who had assembled on either side of the Mall, two or three deep, to view the Queen’s cortège make its usual Sunday trip from Buckingham Palace to St. James’s and the Chapel Royal. He must have looked like a fool in his dark, oversized coat, but he had to keep it on for two reasons: he was homeless, carrying all his possessions on his back, and he needed it to conceal the small flintlock pistol at his breast. He was sweating, he was dirty, he smelled. He hardly saw himself as a human being. John William Bean Junior was seventeen and tired to death of his life.
The world found him repulsive. His vertebrae, devastated by disease — perhaps extrapulmonary tuberculosis — curved in an S and slumped into a conspicuous hump over his right shoulder. His head hung at little more than four feet off the ground — if that. His arms were atrophied sticks, his hands those of a young child. When he walked, his twisted body lurched in the direction of his hump. His eyes sunk into his head. His expression was permanently careworn and weary. As a final indignity, God or happenstance had marred his face with a scar or a blotch about his nose.
It is possible that but for his scoliotic spine, he would not be a dwarf at all. The world did not make such fine distinctions; to anyone who stared at him, he was a hunchbacked dwarf and a freak. Literary hunchbacks and dwarves were prevalent in the popular culture of the early 1840s, shaping and reflecting popular attitudes toward people like him. Charles Dickens had endowed the villain of his “The Old Curiosity Shop,” the dwarf Daniel Quilp, with every imaginable evil: he is a bitter, wife-beating, pedophiliac sociopath. Quilp’s supernatural vitality, crammed into a too-small body, curdles into ceaseless misanthropic rage. He is antithetical in every way besides size to the virtuous, loving and beloved heroine of the book, Little Nell. Hunchbacks, dwarves — hunchbacked dwarves — they were laughable, or pitiful, or repulsive as freaks, but in any case, they were other, never quite human. John William Bean was physically and mentally debilitated by his differences. “I shall never be otherwise than I am,” the seventeen-year-old had said more than once in despair to his father. “I shall resemble no man, and yet I am fast approaching to manhood.”
He had lived in the neighborhood of Clerkenwell. His father, John William Bean Senior, was a gold-chaser, and he encouraged his son to become his apprentice. John Bean tried and kept trying to succeed at that profession, but the painstaking work was simply too exhausting for his pitiful limbs. He sought easier occupations, but his apprenticeship to a cheesemonger resulted in failure, as did a job as an errand boy at Her Majesty’s Stationery Office. Most recently, he had been working Sundays for a news vendor, Mr. Hilton. That job had suited him the best, for, besides the short hours, Hilton allowed him to read in the afternoon the Sunday papers he sold in the morning. Two months before, he had come across in this way several articles on Edward Oxford [who had tried to assassinate Queen Victoria] exposing his life of ease in Bethlem: a pint of wine to drink a day! A personal tutor to teach him German and French! He had spoken both to Mr. Hilton and his father about these stories. They were nonsense, both men rightly told him. But Bean could not shake the belief that Oxford’s catered confinement was a great improvement over his own wearisome freedom.
Life at home was an ever-increasing torment to him. He knew that his parents loved him in spite of his deformity. But he suffered greatly from the insults and disrespect of his younger brothers. Their five healthy bodies alone were a reproach to him. As his own torso continued to collapse into itself, they grew taller and stronger; by now, even nine-year-old Henry likely looked down on him in every way. John Bean’s eighteenth birthday was days away. He was sure now that he would not mark that day at home: not in the face of their derision.
And so he had run away from home three weeks before this Sunday, two weeks after [John] Francis’s attempt [on the Queen’s life]. His mother fell ill with worry; his father frantically took a full description of the boy to Clerkenwell police station and pressed them to find him. They did nothing. Four days later, Bean’s employer, Mr. Hilton, spotted the boy lurking outside his business and persuaded him to return home. He went, knowing that his return was a temporary one, an opportunity to plan more carefully his escape from this miserable life.
The newspapers that came out on the day he returned home were filled with news of Francis’s trial and condemnation. Bean, then, could not but realize that if he followed through with the plan he was now formulating, he might face the gallows rather than a comfortable bed at Bethlem. This did little to deter him. Three days later, he bought his pistol from a neighbor, Mr. Bird. His father was later surprised that he had found the money, but discovered that he had sold off his meager collection of books, including his Bible, to get it. It was an old and rusty pocket flintlock, probably not worth the three shillings he paid. Mr. Bird assumed that the boy had bought it as a toy and was surprised when Bean came back to his shop three times, complaining that it did not work. After fending the boy off twice, Bird charged him a penny to replace the useless flint that Bean had thrown away. Bird noticed Bean’s “childish glee” upon seeing the new flint strike sparks, and the flash in the pan when Bird instructed him how to fire it. Bean then brought the pistol to a neighbor to clean it, but he was unable to unscrew the pistol’s rusty barrel and returned it to Bean unfixed. Later, when Bean had primed the gun, loaded it with coarse powder he had bought elsewhere, rammed down with wadding and, inexplicably, a few fragments of a clay smoking-pipe, he could not get the pistol to work. He would have to hope for better results when they mattered. The next day, he ran away again.
That had been a week ago. He again lived on the streets, sleeping where he could — in abandoned houses, in fields — on the outskirts of Islington, and spending his days roaming the metropolis, earning a pittance at street errands: a few pennies for holding two horses for one gentleman, and a few more on Hungerford Pier fetching a glass of ale for another. He was as unsuccessful at street work as at any other occupation; he had survived last week on only eight pence. One of those pennies he used, the day after he absconded, to post a letter to his parents:
June 28, 1842
Dear Father and Mother,
Thinking you may feel surprised at my prolonged absence, I write these few lines to acquaint you I am seeking employment, which if I do not obtain I will not be dishonest though I may be desperate. It is useless to seek for me. Please give my love to [my] brothers, though they never used me as such. I have very little more to say, except remember me to my aunt and uncle; thank them for what they have done for me. I should have written sooner, but I did not like. Hoping you will excuse this scribbling, and think no more of me. I am your unhappy, but disobedient son, J. B.
For the last three days he haunted the parks around Buckingham Palace, waiting for his opportunity to present his pistol at the Queen. Somehow, she managed to elude him. She and Albert had not taken an airing in all that time; both were busy entertaining their guests, Victoria’s favorite uncle Leopold and his wife Louise, King and Queen of the Belgians. [Their] comings and goings were unpredictable, and Bean had missed them. Today would be different.
Given the examples of Oxford and Francis, Bean had a good idea about the possible consequences of his act. He was ready for anything. Death — suicide by Queen — either at the gallows or at the hands of an angry crowd: that would be welcome, as would be confinement at the Queen’s pleasure, with Oxford, wine, and tutors. Last night, a new possibility had become apparent when the evening papers reported the commutation of Francis’s sentence. Transportation and a lifetime of hard labor would likely have seemed the worst possible outcome to Bean, well aware of his pitiful lack of stamina. Even that did not deter him; anything was better than the life he lived.
The crowd quickened; heads turned left to watch two scarlet-liveried outriders and then three carriages and two equerries clatter out of the gates of the Palace. The Queen and Albert, Bean and everyone else knew, were in the third carriage. Leopold rode with them. As the outriders approached, Bean elbowed his way through the crowd to the edge of the Mall, coming up against a boy to his right. If he had looked in that direction, he would have been disgusted. The boy was a year younger than Bean, “genteel-looking,” of normal size and stature, and very nattily dressed: a dark frock coat, white trousers with Wellington boots, a blue silk waistcoat and crimson silk neckerchief, his collar, by one account, “turned down á la Byron”: in other words a swell, a toff, everything that John William Bean was not and never would be. His name was Charles Edward Dassett; he was a shopboy in his father’s art-supply business. He had come through the parks from his home in Portman Square with his brother and his uncle to see the Queen.
The crowd cheered the passing carriages. Their windows were down because of the heat, allowing just a glimpse of the royal party — some could see the light blue or maybe pale green bonnet of the Queen. As the rear wheels of the last carriage rushed past, John Bean pulled his cocked flintlock from his coat, held it at arm’s length, and pulled the trigger.
The hammer snapped down but the explosion did not come, and the royal party rode on, oblivious, toward the stable yard of St. James’s. Suddenly Bean felt a pull, felt pain, and lurched right. He turned to see Dassett’s large hand clutching his small wrist and looked up to see the boy’s eyes. They displayed an odd combination of shock — and amusement.
While the rest of the crowd had focused only upon the royal carriages, Charles Dassett had watched Bean push his way through the crowd, present his pistol, and pull the trigger. He clearly saw the hammer drop and heard the click. In an instant he grabbed Bean’s shooting hand and in the same instant deduced Bean’s motivation. He turned to his brother. “Look here, Fred,” he exclaimed, “this chap is going to have a pop at the Queen — I think he wants to be provided for for life.” He then turned back to Bean and relieved him of his pistol. People began to gather around the boys. Dassett pondered the pistol with amusement, turning it over and over, almost playfully, and exhibiting it to the growing group of onlookers. It seemed to them to be some sort of joke; Dassett laughed, and so did they.
Reprinted from Shooting Victoria: Madness, Mayhem, and the Rebirth of the British Monarchy with permission from Pegasus Books. Copyright © 2012 by Paul Thomas Murphy
Paul Thomas Murphy teaches interdisciplinary writing on Victorian topics at the University of Colorado, Boulder.More Paul Thomas Murphy.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)