Achilli v. Newman: anti-Catholicism in court

On 24th June 1852, John Henry Newman, the great Catholic convert now being considered for sainthood by the Vatican, was found guilty of libel at the Court of Queen’s Bench in Westminster. In one of his lectures on the Present Position of Catholics in England, delivered in Birmingham on 28th July 1850, Newman had accused an Italian anti-Catholic preacher, Giacinto Achilli, of being a “profligate under a cowl…ravening after sin”.[1] Despite not having responded to allegations earlier made by Nicholas Wiseman in the Dublin Review, and expanded on in a subsequent pamphlet, Achilli sued.[2]

The trial has been noted as a significant example of anti-Catholicism in mid-nineteenth-century Britain, in which a bigoted judge heavy-handedly influenced proceedings, and an obviously prejudiced jury delivered a manifestly unfair verdict. Most of the discussion in the trial came down to a long list of sexual improprieties, mostly concerning cases of what we would now consider to be rape or sexual assault, but also covering consensual affairs with married women, and a period of cohabitation with a married prostitute. Achilli had been a Catholic priest for much of the period in which the alleged events took place, and subsequently a Protestant clergyman; he had been an avowed celibate, and later a married man.

In his account of his life, Achilli had been an accomplished theologian in the Papal States, but the Inquisition had persecuted him because of his growing Protestant convictions.[3] He had eventually fled Italy, but had returned during the short-lived Roman Republic of 1849, when the flight of Pope Pius IX seemed to offer an opportunity to free his countrymen from Popish error and oppression. But when the French restored the Pope, the Inquisition once again arrested him. After his escape he had come to Britain, a preacher in a perfect position to condemn the sins of priests and the brutal terror of the Inquisition.

According to Wiseman and Newman, however, Achilli was a prolific seducer and violator of women and girls, and it was this that had brought him to the Inquisition’s attention. Wiseman argued that Achilli’s loss of his Catholic faith was a consequence of his fall from morality.[4]

The stakes of the trial were high. Newman’s lawyers had to demonstrate that Achilli was what Newman had said he was, and thus bring about the public disgrace of a very significant anti-Catholic preacher. (Newman did not appear in court during the trial, and was not permitted by the judge to deliver a speech at his sentencing.) Meanwhile, Achilli and his supporters, especially the Evangelical Alliance, who had publicised his case while the Inquisition held him captive, had a chance to demonstrate the deviousness, cruelty and conspiracy of Rome, and to take a shot at the famous John Henry Newman. In the atmosphere of anti-Catholic agitation following the restoration of the Catholic hierarchy in England, dubbed the ‘Papal Aggression’ by opponents, this amounted to sectarian conflicts being fought out in the courtroom.

But the nature of the allegations meant that the conflict was fought out not with theological arguments, denunciations of Papal government, or detailed criticism of either side’s published works – or at least, it was not primarily fought out in these terms. Instead the trial revolved around a number of women witnesses appearing to support Newman’s allegations. Newman’s witnesses had been found by contacts in Italy and the investigations of his friends sent from England, including Maria Giberne, who Newman believed would be a suitable companion to the women because of her sex. Achilli knew that keeping the witnesses in food and lodging would be a burden to Newman, and tried to delay the trial.[5]

Unsurprisingly, the women who appeared in court, who were mainly peasants or servants, and in many cases foreigners and Catholics to boot, were treated dismally. Some were alleged to have been sent by their parish priests to lie in court, with the assurance that a quick confession when they came home would sort things out.[6] Others were insinuated to be women of little repute, known for courting men; discussing the precise nature of the claims made about Achilli before the trial, his lawyers quibbled over whether a thirteen year-old girl had any honour to lose.[7] Achilli’s wife was brought into court in part to demonstrate that she was more attractive than her husband’s alleged victims. In one case, it was argued that a woman whose face was disfigured by her husband’s violence towards her was too ugly for Achilli to have taken an interest in, whereas Newman’s lawyer argued that the beatings were clearly evidence that she had been unfaithful.[8]

Despite Achilli’s slipperiness and squirming in the dock, the jury sided with him over the host of women who came to give evidence. When it came to sentencing, Newman left the house convinced he was going to prison, but in the end was issued with a fine, easily paid for by donations from his supporters around the world.[9] It was widely held that Newman had been the victim of a miscarriage of justice, and Achilli headed to America in disgrace. He would appear in court again several years later, and spend time in prison for fornication.[10] He appears, strangely—or perhaps not so strangely—to have had a brief involvement with the Oneida Community, a ‘free love’ perfectionist group in New York State, before disappearing, leaving behind a suicide note.

George Morris is a second-year PhD student at the University of Cambridge. His research is concerned with questions of religion, intimacy and gender in nineteenth-century Britain, and he is particularly interested in histories of celibacy.

[1] R. v. Newman, 175 Eng. Rep. 541, 550 (1688-1867)

[2] Nicholas Wiseman, Dublin Review 56 (1850); Nicholas Wiseman, Dr. Achilli: Authentic ‘Brief Sketch of the Life of Dr. Giacinto Achilli,’ Containing a Confutation of the Mis-Statements of Former Narratives (London: Thomas Richardson and Son, 1851)

[3] Sir C.E. Eardley, The Imprisonment and Deliverance of Dr. Giacinto Achilli, with Some Account of His Previous History and Labours (London: Partridge and Oakey, 1850); Giacinto Achilli, Dealings With the Inquisition, or Papal Rome, Her Priests, and Her Jesuits. With Important Disclosures. (London: Arthur Hall, Virtue & Co., 1851).

[4] Wiseman, Dr. Achilli, pp.23-4.

[5] W.F. Finlason, Report of the Trial and Preliminary Proceedings in the Case of G. Achilli v. Dr. Newman (London: C. Dolman, 1852) pp.46-7.

[6] Finlason, Report of the Trial, pp.183.

[7] Finlason, Report of the Trial, p.46-7.

[8] Finlason, Report of the Trial, pp.147-8.

[9] Letters and Diaries of John Henry Newman, Vol. XV, p.329.

[10] New York Times, 22nd December 1859.

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