On New Year’s Eve 1811 the body of John Williams, who had hanged himself in prison while awaiting trial for the Ratcliff Highway murders, was paraded through the streets of Wapping on an elevated platform before an estimated crowd of 180,000. The weapons with which he had allegedly killed his victims were displayed along-side his corpse. The climax of the procession was the tossing of his body into a dug-out pit at the intersection of Commercial road and Cannon street: a stake was driven through his heart, quicklime was added and the pit was covered over. The dimensions of the pit were deliberately too small for his body to ensure the maximum discomfort of the corpse. The striking fact that the pageant accompanying the ritual humiliation of Williams took place a decade into the nineteenth century begs the question: how could such a gruesome and malicious episode have occurred well into what we collectively call ‘the Modern period’?
John Williams was buried at a cross-road with a stake driven through his heart in line with traditional practice based upon the belief that suicide was a moral outrage.
The corpses of those who commit suicide had long been excluded from interment in consecrated ground, rather they were buried at busy junctions in an effort to prevent malign spirits rising from the grave: it was thought that the traffic would keep any hostile force ‘down’. It was also believed that if a supernatural entity did manage to flee the burial pit it would be bewildered by the choice of potential paths offered at the crossroad. The stakes through the heart were a further prophylactic against the escape of evil, they were thought to ‘pin’ corrupt spectres to the spot. The belief that suicide was the result of demonic seduction was common in early-modern Europe and Britain was no exception.
There is some consensus that the English criminal justice system had largely abandoned a punitive approach towards the act of suicide before 1811: “after 1760 or so juries virtually stopped punishing suicide”. However, suicide remained a crime throughout the whole period under consideration. The legal sanctions for those deemed by coroners’ juries to have been guilty of self-murder, those who received a felo de se verdict (in contrast to those deemed not responsible for their own death as a consequence of having temporarily lost their sanity and received a non compos mentis verdict), were severe. Juries were able to impose the refusal of a Christian burial and the application of rites of desecration up until 1823. The familial forfeiture of a suicide victim’s property was not removed from the statute book until 1870. These legal changes in themselves suggest that attitudes to suicide changed considerably during the nineteenth century. In addition, there is evidence that juries in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries returned felo de se verdicts not as a means of castigating individuals for the act of suicide itself~ evidence that legislative amendment followed attitudinal change~ but rather as a rebuke for ‘supplementary’ deviant or criminal behaviour which would otherwise remain unpunished. The treatment of the corpse of John Williams can be seen as a reprimand for the murders he had supposedly committed and for adding insult to injury in eluding the death sentence by making the rational choice to kill himself.
Proponents of a Whiggish school of history may view the incidents surrounding John Williams’s internment as a mere ‘bump’ upon the path of increasing European enlightenment which inexorably leads to a truly modern and humane society governed by reason: an aberrant and incongruous eruption belonging to a bygone age~ invoked by the moral panic following the Ratcliffe Highway murders. However, the concept of a linear narrative of progress proves to be a rather blunt instrument when analysing attitudes towards suicide during the modern period. The assertion that supernatural explanations of suicidal behaviour lost favour, that there was a decline in the usage of the language of religion in relation to suicide throughout the public sphere from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century is uncontroversial. But one should always be alert to the fact that the public sphere was far from monolithic. Whilst secularist social scientists competed for interpretative authority over suicidal behaviour throughout the nineteenth century, those with a religious world-view insisted upon the link between suicide and immorality and conducted a sustained attack upon the de-coupling of self-destruction and sin. In 1809 William Hart published a long poem entitled ‘Anti-Suicide’ which emphasised the religious prohibition on suicide and denounced ‘modern sceptics’. Hart prefaces the poem with the opening line:
“Having been witness of an act of Suicide, singularly affecting as to its immoral tendency, and the dreadful circumstances attending it;- viewing also, with deep concern, the innumerable and dailyinstances of that much-to-be-lamented act, as well as its increasing prevalence in this country in particular: I have been determined to write and argue on the subject, not only of its folly, but its actual criminality; by some disputed, by others doubted, and by the generality too often unthought of, or even suspected.”
For Hart suicide is uniquely, “singularly… immoral”, and almost contagious in its power to corrupt, “affecting as to its… tendency”. He also emphatically states the common concern that the tendency to self annihilation had reached unprecedented proportions and was increasing: “innumerable… daily… it’s increasing prevalence in this country in particular”.
The frequently asserted link between modernity and increasing rates of suicide has been under close scrutiny for several decades. Historians cannot state with absolute certainty whether suicide rates rose or fell throughout the seventeenth to nineteenth century. However, it has been suggested that suicide rates have been underestimated in pre-industrial times and the notion that suicide is somehow a distinctly modern phenomenon is incorrect: “suicide was by no means uncommon in pre-industrial, rural England. It was far more common that homicide. Official statistics must always be treated with caution and those pertaining to suicide are particularly problematic for the reasons so succinctly expressed by Olive Anderson: “the definition of suicide is variable, the official processes for identifying and recording it very uneven in efficiency, and concealment is widespread”. Nineteenth century commentators often have a conception of society as being characterised by a compound of urbanisation, and industrialisation leading to a breakdown in traditional social ties and authority structures. In this context the shared sense of moral panic around increasing egoism and anomie as the cause of spiralling suicide rates is perhaps unsurprising. However, these fears were not based upon evidence there are no statistical grounds for believing that there was any general association between industrialisation in Victorian England and Wales and high suicide rates.
Many nineteenth century popular broadsheets demonstrate the fact that seemingly contradictory attitudes towards suicide could be held simultaneously. One broadsheet detailing an account of the suicide of Anne Graham in 1817 following the infanticide of two of her children expresses no doubt that “no cause but insanity can be assigned for the commission of such a dreadful and unnatural crime”. Gender stereotypes concerning the nurturing of women and mothers are clearly being invoked by the use of the ‘unnatural’. A less forgiving analysis is offered by another broadsheet considering the same case “it will clearly appear that the woman laboured under strong medical derangement, although it was not previously observed”. In this instance the lack of a history of mental illness is suggested as “proof of the depravity of the human heart when left to its own will”. The anonymous author of this broadsheet has no doubt that the unfortunate Mrs Graham is facing the “judgement” of God and that her “doom will be eternally fixed”. Such evidence suggests that attitudes towards suicide were protean and frequently contested throughout the nineteenth century.
There is considerable evidence that attitudes to suicide had undergone
substantial change by the end of the eighteenth century, particularly in legal and medical circles. The secularisation which began in the eighteenth century was consolidated throughout the nineteenth century as competing social sciences strove to redefine suicidal behaviour. Early attempts to medicalise suicide by a fledging psychiatric profession were elaborated upon; sophisticated aetiological schemas were developed which suggested organic, genetic and psychological causes; discursive diagnostic manuals were produced: in this arena, suicidal actions and thoughts were thoroughly pathologised by the close of the nineteenth century. Simultaneously sociologists were keen to categorise suicide as a social problem, a barometer of the functional utility of society. From this perspective suicide was the result of systemic and institutional failings in society brought about by rapid change rather than due to the pathology of a discreet individual. Throughout the period under consideration there existed numerous competing public spheres, including: the secular; the religious; the educated elite; and the popular. It would seem that the idea that ‘modern’ secular concepts cannot co-exist with ‘traditional’ modes of thought is incorrect at both a cultural and individual level. The simplistic binary opposition between modern and older belief systems is largely unsustainable when one considers the evidence. Chronological narratives of incremental progressive change do not stand up to close scrutiny. There were many different categories of suicide and the attitudes taken towards specific incidents of self-destruction varied enormously and were always dependent upon the context. Secular approaches did not simply replace more traditional ones. Rather, throughout the nineteenth century the existence of a resilient cultural memory is evident from the primary sources available across class boundaries. This cultural memory functioned as a repository of ideas which could be used to ascribe potential meanings to suicidal acts and people continually mined this resource in an effort to make sense of what Camus famously described as “the one truly philosophical problem”.
Anderson, O. 1987. “Did Suicide Increase with Industrialisation in Victorian England?” Past and Present 86 (1980): Suicide in Victorian and EdwardianEngland . Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Brown, M. 2004. The Art of Suicide. London: Reaktion Books.
Gates, Barbara. 1987. “Not Choosing Not To Be: Victorian Literary Responses to Suicide.” Literature and Medicine 6 (1987).
Hart, William. 2012. “Anti-Suicide: A Poem (1809).” In The History of Suicide in England 1650-1850 (vol 8), edited by Daryl Lee. London: Pickering & Chatto.
James, P.D. & T.A. Critchley. 1971. The Maul and the Pear Tree: The Ratcliffe Highway Murders 1811. London: Faber and Faber.
MacDonald, Michael. 1986. “The Secularization of Suicide in England, 1660‐1800.“ Past and Present 111 (1): 50-100.
Shepherd, Ana and David Wright. 2002. “Madness , Suicide and the Victorian Asylum: Attempted Self-Murder in the Age of Non-Restraint.” Medical History 46 (2): 175-196.
York, Sarah. 2011. “Alienists, Attendants and the Containment of Suicide in Public Lunatic Asylums, 1845–1890.” Social History of Medicine 25.2: 324–42.
To cite this post : Julie Mathias, “Victorian Attitudes Towards Self-Murder”, Curious Histories (blog on oldoperatingtheatre.com), November 11th, 2016.
Julie Mathias is the Head of Learning at the Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret. Her role includes convening the schools programs for students studying the “Medicine Through Time” series and related subjects. As a social historian Julie is interested in the history of ‘ordinary’ peoples’ experiences of health, illness, and death, and how investigating this fascinating phenomena enriches our present day understanding of our own bodies.