Bullying: A Historical Case

We tend to think of bullying as a modern phenomenon, a product of public schools and the Internet. Bullying, however, has deep roots that go back to the dawn of civilization. Tales abound in history and literature, even, arguably, the Bible (in Genesis 37:4, Joseph is persecuted relentlessly by his brothers). One of the earliest historical cases dates to 1862, and an army barracks in Great Britain and a man named John Flood.

Now John Flood was a young soldier, and by all accounts was friendly, gentle and well-behaved. The same cannot be said for another soldier in his barracks named John O’Dea. Where Flood was a decent fellow who had earned a good conduct badge, O’Dea was quick-tempered and had a record of violence. Both had served in the same regiment for several years, and Flood had suffered a lot.

Like every other military organization, the British Army in those days had a criminal justice system. If you were accused of a crime you could face a proper trial and predetermined punishments. But in Flood’s regiment, the bullies had set up their own secret and highly illegal system of justice. They named crimes and punishments and held mock trials to make it all seem reasonable, but it was just an excuse to dominate other soldiers, especially Flood. Poor John Flood was brutalized under this system, even, at one point, stripped naked and whipped. He slid into a depression and talked of taking his own life.

One day, while Flood was on guard duty, O’Dea approached him, invented some offence, and warned Flood he would be once more put on trial and punished. Once he went off duty, Flood, unable to handle it anymore, began drinking. While under the influence he loaded his rifle, and when O’Dea arrived to administer another beating, Flood shot him in the heart.

Later, on trial for murder, the story of the illegal “courts” was finally revealed to the public (and the army’s officers), creating something of a scandal. Men began coming forward, indicating they too had been victimized by the practice, revealing it existed not just in Flood’s regiment but throughout the army.

The trial heard testimony of Flood’s bullying and how it had transformed a nice, decent guy into a criminal. In the end, he was found guilty of murder, the judge stating that no excuse existed for the killing of a fellow soldier. He did, however, condemn the cruelty of the bullying Flood had received and suggested that mercy was warranted in the case.

In the end, Queen Victoria herself commuted Flood’s sentence to life imprisonment — reportedly he had been so close to execution that his coffin had already been made. When he heard the news, it’s said he fell to his knees and prayed.

It would be nice to finish this article by saying that Flood’s case spurred major reforms not only in the British Army but society as a whole. Unfortunately that’s not what happened. It remains a little side note of history, almost completely forgotten. Many cases would follow through the generations, and continue to the present day. All we can hope is that each new case of bullying will be the last, and finally put an end to this cruel aspect of human behavior. It’s not going to end on its own, however — we need to all stay vigilant and fight bullying whenever and wherever it appears.

So keep fighting.