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CHAPTER 25

A Note on Suicide

Many inmates committed “self-murder” within the walls of Newgate, but in London suicide assumes many forms. People have hurled themselves from the Whispering Gallery in the cathedral of St. Paul’s; poisoned themselves in the solitude of London attics; and drowned themselves for love in the waters of St. James’s Park. The Monument was another favourite location: the unhappy subject would throw himself or herself from the summit of the pillar and fall upon its base rather than the street. On 1 May 1765, according to Grosley’s A Tour of England, “the wife of a colonel drowned herself in the canal in St. James’s park; a baker hanged himself in Drury-lane; a girl, who lived near Bedlam, made an attempt to dispatch herself in the same manner.” In the summer of 1862 “the Suicide Mania” became a topic of public attention. In that same century the Thames was wreathed with the bodies of the drowned.

London was the suicide capital of Europe. As early as the fourteenth century Froissart described the English as “a very sad race,” which description applied particularly and even principally to Londoners. The French considered that the London vogue for suicides was owing to “the affectation of singularity,” although a more perceptive observer believed that it was “from a contempt of death and a disgust of life.” One Frenchman described the plight of London families “that had not laughed for three generations,” and observed that citizens committed suicide in the autumn in order “to escape the weather.” Another visitor remarked that self-slaughter was “no doubt owing to the fogs.” He also suggested that beef was another essential cause, since “its viscous heaviness conveys only bilious and melancholic vapours to the brain”; his diagnosis has a curious resemblance to the folk superstition of Londoners, in which to dream of beef “denotes the death of a friend or relation.” The modern connection between beef and “BSE” may be noted here.

It was also remarked by Grosley that “melancholy prevails in London in every family, in circles, in assemblies, at public and private entertainments … The merry meetings, even of the lowest sort, are dashed with this gloom.” Dostoevsky observed the “gloom” which “never forsakes” the Londoner even “in the midst of gaiety.” The wine sold in London taverns was also considered “to occasion that melancholy, which is so general.” Even the theatre was held responsible for the unhappy distemper; one traveller described how the son of his landlord, after being taken to see Richard III, “leaped out of bed and, after beating the wainscot with his head and feet, at the same time roaring like one possessed, he rolled about the ground in dreadful convulsions, which made us despair of his life; he thought he was haunted by all the ghosts in the tragedy of Richard the Third, and by all the dead bodies in the churchyards of London.”

Everything was blamed except, perhaps, for the onerous and exhausting condition of the city itself.

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