image001Castlereagh…’I have done with  away with myself’

The traditional view of suicide – ‘felo de se’ (“felon of the self”) meant person killing themselves would forfeit their property and lose the right to be buried in consecrated ground. A busy crossroads, where traffic might drown out the activities of restless souls, was preferred. Often a stake would be put through the heart, which was as messy as it sounds.
Georgian inquests were quite ready to give a verdict of felo de se. However, on occasions there would be a judgement of lunacy instead, when derangement, over a long period of time, could be proved with examples. This would avoid the humiliating penalties.

The following cases were adjudged criminal acts in 1810. Esther Chapman of Chatteris took arsenic; she lingered for twenty-four hours. An unnamed servant of Mr G. Uppleby took laudanum and expired after eight hours. She had been distressed by rumours about her reputation. In May, a soldier who had recently deserted went to the White Hart public house near Clare Market and partly cut his head off with a penknife. Jan Fesh, another soldier proved that he was not insane by loading his musket with metal buttons from his tunic and using a string attached to the trigger to allow him to put the weapon into his mouth.

John Thornton, 70, hanged himself using his garters in his room in October. He was declared perfectly sane as he had spent the day concluding some financial affairs and locking up his money securely. However, in the act of being so efficient with his cash, he denied it to his relatives.

The law did not regard all such deaths as a punishable offence. They were able to accept that individuals were not in their right mind. Another woman in 1810, this time from Portsmouth, killed herself with laudanum. However, she was known to have had periods of melancholia and had tried to poison herself on other occasions – she was granted a verdict of lunacy. It seemed to some critics of the law that one successful suicide made you a criminal, but a couple of failures followed by a success made you insane.

Melancholia was an accepted mitigation, as was immaturity .Children were rarely adjudged as suicide. In 1816 a 12-year-old girl from Smithfield tied lead weights to her feet and hanged herself after a disagreement with parents – it was a ‘rash act’ and a ‘melancholy incident’, but not felo de se, despite the planning. William Dumbell, a labourer, had twelve 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, a Sussex magistrate blew out his brains with a blunderbuss with exactly the same reason given. All were adjudged as being the result of lunacy.

On 12 August 1822, Viscount Castlereagh, committed suicide by cutting his carotid artery with a penknife, having had all of the other sharp objects removed by his wife. He believed that he was being persecuted. A few days before his death, Castlereagh’s behaviour made the king lose sleep. The famously unemotional Foreign Secretary was weeping, kissing the king’s hand, accusing himself of crimes, including being blackmailed for homosexuality. The King commented to Lord Liverpool ‘either I am mad or Lord Castlereagh is mad’. Lord Liverpool agreed: ‘There is greater danger in these cases for strong minds than weak ones’.

It was thought that members of the establishment, by definition deep thinkers with great responsibilities, were more prone to suicide than the lower orders. Castlereagh was declared insane and buried with honour in Westminster Abbey to the sound of boos and hisses from the lower orders, and to the glee of the radical press.
Many saw this act as clearly premeditated – Castlereagh’s last words were: ‘I have done for myself. I have opened my neck’. Cobbet was clear that there was no chance of such an important person being buried in such a humiliating way. Byron, who produced a poem inviting people to urinate on the dead man’s grave, commented sarcastically that poor people ‘slashed their throat’, but you had to be a member of the ruling classes to ‘cut your carotid artery’:

Less than a year after Castlereagh’s suicide, Abel Griffiths, a 22-year-old student, was convicted of murdering his father Thomas, and then ‘hurling himself into eternity’. Thomas’s servant, William Wade (‘a man of colour’) reported that Abel had tried to see his father a number of times, and that he was under orders to keep the son away from him. They only met because Abel arrived first and waited for his father to return. When they met, there was a brief conversation which seemed to be about money. Thomas Griffiths was a plantation owner in Barbados who had financed his son’s law education, but it was surmised by the inquest that this subsidy was being ended.

Those who knew Abel provided evidence of his escalating derangement. He had been taking mercury for an unknown, but probably socially embarrassing, illness and had been unpredictable and irritable. Witnesses attested to his unpredictable behaviour and deep derangement over the last few months of his life. The eventual verdict of felo de se astounded the audience in the court, and Griffiths was then prepared for a humiliating burial.

Crowds gathered outside the father’s house on the Wednesday evening of the internment. Abel’s friends were also there, still indignant, but the rain prevented the movement of the body. It was moved to St George’s workhouse around 10 pm and the crowd followed. At 1.30 am Abel was carried from the front door by four men. He was wearing no more than stocking socks wrapped in a blood soaked sheet. He was then wrapped in matting with a rope to secure it and dropped, rather than placed, into a hole about 5ft deep. No stake was pushed into his heart; the 200 strong crowd would have rioted.

A few days later, persons unknown dug up the corpse at 5 am and hired a hackney carriage to transport it, which they abandoned at the end of the journey. The coach driver went to Bow Street with the body, and after a few days of wrangling about Abel’s next place of burial, he ended up back at St George’s workhouse and was finally laid to rest in their burial ground.

Incidents like these strengthened was feeling that this was inhumane, unnecessarily disruptive to society, and reeked of superstition rather than Christianity. The law to abolish this practice had just started its passage through parliament; but it was the grotesque difference between the treatment of Castlereagh and Griffiths that gave the bill impetus.

In 1823 it was made illegal to issue a warrant for burial of a felo-de-se in a public highway. The suicide was to be interred in consecrated ground. This change was not an acceptance of suicide. It was a practical move to protect the integrity of the law; the former punishment for felo de se was now regarded as so unacceptable that juries were regularly reaching verdicts of insanity instead. Punishment was still harsh. A suicide was still buried without Christian rites between the hours of 9 pm and midnight; but attitudes were changing.

This is a modified, shorter version of a chapter in my book about the realities of late Georgian Britain.
More details here.

Publisher’s page here 



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