onsider the dilemma of a coroner's juryman in North Cray, Kent, on the afternoon of 13 August 1822. The previous morning, Lord Londonderry, Viscount Castlereagh — architect of the Grand Alliance, shaper of post-Napoleonic Europe, Foreign Secretary, and leader of the House of Commons — got up from his bed, complained of his breakfast, walked to his dressing room, summoned his physician, and then slashed deeply into his own neck with a pen knife.
The Suicide of Lord Londonderry, Viscount Castlereagh by George Cruikshank. 1822
The doctor arrived only in time to catch the sinking lord, who had severed his carotid artery, and to hear him murmur, "Bankhead let me fall upon your arm. 'Tis all over." (Hyde, 20). What our juryman and eleven others had to decide was whether his lordship was insane at the time of his death or was felo-de-se, a self-murderer. These were the choices for the legal verdicts in 1822, but to dub such an eminent man insane was to help label British power at its highest level as mad, and to pronounce Castlereagh felo-de-se was still worse. A sane and deliberate suicide in 1822 was subject to even greater ignominy: he or she could be buried at a cross-roads with a stake through the heart. As Lady Londonderry still had hope of a state funeral and interment in Westminster Abbey for her lord, a verdict of felo-de-se seemed unthinkable. In deference to her, our juryman suggested that he and his fellows take off their shoes and tiptoe past the grieving lady's bed-chamber to view the ill-fated dressing room and corpse. All were deeply affected. In yet further deference to Lady Londonderry, the coroner uncharacteristically led his jury. First he delivered the usual formal charge, then added a qualifying "I think." Next, evidence was heard, and finally, the verdict was given
that an inquest taken at the house of the late most noble Robert, Marquis of Londonderry, at North Cray, in the county of Kent, on Tuesday the 13th August, on view of the body of the said Marquis, we, the jurors, on our oaths, say that the said Marquis of Londonderry, on the 12th of August, and for some time previously, under a grievous disease of mind, did labour and languish, and by reason of the said disease, became delirious and not of sound mind; and that on the said a 12th of August, in the said parish, while labouring under such disease, did, with a certain knife of iron or steel, upon himself make an assault and did strike and cut and stab himself on the carotid artery; and gave himself one mortal wound of the length of one inch and the depth of two inches: of [3/4] which said wound lie did then and there instantly die; and being under a state of mental delusion in manner aforesaid, and by the means aforesaid, did kill and destroy himself, and did not come by his death through the means of any other person or persons whatsoever. [Hyde, 22-23]
Our juryman signed the legal document that carried the verdict, was thanked by the coroner, and then heard a letter from the Duke of Wellington attesting to Castlereagh's recent delusions. His moral dilemma resolved, the juror could head home with his job completed, his charge met.
What followed was public outrage. Placards were raised insisting that no suicide Could be buried in the great Abbey. Crowds congregated outside Lord Londonderry's house in St. James Square. Byron would neatly but cruelly summarize radical sentiment at the time in his preface to cantos VI-VIII of Don Juan:
Of the manner of his death little need be said, except that if a poor radical .. had cut his throat, he would have been buried in a cross-road, with the usual appurtenances of the stake and mallet. But the minister was an elegant lunatic — a sentimental suicide — he merely cut the "carotid artery," (blessings on their learning!) and lo! the pageant, and the Abbey! and "the syllables of dolour yelled forth" by the newspapers — and the harangue of the Coroner in the eulogy over the bleeding body of the deceased — (an Anthony worthy of such a Caesar) — and the nauseous and atrocious cant of a degraded crew of conspirators against all that is sincere and honourable. In his death he was necessarily one of two things by the law — a felon or a madman — and in either case no great subject for panegyric. [Byron, 198]
Actually the pageant on August 20 was curtailed. Because of the protests, the funeral procession was limited to friends and relatives. When the pallbearers bore the body into the Abbey to be placed between those of Pitt and Fox, members of the crowd that had gathered there cheered Castlereagh's death and had to be hushed by the Duke of Wellington. And John Cam Hobhouse discreetly wrote in his journal for 1822 that "many sober persons thought that, considering the manner of his death, it would have been more judicious to give him a private funeral at Cray" (Hyde, 33).
Clearly, much of the hostility toward Castlereagh's funeral and burial was political. For many, Lord Londonderry had become a symbol of privilege, rigidity, conservatism, and collaboration with the ancien régime. He was an emblem of the Old Europe. But some of the hostility was moral and marked contemporary feeling about injustice in ignominious disposal of suicides. In June of 1823, less than a year after Castlereagh's death, there was another, sorrier burial of a suicide in [5/6] London. Abel Griffiths, a twenty-two-year-old law student, clad only in drawers, socks and a winding sheet, was interred at the cross-roads formed by Eaton Street, Grosvenor Place and the King's Road. Wrapped in a piece of Russian matting, his bloodied, unwashed body was quickly dropped into a hole about five feet deep. The Annual Register for that " year reports that "the disgusting part of the ceremony of throwing lime over the body and driving a stake through it was dispensed with" (82). Griffiths had killed himself after having murdered his father. A chemist with personal knowledge of Griffiths, presumably a reliable witness, told the coroner's jury that Griffiths had had a "depression in the brain" and had inquired about leeching; he was certain that Griffiths was suffering from mental disease. But Griffiths's jury consulted for two hours and pronounced that Abel Griffiths "killed himself in a sound state of mind" (82). Resistance to this seemingly unfair verdict was expected but did not develop. Nevertheless, on the morning of the interment, constables and watchmen were stationed about the neighborhood of the deceased to keep an eye out for protestors.
They would be the last such watchdogs ever needed, for Griffiths was the last London suicide known to have been buried at a cross-roads. Glaring legal inequities, like those apparent in the Londonderry and Griffiths cases, were to come to an end in mid-1823, with the passage of 4 George IV.c 52. This law made it illegal for coroners to issue a warrant for burial of a felo-de-se in a public highway. Within twenty four hours of the inquest, the suicide was to be interred in a churchyard or public burial place. Superstitions and the desire to punish self-murderers remained, however. Suicides had been buried at cross-roads because these were signs of the cross; because steady traffic over the suicide's grave could help keep the person's ghost down; and because ancient sacrificial victims had been slain at such sites. Since they were considered the ultimate sinners, suicides had been staked to prevent their restless wanderings as lost souls. If life was a gift from God, the taking of it was God's prerogative only. This latter belief died hard, and the 1823 law contained punitive clauses. A felo-de-se must still be buried without Christian rites and at night, between the hours of nine and midnight, and his/her goods and chattels must still be turned over to the Crown.
Ambivalence in this law mirrored the ambivalence of English public opinion from the late eighteenth century throughout much of the nineteenth. Forfeiture was generally waived by the Crown in cases in which a suicide was not committed in order to avoid conviction for another felony, and temporary insanity was returned as a verdict far more often than felo-de-se. It became an aphorism to say that in England you must [06/07] avoid suicide on pain of being regarded as a criminal if you failed and a lunatic if you succeeded. Thus by the 182CS there was considerable support for liberalizing an antiquated law dating from the tenth century. In 1820, a letter writer to the London Times felt it necessary to contend that "a jury is fully warranted in bringing in a verdict of insanity in such cases, unless there be clear and decided proof to the contrary; and that to err on that side, if we are to err, is more just than on the other." Yet this view, like that of Castlereagh's coroner, was countered by its opposite. Two years before publication of the letter to the Times, in a sermon entitled "Suicide: An Atrocious Offence against God and Man," the Reverend Henry George Watkins railed uncharitably that verdicts of insanity "rather palliate the crime than prevent its increase" (Watkins, 13).
Religious sanctions against suicide would remain strong throughout the nineteenth century, but by 1823 many legal authorities, moralists, and parliamentarians did support reform. Most of them realized that earlier laws governing the punishment of felonia-de-se were developed by medieval judges to enrich the royal treasury. Thomas De Quincey refined contemporary thinking by arguing that it was necessary to distinguish between justifiable self-homicide and culpable self-murder. The first should apply whenever interests of others were involved, the second when simple personal interest was the motivating factor (DeQuincey, 401). Then, on 26 May 1823, Sir James MacKintosh, an impassioned parliamentarian, rose to the floor of the House of Commons. He labeled those who could approve of impaling bodies of other human beings, "Cannibals," and then called for an end to forfeiture. Not for a moment did he think that the penal laws against suicide were representative of current public conscience. Nor was there fairness in verdicts:
Verdicts of insanity were almost always found in the cases of persons in the higher stations of life: where self-slayers were humble and defenceless, there felo-de-se was usually returned. This might perhaps be accounted for, without any imputations upon the impartiality of juries. First, because persons in high life had usually better means of establishing the excuse for the criminal act. Secondly, because suicide was rarely the crime of the poorer classes occupied with their daily labours. It was the effect of wounded shame; the result of false pride, and the fear of some imaginary degradation. Thirdly, the very barbarity of the law rendered it impotent; for juries would not consent that the remains of the dead should be thus outraged if they could find any colour for a verdict of insanity. [Parliamentary Reports, 416]
Cheers went up from the House as MacKintosh seated himself after this speech. On 4 July, the new law passed, replacing a custom that the Annual Register termed "revolting to every natural feeling." (88) [8/9]
Even though Westminster moved to lay them to rest, ghosts and atrocities at cross-roads would continue to haunt fiction and the British popular imagination. Published just a year after the passage of the new English law and capitalizing on public interest throughout Britain,12 James Hogg's The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner contains a macabre, fictional letter recounting the exhumation of a suicide. Purportedly from Blackwood's in August of 1823, it describes the perfectly preserved body of a supposedly devil-assisted suicide, dead for over one hundred years and interred at a cross-roads. Hogg concludes his imaginative book by noting that "in this day, and with the present generation, it will not go down that a man should be daily tempted by the Devil, in the semblance of a fellow-creature; and at length lured to self-destruction. " (Hogg, 229) Yet some twenty years later, in Emily Brontë's day, devils, crossroads, and suicides continued to spellbind readers.
Brontë's Wuthering Heights, set in 1771-18O3 but published in 1847, alludes both to pre-1823 burial customs and to those of 1823. Brontë seems to have felt free to use both the laws in effect during the time of her story and those governing early Victorian times. 14 In narrating the details surrounding Hindley Earnshaw's death (1784), for example, she draws upon the earlier statutes. Although the exact cause of Hindley's death is never determined, all who saw him at the end claim that he died in a state of drunkenness. Mr. Kenneth, who tells Nelly about the death, says that he "died true to his character, drunk as a lord" (p. 153). And Heathcliff, when Nelly asks if she may proceed with suitable arrangements for Hindley's funeral. retorts that "correctly . . . that fool's body should be buried at the cross-roads, without ceremony of any kind. I happened to leave him ten minutes, yesterday afternoon; and, in that interval, he fastened the two doors of the house against me, and he has spent the night in drinking himself to death deliberately!" (WH, 153)
The precise circumstances of Hindley's death, which are reported in considerable detail, have important implications for the course of Brontë's novel. For if Hindley did die drunk and debauched, as both Kenneth and Heathcliff indicate he did, in the eighteenth century he would automatically have been considered a suicide, exactly as Heathcliff suggests (see Sprott, 97). Even more importantly, in that case his property could legally have been forfeited to the Crown, with nothing left for Hareton arid hence nothing left for Heathcliff to employ as a tool in his revenge. It is probably for this reason that Heathcliff allows Nelly to perform proper burial rights for Hindley, thus relinquishing a more immediate revenge upon Hindley's dead body while gaining a long-term hold on the entire Earnshaw family. [8/9]
Earlier, just before coming to the Heights, Nelly had consulted with Linton's lawyer about Hindley's death and had requested that the lawyer come to the Heights with her. His refusal is telling, for he advises that "Heathcliff be let alone, affirming that if the truth were known, Hareton would be found little else than a beggar"(WH, 153). The "truth" here may be that Heathcliff is Hareton's only hope because he is Hindley's creditor; or that the lawyer, probably Mr. Green, is already under Heathcliff's influence. But it may also be that Hindley's death as a suicide is better left ignored, primarily because of the possibility of forfeiture.
Catherine Earnshaw's death precedes her brother's by only half a year, and it too can be considered suicidal. There is little doubt that Catherine knows how to induce her own ill health, even though she does not intend suicide when she first embarks upon her fast in Chapter II. At this point, totally breaking her own body and heart is, for Catherine, still "a deed to be reserved for a forlorn hope" (WH, 101). What happens, however, is that Catherine's body only partially cooperates with her will, and Nelly's assumption that Catherine is in total control of her situation is a tragic miscalculation. After only three days' fast, Catherine is already past saving. When she realizes that neither Linton nor Heathcliff has become genuinely alarmed and then chooses not to die, she cannot reverse her headlong journey toward destruction.
The important scene before her mirror (WH, 106) already spells this doom for Catherine, as Q. D. Leavis has realized (Leavis, 146). Catherine is shocked when she sees her own reflection because she seems to understand what Yorkshire folklore dictates: that sick people should never look at themselves in a mirror. If they do, their souls may take flight from their weak bodies by being projected into the mirror, and this can cause their death. In accordance with this belief, immediately after she sees her reflection in the mirror, Catherine is convinced that she really will die. Leavis suggests that this realization replaces Catherine's fear of ghosts, anxiously expressed just before: "I hope it will not come out when you are gone! Oh! Nelly, the room is haunted!" (WH, 106). I believe, however, that the realization and the fear are even more closely related. For Catherine actually seems to consider herself to be the ghost once she recognizes that the face in the mirror is her own. " 'Myself,' she gasped, 'and the clock is striking twelve! It's true then; that's dreadful!' " (WH, 106). Catherine's utter horror here stems from her superstitious belief that suicides become restless ghosts. (See Cavendish, 555; and Gutch, 42, 48). She now assumes herself to be a suicide, and it is this aspect of Catherine's unnerving realization before the mirror that incites her subsequent raving about the ghosts at Gimmerton Kirkyard. [09/10]
After this scene, there is only one more meeting between Catherine and Heathcliff before her actual death. On that occasion their dialogue is flied with allusions to Catherine's suicide and her would-be haunting of Heathcliff. Catherine now feels that she will never be at peace; while Heathcliff repeatedly expresses regret over what he feels is Catherine's self-murder and his relationship to it. In desperation, Heathcliff can forgive Catherine her murder of him but not her own willed death, which she in turn blames on him. All this seemingly metaphorical talk of murder reflects suicide law. Any accomplice of a suicide was legally considered his/her murderer, (see Jacob, pp.3473-3475) so that, ironically, the protagonists' accusations of one another could, were they true, carry the weight of law, as well as of guilt.
Catherine is not, however, buried as a suicide. Nelly wonders "after the wayward and impatient existence she had led, whether she merited a haven of peace at last" (WH 137-38), but after looking at her in death, decides that she probably does, Instead, Catherine is interred in the corner of the Kirkyard under the wall, "to the surprise of the villagers" (WH, 140). Because the local people did not know of the means of Catherine's death, they might have expected that she would lie either in the chapel with the Lintons or by the tombs of the Earnshaws. Their wonderment is understandable when one recalls another folk belief about suicides. Particularly after the 1823 law, when suicides could legally be buried in churchyards, it became customary in parts of northern Britain for their bodies to be laid below the churchyard wall, so that no one would be likely to walk over their graves (see Westermarck, 255-256). The place of Catherine's burial would thus have had particular significance for the folk of Gimmerton, who would no doubt have inferred the nature of her death from the location of her grave.
Unquestionably the place of Catherine's burial determines Heathcliffs own choice of a burial site and consequently his own need not to become discovered as a suicide. Because of his reputation and his doubtful place in the Gimmerton community, it is far less likely that Heathcliff would be extended the kind of pity that had allowed for the churchyard burials of Hindley and Catherine. He knows this and knows too of the possibility of interment in the public highway and is therefore scrupulous about not appearing suicidal. This accounts for the long delay of his own death, which continues to trouble the novel's critics; recent examples include Mitchell, 1973. Unfortunately for Heathcliff's union with Catherine, Linton dies before Heathcliff does and is the one to be buried in the grave next to hers. Lawyer Green, now the tool of Heathcliff, does suggest that Linton be buried appropriately in the chapel. Linton's death is of natural causes and his family all lie there. But Green, though under Heathcliff's influence, [10/11] must abide by the stipulations of Linton's will, which states Linton's desire to be buried with Catherine. Nelly, for one, issues "loud protestations against any infringement of its directions" (WH, 226).
Less than a year elapses between Linton's death and Heathcliffs, the year in which Heathcliff and Wuthering Heights are so intensely haunted by Catherine that even the prosaic Lockwood is influenced to dream of her. Toward the end of this time, Nelly observes how isolated and peculiar Heathcliff has become and warns him against taking his own life. As she notes, he undergoes his most dramatic set of changes from the time of his curious hunting accident, when "his gun burst" while he was "out on the hills by himself" (WH, 246). Finding himself still alive after the accident, Heathcliff forces himself to reach home, despite a heavy loss of blood, Detained by this accident, lie is brought into closer contact with Cathy and Haremn. Now, however, as his tormentings of them only serve to remind him of Catherine, he becomes affected by the strange tedium vitae that was considered the cause of so many nineteenth-century suicides. 22Quotations from Wuthering Heights "I cannot continue in this condition," he tells Nelly. "I have to remind myself to breathe — almost to remind my heart to beat!" (WH, 256). He also forgets to eat but makes the attempt when Nelly urges him and then takes great care to tell her that "It is not my fault, that I cannot eat or rest. I assure you it is through no settled designs" (WH, 262).
As he begins to fail, the one thing uppermost in Heathcliff's mind is his burial. To Nelly he gives detailed instructions for its procedures: "..you remind me of the manner that I desire to be buried in. It is to be carried to the churchyard, in the evening.. No minister need come; nor need anything be said over me" (WH, 263). Each of Heathcliff's requests is in accord with the 1823 statute governing the burial of suicides: the hour, the place, and the lack of a Christian burial service. Nelly seems to) realize their significance. In a moment of insight she brings up the fear that has haunted Heathdiff ever since the day of Catherine's death: "And supposing you persevered in your obstinate fast, and died by that means, and they refused to bury you in the precinct of the Kirk?" (WH, 263)
Heathcliff's only means of recourse now are to charge Nelly with the business of moving his body, so that he can be with Catherine, and directly to threaten Nelly with haunting should she fail to comply. The threat seems sufficient to frighten the superstitious servant, and the next evening when Heathcliff does die, Nelly conceals her suspicions about his death from Kenneth: "Kenneth was perplexed to pronounce of what disorder the master died, I concealed the fact of his having swallowed nothing for four days, fearing it might lead to trouble, and [11/12] then, I am persuaded he did not abstain on purpose; it was the consequence of his strange illness, not the cause" (WH, 264). Her actions now free Nelly to carry out Heathcliff's instructions to the letter and "to the scandal of the whole neighbourhood" (WH, 265) Shocked by Heathcliff's interment side by side with the married Lintons, the people also appear to know the meaning of Heatincliff's burial without Christian rites. It is not long afterward that under the Nab the local shepherd boy sees the ghosts of what he must now consider as two suicides, Heathcliff and Catherine. In the end, Lockwood's much-discussed final words in Wuthering Heights take on added irony in light of the folklore of suicide. Referring to the gravesites of Catherine, Linton, and Heathcliff, Lockwood wonders "how anyone could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth" (WH, 266). But anyone knowing the customs surrounding suicide in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain — as Emily Brontë did — could, on the contrary, hardly imagine quiet slumbers for them.
I have lingered over Brontës great mid-century novel to show that a Victorian reader aware of suicide law and lore might have judged its first generation of characters quite differently from the way we regard them now. The legal and moral implications of suicide and the folklore they generated took deep hold in Victorian Britain. As late as 1886, suicides and cross-roads continued to sell stories. Tinsley's Magazine of that year published an awkward one by Philippa Prittie Jephson, called "The Cross Roads." In this story, mares shy and mvsterious lights appear and vanish in an Irish glen when two men approach a cross-roads. From a local cottager they later hear that a suicide walks in that haunted spot:
"There was an inquest, and great searching to find out who he was, and where he came from, but no one ever found out, from that day to this. I think there was a halfpermy in his pocket and an old knife, but whatever it was the polis' took it, and Father Doyle said he should not be buried in consecrated ground, seeing he made away with himstlf. So the boys took his body up to the cross roads in a harrow, and buried him there, and that's why lie walks. Sure there was never a prayer said over him at all, poor wretch; I would not tell you a lie. And to think you saw him — well, well!" [Jephson, in Tinsley's, 476]
In the outposts of Britain — in Hogg's Scotland, Brontë's Yorkshire, and Jephson's Ireland — fascination with ignominious burial did not fade with the passage Of 4 George IV. c. 52 in London.
Nor did the nineteenth-century controversy over the question of temporary insanity end in 1823. Rather, it intensified. As the century progressed, physicians were increasingly called upon to define insanity [12/13] in cases of suicide. Their definitions became the focus of debate throughout the Victorian era, and their community can serve as a microcosm of educated, scientific opinion about suicide. Medical views form both a contrast and a complement to superstitions about crossroads. Take for example the discussion of "moral insanity," an idea first suggested by the Bristol physician James Cowles Prichard in 1835. In his Treatise on Insanity and Otber Disorders Affecting the Mind, (Prichard, 1835) Prichard called for a redefinition of the characteristics of mental illness. Until the Treatise and its follow-up study On the Different Forms of Insanity in Relation to Jurisprudence, (Prichard, 1842) mental illness was considered an impairment of the intellect and judgment, a twofold classification that had held from the time of the Greeks to the eighteenth century in England. (See Carlson and Dain, 130-140). But Prichard posited the equivalent possibility of impairment of the emotions, what he called "moral insanity" and defined as
a morbid perversion of the natural feelings, affections, inclinations, temper, habits, moral dispositions, and natural impalses, without any remarkable disorder or defect of the intellect or knowing and reasoning faculties, and particularly without any insane illusion or hallucination. . . . The individual is found to be incapable, not of talking or reasoning upon any subject proposed to him, for this he will often do with great shrewdness and volubility, but of conducting himself with decency and propriety in the business of life. (Prichard, 1835; pp. 6, 4).
This concept, which influenced Esquirol in his famous book Des Maladies Mentales, revolutionized thinking about criminal insanity in cases of suicide as well as of murder. For if an individual suffering from moral insanity in cases of suicide were liable to instinctive and involuntary impulses that would determine his or her behavior of a moment (and it was Prichard who coined the term "irresistible impulse"), nearly any criminal act could be labeled as insane, This possibility Prichard admitted: "Homicides, infanticides, suicides of the most fearful description have been committed under its influence" (see Dennis Leigh, 185). Crime, then, could be directly linked with mental illness, and the acceptance of moral insanity as a legal category threatened to shift the burden of judicial responsibility from legal to medical practitioners (see Carlson and Dain, 135).
If the Victorian pronounced felo-de-se in the 1830s and 1840s could be seen as suffering from "moral insanity," he or she nonetheless remained the most miserable of sinners, at least according to Forbes Winslow of the Royal College of Surgeons in London, the preeminent expert on suicide during those years. In 1840 Winslow deliberately set out to produce the initial book-length Victorian consideration of self-murder, The Anatomy of Suicide, "the first in England that has been exclusively devoted to this important and interesting branch of inquiry [13/14] " (Winslow, p. iv). Ranking suicide morally among the "black catalogue of hotman offences" and branding it as "a crime against God and man," (Winslow, 36) Winslow nonetheless attributed it to medical causes such as depression, physical pain, and insanity. Winslow's dual perspective — as the righteous moral condemner of suicide while at the same time the physician most concerned with its meaning, history, and even prevention — seriously flaws his book, rendering it full of contradictions. Yet Winslow's study reveals the two minds that so many educated Victorians brought to this subject. They wanted to know more about suicide, to understand its causes and "cures," but they felt a moral aversion toward the act that was still deeply rooted in their religious and legal history.
Winslow's name arises in another significant context in the history of Victorian attitudes toward both murder and self-murder, this time as the two related to the plea of insanity. Winslow was also one of the examining physicians in the famous case of Daniel McNaughton (1843). McNaughton was the convicted murderer of Edward Drummond (secretary to Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel), whom McNaughton had slain, mistaking Drummond for Peel. Winslow testified that he had "not the slightest hesitation in saying that [McNaughton was] insane, and that he committed the offence whilst afflicted with a delusion, under which he appears to have been labouring for a considerable length of time" (Walker, 95). Because of the testimony of the doctors in this case, McNaughton was committed to an asylum rather than executed. But the public hue and cry that arose from the lack of severity in the sentence prompted the House of Lords to ask the fifteen judges of the common law courts for the famous clarification of grounds for legal insanity known as the McNaughton Rules. In these rules, which dominated criminal and therefore suicide law with respect to insanity until the 1960s, the Lords asked the judges to respond to five questions about the nature of the knowledge of right and wrong:
To define the law pertaining to crimes committed by persons suffering from "insane delusion,"
To offer what would be the appropriate questions to put to the jury in such cases,
To state in what terms the questions ought to be left to the jury,
To decide whether a person suffering from insane delusion should be executed, and
To determine whether a medical practitioner was qualified to judge such insane delusion if he had never previously seen the accused.
The judges' answers to these questions indicated that a person would be punishable under the law if he or she knew at the time of committing a crime that he or she was acting contrary to law; that the jury has ultimate responsibility in adjudging a person insane or not; and that medical practitioners could [14/15] give scientific evidence but that, again, the jury had to make the ultimate decision.
Thus the McNaughton Rules did not allow the burden of judicial responsibility to pass from legal to medical practitioners in cases of criminal insanity. Regardless of Prichard's influence in the 1840s, there was no mention of an irresistible impulse in the Rules. English law refused to recognize this plea if the criteria for unsoundness of mind spelled out in the McNaughton Rules were absent. Nonetheless, by the late 1840s Prichard's idea had taken firm hold of the minds of practitioners of psychological medicine and of the popular and literary mind as well. When in 1846 Elizabeth Barrett heard of the death of her friend, the painter Benjamin Haydon, she was convinced that he had succumbed to a "sudden" suicidal impulse. "For he was mad if he killed himself. of that I am as sure as if I knew it," she exclaimed to a friend. "If he killed himself, he was mad first" (Qtd. in Hayter, 103).
Haydon's macabre suicide raises another question about suicide in the England of the 1840s: that of the relationship of the physical brain to the act of self-destruction. Haydon was morbidly interested in this relationship, which had been of concern to materialist psychiatry throughout the thirties and forties. Winslow's Anatomy, for example, included a chapter entitled "Appearances Presented After Death in Those Who Have Committed Suicide" in which the condition of the brain was discussed, and coroners' inquests carefully recorded reports of physicians on the physical appearance of the brain. In Haydon's own case, the doctors' post-mortem discovered "innumerable bloody points through the brain," clearly felt to be indicators of "brain disease," although the doctors differed as to the duration of this so-called disease (Hayter, 114). Ironically, Haydon had studied such diagnoses before he took his own life by both shooting himself and slitting his throat, and had considered that he himself was a victim of too much pressure on the brain. The throat-slitting was to have eliminated just those bloody points discovered in the post-mortem, In his diary Haydon confessed, "It may be laid down that self destruction is the physical mode of relieving a diseased brain, because the first impression on a brain diseased, or diseased for a Time, is the necessity of this horrid crime" (Hayter, 114). In contemplating reports of the suicides of Castlereagh and Sir Samuel Romilly, he inferred that the two must have achieved relief when they cut their throats and the blood began to flow, removing the pressure built up in their brains.
During the 1850s interest in the close connection between mind and matter reached its zenith in the work of George R. Drysdale, "a doctor of medicine" whose Elements of Social Science (1854) became a popular [15/16] success and went through innumerable editions. Drysdale hypothesized that moral transgression was in fact disease, "but that men, in general, do not recognize moral disease, they do not allow sorrow, fear, &c., to be diseases" (Drysdale, 1854). He was eager for his contemporaries to understand that the spirit belongs to the brain and that all moral diseases are the result of our ignorance of natural laws. If only we were to realize this, we should be able to live more in accordance with those laws, whenever possible shunning moral disease as we do physical disease, since the two are of a piece. To us today this may seem an odd way to solve the philosophical question of the duality of mind and body, but to many Victorians, Drysdale's work became a kind of Bible. The implications of the work for the study of suicide were clear enough: understand the disease that underlies the act of suicide, live in accordance with the natural law that makes self-preservation so important, and thus eliminate suicide altogether.
In general, however, the 1850s saw more discussion of suicide and moral insanity than suicide and empirical morality, and Prichard's ideas came under careful review. Popular magazines like Hogg's Instructor offered articles on suicide in which the notion of "sudden impulse" was accepted as a valid category, and the Irish Quarterly Review of 1857 showed concern that a "great difference of opinion exists among high medical authorities on the question, whether the mere act of self-destruction is in itself a proof of insanity." ("Suicide: Its Motives and Mysteries", IQR) One event that illustrates the difference of opinion and that triggered reevaluation of Prichard's work was the publication of Dr. Thomas Mayo's Croonian Lectures on Medical Testimony and Evidence in Cases of Lunacy (1853). (Mayo, 1853) According to Mayo, Prichari's ideas were undercutting the effectiveness of the McNaughton Rules. Mayo thought that this was true to the extent that criminal actions, including suicide, were in danger of being adjudged the results of insanity. Fraser's Magazine (March 1855) championed Mayo's point of view, while the London Journal of Psychological Medicine printed an article entitled "On Suicide" (1858) which asserted that "suicide can never be committed when the mind is perfectly healthy. So the controversy raged on, although the trend was certainly toward considering suicides insane rather than criminal.
In another interesting development of the 1850s, physicians began commenting upon suicide and insanitv in literary works, while literary figures increasingly based their viewpoints upon medical knowledge. As Henry Maudsley would later say, imagination hastens "to fill the voids of knowledge with fictions" (Maudsley, 116), and alienists were coming to value such fictions. In 1855, Sir John Charles Bucknill, who later became president of the Medico-Psychological Association and the editor of the [16/17] Asylum Journal of Mental Science, reviewed Tennyson's Maud from the physician's point of view. Bucknill examined the hero of the poem in an effort to show that poets were superior psychologists. Tennyson, he felt, was in line with contemporary psychological understanding when he showed his narrator's hereditary tendency toward instability and stressed the shock to his emotions caused by the suicide of his father. Four years later, in 1859, Bucknill analyzed the psychology of Shakespeare in a lengthy volume (1859) again showing how literary work complemented medical knowledge of mental illness. In the same year, the writer Harriet Martineau offered a detailed consideration of self-murder in Once a Week and drew heavily upon contemporary medical opinion about suicidal insanity, including coroners' reports. Her essay was in part a plea for the early acknowledgment of any form of insanity that might lead to suicide. Her hope was that in some cases the insanity might be cured and suicide prevented. Martineau was clearly influenced by the Victorian concept of brain disease, and she deplored the stigma attached to madness by families, She argued that if brain disease were seen as potentially curable like any other disease, families would learn to have it treated. Eventually they would shed their ancient prejudices against it, since such prejudices were, to her mind, merely outdated notions of possession and fears of a wrathful God (513).
But Prichard's morality died hard, and the 1870s saw further reinterpretation of his still vital concepts of the sudden impulse and moral insanity. William Carpenter in Principles of Mental Physiology (1874) found that the "insane impulse" was often "the expression of a dominant idea," capable of controlling an individual so forcefully that he would think of himself as driven by necessity (666). It was, however, Henry Maudsley's influential Pathology of Mind (1879) that most carefully refined Prichard's arguments. Maudsley deplored the legal "justice" that tried to measure the "lunatic's responsibility by his knowledge of right and wrong" and agreed with Prichard and Carpenter that insane impulses did exist. He posited that such impulses were secondary to what he called "morbid perversion of feeling (332). In his chapter "The Sympromatology of Insanity," Maudsley counseled that "what we have to fix in the mind is that the mode of affection of the individual by events is entirely changed by the disordered state of the nerve-element: that is the fundamental fact, from which flow as secondary facts the insane impulses, whether mischievous, erotic, homicidal, or suicidal" (330). Suicides in particular could seem "quite rational" but could apply their cunning to frequent suicide attempts. Thus Maudsley encouraged practitioners to become alert to the "whole manner of feeling" in their patients. He went much further in exploring similar territory than did [17/18] Prichard, finding heredity and epilepsy at the base of much moral insanity and discussing the hallucinations associated with this form of derangement. Most significantly, he stressed the social importance of understanding moral insanity: all of society is threatened by the poteritial for destruction evident in those who are morally insane. For this reason above all he wished to make certain that Prichard and Esquirol were not forgotten.
Maudsley's work showed a compassion for the victim and a social dimension that were to become increasingly evident in British medical writing on suicide. In an 1878 article, "On Suicide, in Its Social Relations," James Davey, another Bristol physician, evinced both of these concerns when he pleaded for further change in suicide law. Like Maudsley, Davey thought that emotions, rather than the reflective mind, were involved in cases of insanity leading to suicide, and he advocated less severity in legal dealings with the act. Denial of the rites of a Christian burial to the suicide was particularly distasteful to Davey.
Despite consistent interest in suicide throughout the mid-Victorian decades, there was no full-length study of self-destruction from the time of Winslow's Anatomy of Suicide in 1840 until the 1880s. Then, in 1881 , came a highly influential book, Henry Morselli's Suicide: An Essay on Comparative Moral Statistics, an Italian work translated into English and published in London. Morselli, a professor of psychological medicine at the Royal University, Turin, provided the most comprehensive set of statistics on suicide available in England. Tuke, for example, in his section on suicide in the Dictionary of Psychological Medicine (1892) would need only to summarize Morseili's data for page after page. In Morselli's Suicide, we have the culmination of a trend that had been developing in England since the 1860s — the increased use of statistics coupled with an interest in the social dimension of suicide. It took an Italian to carry this trend to its ultimate extent because in Engiand suicide statistics were still suspect. There was no accurate, consistent system of classification for cause of death until 1858, when William Farr, the Registrar-General, began to tabulate suicides separately from other deaths. Even then there was widespread skepticism about statistics of suicide because concealment was presumed to be common and definitions of suicide varied. Moreover, the British seemed disinclined to bring positivism to bear on the study of suicide or to take the lead in establishing the science of socioiogy. Thus, as Olive Anderson so persuasively argues, "Victorian ideas about the incidence of suicide were illustrated by statistics rather than founded upon thern" (167). Comparing and interpreting British statistics, Morselli gratefully filled the gap left by the British themselves. In the preface to his Essay, he nodded in [18/19] thanks to Darwin, Buckle, Spencer, and Wallace and claimed to be carrying their scientific example over into his new and original inquiry into self-destruction. Because he believed that the "old philosophy of individualism" was dead, Morselli thought suicide should no longer be studied in terms of individual cases but rather as "a social phenomenon" (3). Although he believed that statistics were invaluable in understanding human behavior, he realized that they could not be presumed to reveal the true mental states preceding an act of suicide. Thus it was wisest to use them to study the whole of society in "its wants and tendencies, that is in the functions of its complicated organism," a variation of the myth of the body politic. When one does so,
the most fatal and at the same time apparently most arbitrary human actions, suicide and crime, show themselves to us in their similarity subject to numerous influences, which the examination of every single case would not suffice to reveal to us, and which collectively are universal, perpetual, and intense. and such as the most positive mode of psychological study would fail to discover in the individual." 
Morselli also thought that his statistics would "trace the indications of the prophylactics and therapeutics of suicide against which laws and philosophy show themselves powerless" (3). This latter claim he failed to prove, but the conclusions to his study form an interesting chapter in the history of social Darwinism. For Morselli's statistics led him to one grand conclusion: "suicide is an effect of the struggle for existence and of human selection. which works according to the laws of evolution among civilized people." (354; emphasis in original). Weaker individuals who cannot cope with the stresses of civilized life are the ones who commit suicide. Morselli found that a "sad law of necessity" was weeding out these weaker types in order to maintain the population of the civilized world at a subsistence level. The only way to prevent suicide was somehow to diminish the struggle for existence among large numbers of the populace, "establishing a balance between individual needs and Social Utility" (374). We can only begin to do this by developing our moral character, Morselli concluded, yet he gave no clue as to how to go about this difficult task.
Contemporary British reviews of Morselli's work were divided. Nature (vol. 25) noted the power of the statistical method as exhibited in Suicide, while The Dial (March 1882) found the statistics "dry" and the necessitarianism "false,' although it too praised the thoroughness of the compilation. William Wynn Westcott, deputy coroner for central Middlesex, found Morselli's work of considerable use in his own full-length book, Suicide: Its History, Literature, Jurisprudence, Causation, and Prevention (1885). Like Morselli, Westcott prefaced his study by considering suicide as "one of our social problems" and cited the prevention of suicide [19/20] as one of his aims in writing the treatise. He also relied heavily upon Morselli's statistics and gave nodding acceptance to the notion of the social Darwinism involved in suicide. Nevertheless he was worried about the increasing reliance upon statistics in the study of suicide; in his estimation, a return to a closer took at mental states and emotions was in order. Westcott also insisted that it was time, once and for all, to cease thinking of suicide as a crime. He maintained that suicide was not an equivalent to murder: we cannot estimate its injury to the victim; it creates no terrible public alarm; and it cannot be repeated. He believed that Forbes Winslow had been wrong in making the connection between suicide and madness, and too many had followed suit. What was now needed was attention to melancholia, despair, and misery in an effort to diminish the number of deaths by suicide (121). Such emphasis upon prevention was also a chief concern of the prominent alienist G. H. Savage. In a paper read at the quarterly meeting of the Medico-Psychological Association in February 1884 (17-19) Savage offered a practical approach to prevention. The paper largely applied to patients in mental institutions like Bethlehem Royal Mental Hospital (Bethlem), where "constant watching" was practiced. Although he agreed that watching might be one way of coping with suicidal behavior, from experience he was convinced that it often "dared" the patients to attempt suicide. His remedy was to encourage self-reliance among potential suicides, since he presumed that this, if anything, might allow them the exercise of self-control essential to their survival.
Savage, Tuke's co-editor of the Journal of Mental Science, was quite as interested in arriving at a definition of suicide in relation to insanity as he was in preventing suicide. Both Tuke and Savage were also instrumental in the revaliclation of Prichard's idea of "moral insanity" that occurred toward the century's end. In his Chapters on the History of the Insane in the British Isles (1882), Tuke commended the clinically oriented Savage for "recognizing the abstract metaphysical difficulty of conceiving moral as distinct from intellectual insanity" and yet for admitting "as a clinical fact the form of mental disease for which Prichard contended" (455). Tuke also felt himself bound to admit, as "an impartial historian," that Prichard's "views are still by no means unanimously adopted, and that I am only expressing my own sentiments when I avow that what Latham says of Prichard's 'Researches into the Physical History of Mankind' — 'Let those who doubt its value try to do without it' — applies to the teaching contained in the remarkable treatise entitled 'Different Forms of Insanity in Relation to jurisprudence' " (454). Tuke and Savage also collaborated on the section of Tuke's Dictionary devoted to suicide, with Savage writing the section entitled "Suicide and Insanity." [08/09] Here the double classification of sane and insane suicides was upheld, and a table was offered that represented medical orthodoxy on the divisions of insane Suicides at this time (1892). Table 1 illustrates Savage's own schema, in which Prichard's impulsive behavior is given five aspects, and deliberate Suicide given an even more extensive subdivision.
The end of the century also encouraged a review of thinking about suicide, a phenomenon clearly visible in S. A. K. Strahan's Suicide and Insanity (1893). For Strahan, a barrister who was also a member of the Medico-Psychological Association and a fellow of the Royal Statistical Society, physiology and sociology were of equal interest. Strahan accepteci the twofold classification of rational and irrational suicide, and under irrational suicide carefully reviewed the general subject of suicide and insanity. Here lie too took issue with the analysis of Forbes Winslow. How, he questioned, could Winslow contend that all suicides are insane at the same time that he saw suicide as morally culpable, "High up in the black catalogue of human offences?" Are all madmen then immoral? Suicide, according to Stralhan, was quite as often associated with idiocy and drunkenness as with insanity. Other aspects of Strahan's study tallied with the work of Tuke, Westcott, and Morsellt. Strahan would, however, disagree with those who felt that a suicide nccessarily inflicted harm upon society by leaving it. Often quite the reverse was true, for a suicide might remove an intolerable social burden. And [21/22] since the contract between a society and its members was supposed to be one of mutual benefit, such a contract could be broken by either side — the individual's or the society's. The truth of this view with respect to society he thought was obvious. But the individual should have the same option, even though it gave him or her the right to self-destruction (Strahan, 31).
In general, Strahan's book is sympathetic to the right to die as well as to the suffering of many potential suicides, and his compassion was largely shared by his fellow members of the Medico-Psychological Associaimn. In a paper entitled "Suicide in Simple Melancholy," Maudsley, for example, addressed the problem of prolonged depression. He took care to distinguish between melancholia, a form of insanity, and melancholy, prolonged and morbid &pression "due to internal failure of the springs of re-action, without external cause"; (Maudsley in MMoL 1, 46) but he gave no advice as to how to overcome such melancholy. Instead he concluded his paper with some philosophical thoughts on the question of suicide:
Considered objectively, as a physical event, suicide is a natural event of the human dispensation, just a necessary incident from time to time of & course of its organic evolutions and dissolutions, and no more out of keeping then than any other mode of death. It seems unnatural, because mankind, thinking the universe made for it and not it for the universe, has never yet sincerely reconciled itself to accept death as a fit event, and deems it nothing better than madness for anyone to do that in quiet consciousness so long as he can avoid it. 
In view of Maudsley's care for the patient suffering from morbid metancholy, these words are anything but callous. What they indicate is a far different attitude from those typifying the earlier decades of the century. Suicide is certainly not a sin; still less is it a crime. Many of those who consider it a sign of insanity do so only out of a basic fear of dying, Here Maudsley takes the biologist's, almost the ecologist's, broader view, ignoring both legalists and moralists except in stressing humankind's relative smallness in the universe. This kind of Darwinism rather than Morselli's social Darwinism marked the later writing of the foremost British psychiatrist of his day. A far cry from Prichard and even from Maudslev's earlier revisions of Prichard, this naturalism was the final verdict oi the Victorian medical community on the human act of suicide. Typifying educated scientific thinking at the end of the century, it would stand alongside the McNaughton rules, which remained the verdict of the legal community at the century's close.
Last modified 12 May 2023