Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Pigott, Richard

PIGOTT, RICHARD (1828?–1889), Irish journalist and forger, was born in co. Meath, probably at Ratoath, about 1828. His father, George Pigott, was clerk to Peter Purcell, the Dublin coach proprietor, and he afterwards entered the office of the ‘Monitor,’ a Dublin journal, whose office was subsequently used by the ‘Nation.’ The elder Pigott was also for a time in the office of the ‘Tablet’ newspaper.

Richard Pigott, after holding a situation as errand-boy in the ‘Nation’ office, went to Belfast as clerk in the office of the ‘Ulsterman,’ a newspaper edited by Denis Holland, and advocating extreme nationalist opinions. Holland transferred his paper to Dublin in July 1858, and changed its name to ‘The Irishman;’ Pigott acted as its manager. The paper was soon purchased by Patrick James Smyth, the politician, but Pigott exercised almost complete control over it. One of its characteristics was a violent hostility to the ‘Nation’ newspaper, which was then edited by Alexander Martin Sullivan [q. v.], and in 1862 the latter brought against Pigott an action for libel, in which Pigott was condemned to pay sixpence damages.

In June 1865 he was presented by its proprietor with the ‘Irishman,’ which had hitherto met with no conspicuous success. Pigott seems at this as at later periods to have been in pecuniary difficulties, and to have sought to supplement his income by the sale of indecent photographs. But the arrest and imprisonment of the staff of the ‘Irish People,’ and that paper's suppression in September 1865, caused a sudden advance in the circulation of the ‘Irishman.’ It became a valuable property, and Pigott was brought to public notice. His increased resources he squandered in profuse hospitality and luxurious living. His only commendable recreation seems to have been swimming, in which he was an expert throughout his early life. In 1866 he started a small weekly magazine entitled ‘The Shamrock,’ and shortly after another weekly periodical called ‘The Flag of Ireland.’ His political views remained of an extreme nationalist colour, and his papers openly supported the fenian movement. In 1867 he was condemned to twelve months' imprisonment for publishing seditious matter, and swore in court that he was a fenian; but he does not seem to have formally joined the society. In 1871 he was imprisoned for six months for contempt of court. But he was distrusted by his fellow nationalists, and the circulation of his papers steadily declined during the next nine or ten years. After the establishment of the land league in 1879, he offered to sell his journalistic property to that organisation. The terms he asked were deemed exorbitant, but at length the negotiations resulted in the transfer of the three newspapers, the ‘Shamrock,’ the ‘Flag of Ireland,’ and the ‘Irishman,’ to the Irish National Newspaper and Publishing Company, of which Parnell held the chief shares as trustee of the Land League [see Parnell, Charles Stewart]. With the sale of his papers his last chances of earning an honest livelihood seem to have disappeared, and he was driven to the meanest expedients in order to keep up a somewhat pretentious establishment at Vesey Place, Kingstown, co. Dublin. He began to blackmail his political associates, libelled them in anonymous tracts and pamphlets, and offered to sell to the government information incriminating them. From William Edward Forster [q. v.], to whom he made offers of this kind, he received no encouragement, and thereupon he attacked him venomously. In 1882 he published in Dublin a volume entitled ‘Reminiscences of an Irish National Journalist,’ which, despite its vilification of Irish politicians, is an interesting record of the period between 1848 and 1880, and contains a useful account of the fenian movement. A second edition was brought out in 1883. In 1886 Pigott proposed to sell to the officers of the Irish Loyal and Patriotic Union—an association formed in Dublin to resist the adoption of home rule by the British government—information convicting Parnell and the leading Irish home-rulers of complicity in the murders and outrages which had accompanied the rule of the land league. The proposal was accepted, and the papers which Pigott supplied to the Patriotic Union were secretly purchased by the ‘Times’ newspaper for publication in their columns. Early in 1887 a series of articles entitled ‘Parnellism and Crime’ appeared in that newspaper, and was in part based on Pigott's revelations. On 18 April 1887 was published in the ‘Times’ a letter from Pigott's collection which purported to have been signed by Parnell; it condoned the Phœnix Park murders. Parnell at once denied its authenticity from his place in parliament; but its astute phraseology, and Parnell's reluctance to submit its claims to genuineness to legal examination, conveyed an impression in many quarters that he was its author. When Mr. Frank Hugh O'Donnell in 1888 brought an action for libel against the ‘Times’ for some remarks made upon him in the course of the articles on ‘Parnellism and Crime,’ the counsel for the ‘Times’ read in court several other letters which had been purchased of Pigott, and, if genuine, seriously compromised Parnell and his friends. But these communications did not possess the same internal claims to confidence as the first published letter. The public interest in the alleged revelations was greatly increased by the victory of the ‘Times’ newspaper in Mr. O'Donnell's suit, and in July 1888 a special commission of three judges was appointed by parliament to inquire into the truth of all the allegations made by the ‘Times’ against the leaders of the home-rule party. The ‘Times’ refused at first to divulge the source whence the incriminating letters were obtained, but finally called Pigott as a witness on 21 Feb. 1889. His cross-examination next day by Sir Charles Russell (Parnell's counsel) completely exposed his duplicity, and little doubt was left in the public mind that he had forged the papers. On the following day, when the court did not sit, Pigott sought an interview with Mr. Labouchere, M.P., and confessed his guilt. Some hours later he fled from England, and when, on the 25th, the court reassembled to continue his cross-examination he was missing. A warrant for his arrest was issued. English police officers traced him to the Hotel los Embajadores, Madrid. But as they entered his room (No. 13) on 1 March, he shot himself dead. He was married, and two sons survived him.

[Reminiscences of an Irish National Journalist, by Pigott, 2nd edit. 1883; James O'Connor's Recollections of Richard Pigott, 1889; Sullivan's New Ireland, 1877; O'Connor's Parnell Movement, 1889, pp. 356–7; Times, 22 Feb. to 3 March 1889; Saturday Review, September 1895; information from Mr. John O'Leary, Dublin.]

D. J. O'D.