Attitudes to suicide in the Regency? It depended!


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.
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“A rash and melancholy act” Suicide in the Regency

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 that condemed 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  today!

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