The late Georgian period was a rough and violent age. It has a hard, uncaring image, but that did not always apply to those who took their own life.
The crime of suicide- “felo de se”- would mean that the person killing themselves would lose their property to the Crown and forfeit the right to be buried in consecrated ground. However, this was almost never the judgement of the coroner’s court, who would invariably try to reduce the distress of the family with a verdict of “lunacy”. This would avoid the humiliating penalties. For most of the later Georgian period, suicides and their families were often seen as unfortunate rather than sinful.
The newspapers were remarkably democratic in their coverage. There were reports from all classes, and on each occasion a reason was looked for; and it was assumed that a suicide would be by definition not in their right mind. As a crime that affected all classes, where the same range of emotions were observed, it was perhaps inevitable that the reactions would be roughly the same
William Dumbell , a labourer, had 12 pots of beer and then hanged himself in a privy in Newhaven. He had been “melancholy”. On the other end of the social spectrum, Edward Hussey Esq, a magistrate in Lamberhurst Sussex, had blown out his brains with a blunderbuss with exactly the same reason given.
Mr G Lecke, a former soldier hanged, himself in May 1816. No reason could be found –“he was a very religious man and it would have been thought of him one of the last men in the world who would have committed suicide had he been in senses”. Sir Edward Crofton committed in January and the press were unable to provide a reason- the key point here was that reasons were looked for and expected.
Melancholia was a reason; so was mental derangement caused by domestic problems. In February 1816 an unnamed 12 year old girl of Smithfield tied lead weights to her feet and hanged herself after a disagreement with parents-it was a “rash act” and “melancholy incident” A women called Fane, wife of an aging watchmen, had drowned herself after a marital disagreement, leaving her shoes on the bank and putting her silver snuff box in a place where it could be found. Even when there was such a degree of planning, mental derangement was always the reason and “lunacy” was the cause of death, not “felo de se”
It was clearly seen that people took their own lives from economic distress. Mr Hollingsdale of Chailey, Sussex was last seen tending to the cattle that were about to be sold to pay his rent and tithe debts. He,like most regency suicides recognised as such, hanged himself. Richard Bishop of Exeter “put a period to his own existence” in old age, having encouraged others to make unsuccessful investments.
There were some dissenting voices. In September 1816, the Cumberland Pacquet newspaper referred to suicide as a crime-condemning the bereaved family to torment on earth and the deceased to torment in the afterlife. On the 15th August, a person with the pen name “HUMANITAS” wrote to the “Morning Post” bemoaning the number of “lunacy” judgements in coroner’s courts , which were clearly designed to save people’s feelings and protect inheritance rights. Without any irony at all, HUMANITAS commented that this had all gone too far, in an era of “ universal benevolence and philanthropy “ he believed that the reapplication of the proper judgement would reduce suicides; if this was not possible, perhaps the bodies could be dissected rather than buried at the crossroads in an unmarked grave? A slightly more constructive suggestion was the banning of arsenic; HUMANITAS claimed that the use of poison was under-reported as a method of suicide, and this may well have been the case
Two cases show the differing attitude towards the subject. In November 1816, the coroner gave a erdict of “felo de se” on a criminal called Brook who was never favoured with a first name. He had been apprehended during a robbery of a tallow chandler named Thompson and placed in the black hole of St James Watch House. Despite being handcuffed he had managed to strangle himself with his handkerchief
He was buried at two in the morning in unconsecrated ground in Bridle Lane, near Great Pulteney Street. However, this was not the end of it
Another sad example was the suicide of Mr C Bradburn in February 1816. He had attended a masquerade at the Argyle Rooms in Regent Street. He met a women of new acquaintance there and was about to take her home when two men, Wallace and Andrews, jumped into the coach. They went together to a hotel and Bradburn took up the invitation to play dice for champagne and claret that could be given to the young lady, who seemed to know the other men well. Gambling for drink turned to gambling for money; Bradburn won at first but found himself with loses of £2000. When the men arrived at his address a few days later, armed and noisy, Bradburn blew his brains out in a state of mental derangement. He was found insane. His fortune and reputation were saved.
Not everybody agreed. A letter to the paper pointed out the problem. The Argyle rooms were the haunt of prostitutes. The strumpet and the gamblers were in cahoots. Why did Bradburn use somebody else’s dice? The writer went on to say that. If Bradburn was mad, then he was mad at the very beginning of the process in showing his appalling judgement!
This uncharitable view excepted, the late Regency had an attitude to suicide that was clearly the result of the Enlightenment and looks quite familiar to use today!