Today (January 21) in London History – They Murdered Him

The assisted death of a king.


The important thing was that the king die before midnight.

So they made sure that happened.

His Majesty’s breath turned to air just before midnight. Right on schedule. Just in time.

Ok, a bit of personal background here. I’m David. You can tell from my chewy diphthongs I didn’t grow up here, I’m not English. That said, She Who Must Be Obeyed – my English wife – had her wicked way with me a few years ago and sure enough I’m now British. I’m a dual national. American bred and born. But for the last fifteen years or so, one of Her Majesty’s naturalised subjects. Yup, got the British passport, the certificates, the works. And fair enough, I’ve lived here all my adult life. Fifty years. Doesn’t happen very often but there have been times at the start of one of my walks when a British walker will good-naturedly say, “dearie me, I’ve got an American guiding me on a London Walk.” The reply to that is, “yup, but this yank’s been here for yonks, I’ve been a guide for over 40 years – nobody’s been doing this longer than I have – give it a couple of stops and then see what you think.”

Or sometimes the reaction is, “you’ve been here for however many years and you still haven’t lost your accent.”

I had an Israeli linguist on one of my walks a couple of years ago and I loved her response to my accent. She said, “it’s a sign of good character that you’ve held on to your accent – it means you’re comfortable in your own skin.” What’s not to like about that appraisal.

But anyway, yes, the fact of the matter is being Midwestern bred and born – growing up there – spending my formative years in the Land of the Gathering Waters – Wisconsin is an Ojibway word and that’s what the name means – the land of the gathering waters – which it’s so much better than saying Cheesehead Land in answer to the question What state are you from? – anyway, growing up in Wisconsin and then coming here in my early 20s – and falling in love with the place – knowing in a matter of weeks that I was “home”, that London was where I was going to spend the rest of my life – I was well aware that my British contemporaries had a twenty-year head start on me, that, unlike me, they’d grown up in this country – its culture and mores and manners and peculiarities and bits and bobs of its history were second nature to them. Those things had been mother’s milk to them – they were to the manner born – I wasn’t. 

So I knew I had some catching up to do. If you learn a foreign language after about the age of six you’ll always speak it with at least a trace of an accent. Same goes for your “read” of your adopted land, your adopted culture if you’re an immigrant. I freely and happily admit my “read” of things British has a faint American accent to it. It always has, it always will.  And that’s not a disadvantage. On the contrary, it’s an advantage. Things that are monaural to native Brits are stereophonic to me. What’s not to like about that?

But anyway, I was aware from the get-go, that I had some catching up to do. Had to try and figure this place out.

And over the years I’ve had a few Eureka moments. Epiphanies. Moments of sudden, profound, deeply satisfying insight.

And this business of its being extremely important that the king die before midnight – and their making damn sure that he did die before midnight – that was one of those moments of sudden, profound, deeply satisfying insight into the depths of this culture.

When I clocked it it went straight into my Old Westminster walk. Because I talk about George V on that walk. It’s hard not to talk about him – there’s a statue of him right in front of us. Here’s my spiel from that walk. This is more or less a straight lift. “Ok, that’s George V over there. And I have to say, I can’t look at that statue without thinking, “if my dad looked like that I’d stutter too.” Everybody was terrified of him. Except his tiny granddaughter. She adored him and he adored her. He called her Lillibet and she called him Gwanpa England. That little girl is of course today our much loved 95-year-old Queen. What else? George V loved collecting stamps. Had the most amazing stamp collection. But you have to wonder, what must it be like – what does it do to your head – to have a stamp collection a large percentage of which have your head on them?”

And all of that is the lead-in to this. I say, “everybody knows there’s one king down here who was executed. We looked at a bust of him just back there. Charles I. But if you’re being a purist about this, there’s another king down here who was also executed. You’re looking at him. George V. 

And boy are they all ears then, my walkers. 

I explain.

I say, “they ended his life a couple of hours before nature took its course. He wasn’t any the wiser. He was in a coma.  He was going to die in a matter of hours. At 9.25 pm his physician, Lord Dawson, issued that famous statement, “the king’s life is moving peacefully toward its close.”

What we, the general public didn’t know, until the 1980s, when Dawson himself died and his papers were made public, was that Dawson, with the approval of the innermost circle there, speeded things up, got the king across the finish line sooner than he would have done under his own steam.

He gave him lethal injections of cocaine and morphine.

Here’s how Dawson put it, “At about 11 o’clock it was evident that the last stage might endure for many hours, unknown to the patient but little comporting with the dignity and serenity which he so richly merited and which demanded a brief final scene. Hours of waiting just for the mechanical end when all that is really life has departed, only exhausts the onlookers and keeps them so strained that they cannot avail themselves of the solace of thought, communion or prayer. I therefore decided to determine the end and injected morphine and shortly afterwards cocaine into the distended jugular vein […]”

That did the trick. The King died at 11.55 pm. Just in time.

And that brings us to the epiphany. That flash of insight and understanding. It was important that George V die before midnight because midnight was the deadline for the broadsheets, the quality press. They wanted his Majesty’s death to be announced in The Times – the top people’s paper – not in the vulgar, common, tabloids. The afternoon papers. The red tops, we’d call them today. The likes of The Sun and The Mirror. 

Dawson admitted as much. As he put it, it was important that the King’s death be announced in the morning edition of The Times newspaper rather than ‘less appropriate…evening journals.’”

So if you’re being a purist about these things, George V didn’t die, he was killed. He was killed so the death could be announced by the top people’s newspaper rather than the trashy tabloids. 

And announce it The Times did. 

On Tuesday, January 21st, 1936

Mainlined that lethal cocktail. Flatlined. Made the deadline.

Deadline. That sure was the word. 

Good night from London. 

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