decorative initial 'I' n the autumn of 1838, not long after Florence Nightingale had returned to Embley from a busy if unfulfilling London season, another young woman mounted the stairs of London's Monument, hoisted herself to the top of the rail, and swiftly dropped to a bloody death below. Margaret Moyes's human predicament was nearly the opposite of Florence Nightingale's: her mother was dead and her father lay dying. Because her own sensational death became a favored subject of broadsides and newspaper accounts, "authentic particulars" of Miss Moyes's "extraordinary suicide" abound. just before ten on Wednesday morning, 11 September, Margaret Moyes, twenty-three, arrived at the Monument from Charing Cross, said she was to meet friends there, waited for them for about twenty minutes while she chatted with the porter of the Monument, paid her sixpence, and then ascended alone. Her fall ended miserably. On its way down, her body hit a bird cage and a potted lilac, and her arm was severed by the railing at the foot of the Monument. Moments later, when the first looker-on arrived at her side, she was dead.

Margaret Moyes's was one of the few suicides to achieve a notoriety akin to that of Victorian murder cases. For the most part, Victorians feared suicide far more than they did murder. Certainly both acts were subversive, contrary to the Ten Commandments and to Victorian secular notions of self-help and the judicious exercise of willpower, but suicide was more easily internalized than murder. A writer for Temple Bar observed of murder and murderers that "there is always something agreeable to us in the misfortunes of our neighbours, It would certainly seem as though a record of their vices is eminently pleasing." (TB 29) Self-murder, on the other hand, could lead survivors toward a painful self examination in the search for motives. Murder might satisfy the Victorian sense of justice, since murderers could be caught and imprisoned or in turn be killed for their crimes — an eye for an eye — but self-murder, was a personal challenge to the will of God in which human justice could never really intervene. Thus if murder caused sensation among the Victorians, suicide was more often a source of anxiety and disgrace. [38/39] Middle-class families took pains to conceal self-destruction, not only because suicide was illegal and considered immoral but also because the insanity plea was the only way of preventing the property of a proven suicide from reverting to the Crown. They faced the awful dilemma of choosing the lesser of two evils: hereditary insanity as a future stigma, or poverty as an immediate prospect, that is, if the suicide were a breadwinner. These alternatives — little better than Dickens's choice of a slow death in the workhouse or a quick one out of it for the poor — were to be avoided at all costs. Even clergymen were enlisted in cover-ups since, until the 1880s, proven suicides could not be buried in consecrated ground.

But Margaret Moyes's suicide was an open statement of despair, committed in the most public of places, and drawing the attention of those who loved hangings and murder trials. A person walking toward the Monument on the day after her death would have been blocked by the crowds — mostly women — spilling into every street leading to the Monument Yard, or by police trying to keep order. A person attempting to gain admission to the Monument itself would in all likelihood have been thwarted. The Yard was crammed with people trying to gain access to the staircase and heights. A person desiring to attend the inquest on Friday might similarly have been balked. Many who begged admission that day to the Swan Tavern, Fish-street Hill, were flatly refused. So the press enthusiastically took on the job of interpreting the event for those not present. Customers for every London newspaper craved knowledge of the particulars of such an audacious act. What they wanted most of all were detailed descriptions of the fall and attempted explanations for such bitter desperation. Every type of coverage featured these two aspects of the case, and each paper reflected the language and mores of its readers when presenting its details.

The Times, for example, fully described the gory details of the appearance of the body but used Latinate terms like "cranium" and "integument" to sound clinical rather than sensational:

Upon examination of the body, it was found that the spine was fractured as also the back of the cranium, but the features are in no way disfigured, save by the appearance of coagulated blood forced from the nostrils, eyes, and mouth by the sudden concussion; the left arm is severed just above the elbow, and is only retained in its place by the integuments and the sleeve of the dress. (LT, 12 Sep. 1839, p. 435, col. 4)

The Observer, though an upper-middle to upper-class paper, offered its Sunday readers something far more dramatic than such dissecting-room language: [39/40]

Her left arm, near the shoulder, came in contact with the bar, and was so violently severed that the part cut off flew over the iron railings several yards into the square. After striking the bar, the body fell an a tub containing a lilac plant, which it broke in pieces, as well as several flower pots, placed on the right side of the door. Not a sign of life, except some contortions of the muscles of the legs and arms, was discernible on the body when it was picked up. (Observer, 15 Sep. 1839, p.1 col. 6)

Sunday editions of The Weekly Dispatch and Bell's Life in London relayed the Observer's accounts to a less well-to-do readership. So did a street pamphlet printed by Goode in Clerkenwell, while The Wednesday Standard contained both the Latinate and dramatic accounts. And two broadsides entitled a "Copy of Verses on the Melancholy Death of Margaret Moyes" gave a far cruder version of the fall and of the severed left arm, The verses were the product of a literary hack in London's Seven Dials area, whose well-off publishers like James Catnach were known for purveying lurid sensationalism and getting it out to the streets as quickly as possible. For them, concern over stylistic awkwardness came second to the many thousands of pennies gained by providing the first broadside about a bloody case like Moyes's:

From strangers oh! What awful shrieks.
When she let go her hold,
Like lightning she descended.
T'was dreadful to behold;
With a heavy crash upon the rails,
The shock was most severe,
Which cut off her arm and it was found,
Near the centre of the square.

[Printed by T. Birt, 39 Great St. Andrews Street, Seven Dials.)

Descriptions of the ugliness of Moyes's death came easier than explanations for it. Most Victorians, whatever their class or education, had stock assumptions about suicide: it was committed by the unhappy, the lonely, the lovelorn, the mad, the ruined — all poor unfortunates at the end of an emotional tether. Most coroners' inquests looked for such motives. In murder cases, there was always the hope of confession, but in suicide cases there was usually no one able to disprove customary assumptions. They were endlessly perpetuated unless a note or other concrete evidence happened to be available. Moyes left such a note on her father's mantel shelf, but it too was inconclusive: "You need not expect to see me back again, for I have made up my mind to make away with — Margaret Moyes." (Coroner's Inquest as reported in TWD, 15 Sep. 1859, p.435, col. 4). With the reflexive pronoun "myself" missing here, Moyes's signature dramatically represents the object to be "made away with" — quite simply Margaret Moyes. Yet Moyes's note offers no reasons for her action. [40/41]

Two Victorian Broadsides on Margaret Moyes's suicide: (left) Self Destruction of a Female by Throwing Herself off the Monument; (right) Particulars of the Coroner's Inquest Held on the Body of Magaret [sic] Moyes. Both 1839. Click on images to obtain a larger picture, which takes longer to download.

What would cause an attractive young woman to choose such a hideous exit from life? This question intrigued the Victorian public. Moyes's father was a master-baker, a position he may well have bought, and his daughter had pretensions to the upper-middle class. She was probably educated to desire the very idleness that Nightingale detested and to expect a suitable and financially comfortable marriage. But as one of four sisters of a dying father, she was suddenly confronted with the prospect of working for a living. Unexposed to anything other than the baking business, she had contracted to work in a confectioner's shop. As a shop girl, she might have been subject to harassment and taunts about her father's station. This prospect, coupled with grief over the father whose side she rarely left, might well have made her desperate.

The coroner's inquest explored these aspects of the case with several witnesses, all of whom attested to Moyes's fear of "going out into the world." Most of the daily and Sunday papers read by the middle classes reported the inquest verbatim, but accounts in the Times and Standard conjectured further about Moyes's station. Her "dress denoted that the unfortunate wearer had moved in a circle above the middle class of life. It consists of a good black silk dress, undergarments of fine linen, silk stockings, and a worked habit-shirt; on the fore-finger of the left hand there was a gold signet ring." (LT, p.5, col. 2) Readers of the Times could empathize with such a person and would find her fall — financial and literal — very "unfortunate" indeed. Broadside readers of the working class, on the other hand, got a different version with which to identify:

The maiden's mother had been dead,
Two years we have been told,
Her father, with sickness long confin'd,
Besides he's very old;
Which plunged the family in distress,
That to service she most go,
That so afflicted her youthful mind,
Caus'd this dreadful scene of woe.

No mention of "service" was ever made during the inquest. That was simply a fiction offered to lower-class readers by the presses of Seven Dials.

Lessons to be drawn by middle-class readers were inherent in the inquest itself. Underlying many of the questions was the basic suspicion chat the unfortunate Margaret Moyes might have been lovesick or, worse, seduced and abandoned. The ring mentioned was suspect but was found only to be a gift of a sister. An army captain, a lodger with [41/42] the Moyes family, was rumoured to have been a sweetheart but proved simply an acquaintance. The doctor examining the body was asked whether Moyes was pregnant, and her sisters were expected to reveal whether there had been any love letters to Margaret Moyes. Yet Miss Moyes had no known lovers, was not pregnant, and received no love letters. Thus "dullness of mind" and "depression of spirits" over being forced to go out in the world became she official causes of Moyes's "temporary insanity," and the inquest into her death concluded with a recommendation to put a guard rail at the top of the Monument to prevent further tragedies.

Graphic accounts of "extraordinary suicides" like the extensive reporting of the Moyes case would come under heavy censure in nineteenth-century England. As early as 1828, George Burrows's Commentaries on insanity had blamed the "cheap press" for increases in suicide. "Nothing," Burrows cautioned, "is found so attractive as tales of wonder and horror, and every coroner's inquest on an unhappy being who has destroyed himself is read with extraordinary avidity."(Burrows, 448) Suicide by imitation was Burrows's chief fear. He felt that the daily papers were at fault for providing details of the means of successful suicide: "No sooner is the mind disturbed by any moral causes, than the thoughts are at once directed, through these channels [the newspapers], to mediate an act, which otherwise neither predisposition, despair, nor the nature of their insanity, would have suggested."(478-479) According to Forbes Winslow in 1840, even those whose minds were not deeply disturbed could be affected by imitation. He told of a friend of a friend who "had the curiosity to visit the spot, and on looking down the awful height from which this poor unfortunate girl had precipitated herself . . . felt suddenly an attack of giddiness, which was succeeded in a moment by one of the most pleasurable sensations he had ever experienced, accompanied with a desire to jump off."(Winslow, 119) By 1843, concern over imitation had increased, and William Farr, the Registrar-General, called for "some plan for discontinuing, by common consent, the detailed dramatic tales of murder, suicide, and bloodshed in the newspapers."("Facts on Suicide,", CEJ, 395). In 1868, a writer for the Bookseller took this recommendation a step further. Newspapers were bad, but only contained the written word. "Glaring woodcuts" like those of Miss Moyes, were still worse, with "murders, hangings, suicides, &c. all pictorially described in detail, with a degree of unctuous horror quite impossible to be conveyed to the uninitiated." (Dugdale in TB).

The suicide of Robert Hawes. 1839. Click on image to obtain a larger picture, which takes longer to download.

Unfortunately, Farr's recommendations were not implemented by October of 1839, when a fifteen-year-old boy mounted the stairs of the Monument and reenacted Margaret Moyes's suicidal plunge to the [42/43] Monument Yard — Young Richard Hawes's suicide was certainly imitative. He frequently talked of Moyes's death to the other servants at the home of the surgeon where he was employed. Hawes had told them that one probably would not feel pain in a death like Moyes's. At his inquest, these servants reported that Hawes had previously threatened suicide from a height. While cleaning windows he would deliberately "stand recklessly on one leg." On the very morning of his death, he had been dismissed from his job both for lethargy and for threatening to jump out of a window. Hawes also read murder stories. Here was just the sort of impressionable person that Burrows had been worrying about.

As in the Moyes case, newspapers focused on the details of Hawes's bloody death and then on possible reasons for a second such suicide. Hawes clearly had not been seduced and abandoned; nor, as a poor boy, had he known financial reversal. This time the Victorian press and the coroner's jury sought elsewhere for causes of death: in hereditary insanity leading to suicide, in Hawes's melancholia, and in his reading habits. Hawes was the son of a laundress and of a father who had killed himself, a fact that the inquest drew out in hushed tones. At the inquest, the chaplain of St. Anne's, Brixton, where Hawes had been a pupil, brought forth a St. Anne's Society register that listed "Robert Donaldson Hawes — father a coachman of good character — mother a widow, father having died insane." Then the coroner queried, "is this correct that the father of the deceased died insane?" A witness replied (in a low tone): "His father destroyed himself."(Observer, 20 Oct. 1839, p. 2, col. 1) Whatever his origins, Hawes himself became an enigma. Impressions of him were at odds. Most witnesses at the inquest had found him a quiet and tractable lad, but fellow servants and several others reported him unpredictable and violent. He often withdrew to read books, but these, too, varied from Jack Sheppard to the Holy Bible. Some weeks before his death, he had sent to his mother's place for the Bible that he had been awarded for good conduct at St. Anne's. He had the Bible with him when he ascended the Monument and left it in the gallery with several pages carefully turned down.

Twentieth-century psychology might consider Hawes an attention seeker. He had been dismissed from two jobs as lazy or derelict in duty, but when behaving well, was a person who was generally ignored. Conjecture might continue that he sought attention by creating disturbances like teasing the kitchen help, or threatening to kill the housemaid or, finally, imitating his father and the widely publicized Miss Moyes. His avid reading no doubt fed his fantasies. He too could act like Jack Sheppard and Margaret Moyes and attract public attention for notorious, [43/44] sensational behavior. The Victorians, however, chose to see him somewhat differently from this. If the question that was raised at Margaret Moyes's death was if she was a fallen woman, the question that arose at Richard Hawes's was if he was indeed a good boy. "The deceased was of a quiet and steady disposition, but very melancholy and fond of reading religious and serious works, which he invariably did in some retired spot," reported The Weekly Dispatch of 20 October 1839 (p. 504, col. 2.). Thus clues to Hawes's death were sought in the leaf-turned Bible he left behind. It was read as a kind of suicide note:

Proverbs, chap. 29 V. 1 — "He that, being often reproved, hardeneth his neck, shall he suddenly destroyed, and that without remedy." Verse 2. — "When the righteous are in authority the people rejoice, but when the wicked beareth rule the people mourn .'St. Luke, Y. 53 — "The father shall be divided against the son, and the son against the father; the mother against the daughter and the daughter against the mother; the mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law." Chapter 14, v. 2. — "For whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted. " St. Mark, chap. 13 v. 32 — "But of that day and that hour knoweth no man. No, not the angels which are in heaven; neither the son nor the father." Verse 33. — "Take ye heed, watch and pray, for ye know not when the time is."

Although these passages deal with punishment and death and certainly could show guilt or vindictiveness on Hawes's part, ultimately they only served the Victorian jury as proof of the boy's melancholia. Both his mother and his school had testified that he was often depressed. And so Hawes was judged of unsound mind, but not of weak intellect. Impressionable and misguided, he was "temporarily insane" when he leapt from the Monument, a good boy seized by an unfortunate fit of madness.

Unlike most suicides that could be covered up or ignored except by those near at hand, these two widely publicized plunges from the Monument — and others that followed them in the 1840s — awakened public interest in suicide prevention. There was further outcry against cheap literature and the graphic reporting of suicides, and eventually the Monument was caged to prevent more deaths. Although stock motives were still relied upon in verdicts of suicide, physicians' testimony was now leading to deeper questioning of the causes of suicide. By 1857 there was an audience for articles like "Suicide: Its Motives and Mysteries," which appeared in the Irish Quarterly Review. This essay attempted to explain Moyes's death and the subsequent loss of Hawes and others. "Excited curiosity" could lead people to the sites of such deaths, empathetic imagination could then begin to discern the motives and sensations [44/45] of the suicides, and what was called "visionary" power could finally drive a new victim on to his or her death.("Suicide: Its Motives and Mysteries," IRQ 7, 1857.)


Two Victorian Broadsides on suicide: (left) Dreadful Suicide of a Young Women by Throwing Herself off the Monument, 1839; (right) Another Dreadful Suicide at the Monument, by a Young Woman, 1842. Click on images to obtain a larger picture, which takes longer to download.

If abundant cheap literature was helping to excite such curiosity, it was certainly not discontinued as a result. A struggle to control the lucrative media that appealed to the working classes yielded both sensational and moral accounts of suicide. Until well after mid-century, the most widely available forms of literature for the masses were the broadsides and broadsheets. Broadsides, which were hawked on the streets and in the public houses of Victorian cities, were single unfolded sheets of paper with printing on one side; broadsheets had the printing on both sides. They functioned as poor people's newspapers until newspaper taxes were removed in 1855. Since many were written as songs, they also continued the ballad tradition into the nineteenth century. Most popular among them were "gallows literature" recounting crimes and punishments. Like traditional oral ballads, broadsides attempted to comment upon aspects of the human predicament, often concluding with admonishments or prayers for forgiveness.

Two More Victorian Broadsides on Margaret Moyes's suicide: (left) Just Published! Authentic Particulars of the Most Determined and Frightful Suicide . . ., 1839; (right) Copy of Verses on the Melancholy Death of Margaret Moyes, 1839. Click on images to obtain a larger picture, which takes longer to download.

Margaret Moyes's suicide generated a full complement of such literature. In addition to the "Authentic Particulars" offered in the form of a pamphlet, there was a broadsheet of "Particulars of the coroner's inquest held on the body of Margaret Moyes who met her death by throwing herself off the monument," that G. Gilbert, 2 Green-Arbour Court, Old Bailey published. The sheet offered readers who could not afford newspapers an account of the suicide and a very abbreviated version of the inquest. More spectacular was the woodcut at the head of the text, which showed a wasp-waisted young woman hurtling through the air beneath the Monument. Woodcuts also adorned the two different broadsheets carrying the "Copy of Verses on the Melancholy Death of Margaret Moyes Who Committed Suicide by Throwing Herself off the Monument on Wednesday, September 11, 1839. " One of these depicts a pensive Victorian woman with tear-drop earrings in a portrait profile; the other is yet another view of Monument and body, this time with the church spire of St. Magnus the Martyr in the background, just on a level with the plummeting body.

The verses conclude:

Now may God in his great mercy,
   This maid's rash act forgive
And her dreadful fate a warning be,
   To others while they live;
In their station for to be content,
   Tho' reduc'd to poverty,
And not while in the prime of life,
   Plunge themselves into eternity. [46/47]

(Printed by T. Birt, 39 Great St. Andrews Street, Seven Dials. Courtesy of the Guildhall Library.)

Again, the Seven Dials's morality was in effect, giving the working classes sensation but keeping them in place by affirming the virtue of accepting poverty.

Since successful felonia-de-se is self-punished, there was no real "gallows" literature for suicides, but there were many Victorian broadsides about murderers who escape the gallows only through suicide. Some are bent on vengeance, some on gain, but all are felt to get their just deserts when they in turn die. A popular variation on this theme was the domestic tragedy. Broadside after broadside recounted the details of families murdered by parents who then turned on themselves to complete the destruction of the group. "Shocking murder of a wife and six children" in the British Library's Baring Gould Collection (no. 154) is one such. The upper half of this sheet is devoted to a detailed prose account of a certain Duggin of Hosier-lane, City, who had been dismissed from his employment and had received an eviction notice from his lodgings. Presumably Duggin sent a note to the police saying he had murdered seven persons and was about to poison himself. When the constables arrived, they found the entire family dead. The lower half of the broadside about Duggin displays a crude ballad that concludes with a request for forgiveness of "sinful souls." If the prose account of the Duggin incident was based in fact, the ballad was embellished [47/48] with conjecture as well as with warnings to other parents. On the other hand, the "Esher Tragedy, six children murdered by their mother" contained only a thread of fact: Mary Brough slit the throats of her six children on the 9th of June, 1854, and afterwards tried to cut her own throat but failed. The cop half of this sheet displays elaborate verses, including fictional pleas from the children ("Mother, dear, don't murder me") and a final word about motives:

Oh! what must be the woman's motive,
   Did she think she'd done amiss, Or did she think of death and judgment
   To perpetrate deed like this?
But now the wretch she is committed,
   To a prison's g1oomy cell, [48/49]
Where midnight dreams to her will whisper
   And her deeds of blood will tell. [Hindley, 199]

The bottom half of the sheet is pure "cock," a wholly fictitious confession, supposedly by Mary herself and sold as a true account.

"Cocks" were as popular as genuine reportings of inquests. For all their horror, they still seemed plausible to the people of the streets. Those who read Victorian broadsides were no strangers to unemployment, frustration, poverty, fury, and violent death. Nor were these troubles unknown to readers of "hungry forties" novels like Elizabeth Gaskell's. In Gaskell's not in print version North and South (1854), working-class John Boucher is forced to join a trade union against his will. When the union goes on strike, Boucher's employer imports workers from Ireland, causing the starving Boucher and other desperate workers to riot, and after the strike, Boucher is unemployable. Following many futile attempts to get work, Boucher drowns himself in a shallow stream rather than go home to face his querulous wife and eight hungry children. His is a touching story, and people could empathize with Boucher — and with Walter Duggin and Mary Brough — as well as be warned by their brand of violence. Yet not all literature of domestic murder and suicide was serious. The Crampton collection in the British Library contains a "Horrible Tale!" that spoofs the broadsides of suicide. The tale tells of a highly respectable family that

... grew sadder and sadder,
And each was affrighted by the other's shadow.
They pull'd down the blinds to keep out the light,
Till everything was as dark as night,
And as they were bent on suiciding,
I'll tell you the manner they respectively died in.

One day as the father, in the garden did walk,
He cut his throat with a piece of chalk:
The mother an end to her life did put,
By hanging herself in the water butt.

The youngest daughter on bended knees,
She poisoned herself with coasted cheese:
The youngest son, a determined young fellow,
Blew out his brains with an old umbrella.

The gard'ner came in and saw the blood,
He run himself through with a stick of Rhubarb;
His wife saw the sight and it turned her savage,
So she burnt herself to death with red pickled cabbage. [49/50]

The old tom cat as he sat by the fire,
Bit a piece off the fender and then did expire;
The flies on the ceiling, their case was the wors'n,
For they blew themselves up with spontaneous combustion.

The old cow in the old cow shed,
Took up the pitchfork and knock'd off her head:
The little donkey hearing the row,
Knocked out its brains with the head of the cow.

[Crampton Collection, Vol. 2, P. 35, British Library]

It is difficult to say whether this ballad reveals working-class animosity toward foolish respectability or a free-wheeling moment of a Seven Dials hack on a dull day for sensational stories, Certainly it shows that straight-laced admonitions were not the only purpose of the Victorian broadsides of suicide- The people needed a good laugh as well as reminders to persevere.

Charles Dickens, Sir Peter Laurie, and suicide among the poor

That the working classes could chuckle even at the darkest aspects of their lot, including their alleged propensity to suicide, is also evident from "The New Intended Reform Bill," a tongue-in-cheek broadside with twenty clauses to be made operative "as soon as the Lords and Commons think fit." The bill sounds like a poor-man's Punch, with bleak-humored references to workhouses, drunkenness, and skirt-chasing policemen. Clause 19, the suicide clause, reads, "all persons contemplating suicide, are earnestly requested not to drown themselves, as bodies lying too long in the Thames cause the water to become very unwholesome" (Henry Dinsley, Printer, 57 High Street, St. Giles) Absurd as it is, this "request" was a feasible reaction to mid-Victorian strictures on suicide and opinions on the worth of the poor. Dickens reacted with kindred irony in his Chimes (1844), where Toby Veck, a ticket porter who has fallen on hard times, wonders whether he has either the right to live or the right to die. Says Toby:

I can't make out whether [the poor] have any business on the face of the earth, or not. Sometimes I think we must have — a little; and sometimes I think we must be intruding. I get so puzzled sometimes that I am not even able to make up my mind whether there is any good at all in us, or whether we are born bad. We seem to be dreadful things; we seem to give a deal of trouble; we are always being complained of and guarded against. One way or other, we fill the papers. [Dickens, 158]

Later when he reads the newspaper account of a woman who killed both herself and her child, he exclaims to his daughter Meg that he now has proof that poor people like themselves are indeed "bad" (CB, 1: 196). Here Dickens posits that loss of self-esteem is the final conviction of the down-and-out. To his mind this loss is what allows the poor to commit suicide; it is the one conviction that they must shun at all costs. "Toby," notes [50/51] Dickens, "was very poor, and couldn't well afford to part with a delight — that he was worth his salt" (CB, 1: 15 3-54).

Through Toby, Meg, and their oppressors. Dickens was directly responding to a sensational domestic tragedy of 1844. Early that year, a young woman named Mary Furley left a workhouse where her infant was mistreated and tried to make a living by sewing shirts. When she failed to eke out even the meagerest existence on her own, she desperately decided to drown both her child and herself. Her attempt miscarried when she was saved but the baby was not, and Mary Furley was tried, convicted of child-murder, and condemned to death. Public opinion was outraged. The London Times denounced the New Poor Law for having "brought this poor creature to the verge of madness,"(LT20 Apr. 1844) while Lloyd's Weekly called for petitions to the throne to commute the sentence. In response to this sort of pressure, the Home Secretary, Sir James Graham, gave a stay of execution and then commuted the sentence to seven-years' transportation. Dickens, among others, found even this new sentence unfair and in response wrote a bitterly ironic piece for Hood's Magazine(HM, 409-414). There he mocked dutiful officials for their wise severity in quelling such "revolutionary" females, and in The Chimes he gave Toby a dreadful vision of his Meg headed "To The River": "To that portal of Eternity, her desperate footsteps tended with the swiftness of its rapid waters running to the sea" (CB, 1: 239).

Dickens continued his commentary on severe public officials in his portrait of Alderman Cute in The Chimes. Cute wants to end suicide by imposing sentences like the one for Mary Furley:

"And if you attempt, desperately, and ungratefully, and impiously, and fraudulently attempt to drown yourself, or hang yourself, I'll have no pity on you, for I have made up my mind to put all suicide down. If there is one thing," said the Alderman, with his self-satisfied smile, "on which I can be said to have made up my mind more than on another, it is to Put Suicide Down. So don't try it on." (CB, L 172)

This delineation of Cute is a thinly disguised indictment of Sir Peter Laurie, a Middlesex Magistrate and one-time Lord Mayor of London. In the 1840s Laurie was frequently quoted in the press for his relentless campaign against suicide and was notorious for this kind of sentencing:

Suicides and attempts, or apparent attempts, to commit suicide very much increase, I regret to say. I know that a morbid humanity exists, and does much mischief, as regards the practice. I shall not encourage attempts of the kind, but shall punish them; and I sentence you to the treadmill for a month, as a rogue and vagabond. I shall look very narrowly at the cases of persons brought before me on such charges." [LT23 October 1841] [51/52]

Charles Dickens's was not the only witty pen poised to take action against Laurie. Punch too dealt a blow in calling Laurie "The City Solon"; and Thomas Hood penned the following nasty quotation:

When would-be suicides in purpose fail
Who could not find a morsel though they needed
If Peter sends them for attempts to jail,
What would he do if they succeeded? [Goodman, 128]

Sir Peter's severity was part of a conservative backlash of the 1840s, yet his intentions were very like those of the physicians and Registrar General: suicide prevention. Dickens and Hood, on the other hand, were focusing on the possible causes of suicide: poverty and desperation. All of these men, conservative and non-conservative alike, succeeded in arousing further Victorian interest in the liberalizing of suicide law and in the "motives and mysteries" of self-destruction.

G.W.M. Reynolds

Such motives and mysteries were further probed in the 1840s by G.W.M. Reynolds. Reynolds took full advantage of the fact that sensational suicides like those from the Monument lingered in Victorian public memory. In 1844-46 he issued the first series of his immensely popular Mysteries of London. An upper middle-class writer with a lower middle-class and working-class audience, Reynolds knew his audience well. The Mysteries, patterned after Eugene Sue's Mysteries of Paris, sold nearly 40,000 copies a week and was in all probability the most widely circulated fictional work of its decade. Mysteries literature of this sort viewed the great nineteenth-century cities of Paris and London as tropes for life, as dark mazes of secrecy and corruption, menacingly unpredictable and ultimately unknowable — "Haply," teases Reynolds, "the reader may begin to imagine that our subject is well-nigh exhausted — that the mysteries of London are nearly all unveiled?" (Reynolds, 347) Unquestionably Reynolds's reader would then be wrong. Like the intrigues of life, the intrigues of London defied total exposure.

Reynolds no doubt achieved his popularity because many of his readers were dispossessed. To them the corridors of power must indeed have seemed like labyrinths. Reynolds fed their mistrust by painting the upper classes as deceitful and responsible for the mysteries of London. Characters like Reginald Tracy and Lady Cecilia Harborough, who both commit suicide, live wholly hypocritical lives. Wealthy and outwardly respectable, under the surface they are cruel and debauched. Tracy begins as a repressed clergyman seduced by Lady Cecilia. Once his lusts for women are aroused, however, he becomes obsessed with sexual fantasies and dreams, and even with spying on women in the bath. Eventually Tracy and Lady Cecilia are caught in bed together by Mrs. Kenrick [52/53] , the loyal housekeeper. Subsequently Mrs. Kenrick is poisoned and ultimately Tracy's part in her murder is uncovered. Locked in Newgate prison, Tracy bribes Lady Cecilia to bring him suicidal poison and promises his fortune in return. Actually Tracy is framing Lady Cecilia through this action; he sets her up in revenge for her part in his original fall into sin. After he receives the poison, Tracy paces his cell "like a wild beast" and then downs his draught and dies. The next day when Lady Cecilia looks through the morning paper, she finds an account very like the ones on Moyes and Hawes, "Suicide of the Rev. Reginald Tracy." Eager for her inheritance, she goes to Tracy's lawyer and finds herself to be not an heiress but a woman implicated in abetting a suicide. Under mid-Victorian law, she can be tried for murder.

Like Tracy, however, Lady Cecilia prefers to take her own life:

"The river-or the Monument," she said, as she continued her rapid way: "the river is near-but the Monument is nearer. Drowning must be slow and painful — the other will be instantaneous. From the river I might be rescue; but no human power can snatch me from death during a fall from that dizzy height."

And she glanced upwards to the colossal pillar whose base she had now reached. [69]

Reynolds exploits every aspect of the sensational suicides from the Monument in his next paragraphs. Lady Cecilia makes her way to the Monument, and a porter, very like the one in the accounts of Moyes's and Hawes's deaths, takes her sixpence. Reynolds then pulls out all the stops: Lady Cecilia thinks of her "poor mother" as she ascends; she stares at the labyrinth of London from the top, stares at the "quicksilver" serpentine Thames, stares at the contrasting expanse of sky above, and loves the beauty. Then she prays. Finally, as if on "sudden impulse," she leaps, and

   Terrific screams burst from her lips as she rolled over and over in her precipitate whirl.
   Down she fell!
   Her head dashed against the pavement, at a distance of three yards from the base of the Monument.
   Her brains were scattered upon the stones.

She never moved from the moment she touched the ground: — the once gay, sprightly, beautiful patrician lady was no more!
   A crowd instantaneously collected around her and horror was depicted on every countenance, save one, that gazed upon the sad spectacle. [69]

Clearly Reynolds read his own newspapers and knew his readers. He gave them accounts of suicide like the ones they had come to know, but [53/54] often substituted callous aristocrats for "unfortunates" like Moves and Hawes and Mary Furley. Yet Reynolds himself was not really a revolutionary. He offered no hope that the deserving poor would one day control London and make it a better place to live. And unlike Dickens's Toby and Meg, many of his lower-class characters are no more moral than the upper classes whom they serve. The hag who helps Lady Cecilia get the poison is the very person who uncaringly offers her a choice of the Thames or the Monument as the solution to her dilemma. Why, then, was Reynolds so popular with his lower-class readers? Possibly because he, a man of means, showed them what they already suspected — that violence, corruption and misery were not class-based but were everyone's lot. Or possibly because of his skillful use of social melodrama31 — his juxtaposition of dark, realistic appraisals of human nature in the city with plot resolutions that punish evil-doers and reward the good. Reynolds's readers were shown the consequences of moral laxity and offered the choice of goodness, just as were the readers of broadsides dealing with murder and suicide. Like Carlyle and Nightingale, eminent Victorians who agonized over self-destruction in middle-class studies or in private corners of great houses like Embley, the working classes too could exercise willpower in not choosing not to be. They loved Reynolds because he showed them this without lecturing or condescension.

Domestic Melodrama

Domestic melodrama, like social melodrama, appealed to the working class. and since it centered on the powerless in the family unit, it also appealed to women (see Vicinus, 127-143). All melodrama tries to show how the pain and unfairness of the world are a part of a moral order that is ultimately just. It fulfills the personal fantasy that the world will eventually answer our heart's needs. Domestic melodrama posits that family life too works to one's ultimate advantage. The fictional Mary Furleys and Margaret Moyeses of the world are rescued and swept into the safety of domestic bliss much as is Dickens's Meg in the dreamlike ending of The Chimes. Into such a world of Victorian domestic melodrama walked visitors to the Princess Theatre in London on 12 August 1868. Dion Boucicault's After Dark was playing that summer day, its plot exhibiting the heightened emotional situations of all melodrama: Young George, threatened with exposure as a forger, will inherit his father's estate and thereby avoid prosecution only if he will marry his cousin, Rose. A villain, Bellingham, who is an escaped convict, convinces him to send his current young wife Eliza abroad and to keep their marriage secret. Apparently betrayed, Eliza attempts suicide by jumping from Blackfriar's Bridge. Miraculously she is saved and the couple eventually are reunited, whereas Bellingham is apprehended. [54/55]

Eliza has suffered terribly as a result of her rejection and has tried to kilt herself nor because of desperation, but because she is consciously, willingly sacrificing herself for George. She would have been happy to share adversity with him but will not "help him to commit a new crime" — bigamy. For his put George is taken with her strength of character in parting with him. All this points to a reason why such drama was popular with women: in a world like Eliza's that conspires to defeat women, women characters prove themselves morally superior to social conspiracies. Whether or not Eliza were rescued, George would have been the real loser in this human drama. Yet neither George nor Eliza is forced to suffer forever. The benign universe of melodrama fosters their ultimate reunion and final happiness. Chastened George and vindicated Eliza survive separation and suicide attempts to live on in wedded union. As a result of her jump from Blackfriars, Eliza even finds her long-lost father. The family is complete.

Sensational suicides were included in melodrama because they were a means of punishing evil or, in the case of the unsuccessful Eliza, of rewarding good, In "mysteries fiction" of the sort written by Sue and Reynolds, they had served a similar function. Later mystery stories were more concerned with the triumph of the rational over the irrational or with the exposure of secrecy, and were directed more toward the middle class, which had been so careful to conceal suicide in its midst. Thus one might expect the "sensation school" of mystery novelists to have invented countless self-murders. Their aims included revealing hidden bourgeois secrets like incest, bigamy, and murder; they introduced into fiction what Henry James called "those most mysterious of mysteries, the mysteries which are at our own doors" (qtd. in Tillotson, xiv). Yet the secrecy and mystery of suicide were not subjects that most s wanted to reveal. Despite general interest in newspaper accounts of suicide, most novelists still did not seem to believe that suicide was a subject that middle-class readers wanted to have probed.

Wilkie Collins

Only one sensationalist, Wilkie Collins, moved deeply enough into what Ulrich Knoepflmacher calls "the counterworld of Victorian fiction"-a world of amorality and darkness, "opposed to the lawful, ordered Victorian values to which novelist and reader tacitly agreed to subscribe"(Knoepflmacher, 352) — to plumb the depths of suicide. From Antonina in 1850 at the beginning of his career to Blind Love in 1890 at its end, Collins painted a whole gallery of self-destructives, ranging from Roman nobles to lonely, isolated wives and mothers, amoral heroines, crazed vivisectionists, and discredited barons.

To the distraction of Dickens and others of Collins's immediate contemporaries and literary friends, Collins also never shed a desire to [55/56] shock the bourgeoisie. In large part drawing upon the same middle class readership as did Dickens and Trollope, he resented its pretensions far more than did Dickens, who always wished to belong to the class whose follies so often irked and dismayed him. Collins's prefaces and essays characteristically lectured this middle-class public, warning it to set aside narrow-minded notions of what was or was not acceptable in fiction:

Readers in particular will, I have some reason to suppose, be here and there disturbed, perhaps even offended, by finding that "Armadale" over-steps, in mom than one direction, the narrow limits within which they am disposed to restrict the development of modern fiction — if they can. Nothing that I could say to these persons here would help me with them as Time will help me if my work lasts. I am not afraid of my design being permanently misunderstood, provided the execution has done it any sort of justice. Estimated by the claptrap morality of the present day, this may be a very daring book. judged by the Christian morality which is of all time. it is only a book that is daring enough to speak the truth. [Works, vol. 8 preface]

Phrases like "clap-trap morality" worried Dickens who, a few years before this preface to Armadale, warned his sub-editor for Household Words to "look well to Wilkie's article . . . and not to leave anything in it that may be sweeping, and unnecessarily offensive to the middle class. He always has a tendency to overdo that" (Stang, 200) .All the same, the illegal, the immoral, and the shocking continued to fascinate Collins, who thought the middle class needed to think about such things and was not afraid to use fiction to portray life's offenses. He wanted to give "the truth as it is in Nature" (Collins, 1967; preface), not to exclude the violence, obsession, or despair he saw as basic to human nature, itself red in tooth and claw. Thus in the preface to The Law and the Lady (1875), Collins warned his readers that "characters which may not have appeared, events which may not have taken place, within the limits of our own individual experience, may nevertheless be perfectly natural Characters and perfectly probable Events for all that" (Collins, Works, vol. 5 p.3). Earlier, in his essays for Household Words in the late 1850s, he had envied Balzac the free choice of subjects that made Balzac unfit reading for lovers of English novels. In these essays, Collins had also shown interest in reaching and educating an "Unknown Public" of three million English readers who devoured penny-novel journals. And later, in the preface to Jezebel's Daughter (1880), he would complain that "there are certain important social topics which are held to be forbidden to the English novelist . . . by a narrow-minded minority of readers, and . . . critics who flatter their prejudices" (Collins, Works, vol. 27, pp. 5-6). [56/57]

Certainly one of those topics was suicide, a subject that appealed to Collins both because it was subversive and because it was an ultimate test of character. As Collins discovered in the 1870s, the secrecy surrounding suicides made them fitting subjects for the detective novel. Both The Law and the Lady and the later I Say "No" (1884) are unraveled through the discovery of suicide. The suicides in this detective fiction have taken place long before the openings of the novels and are discovered only as the action unfolds, bur character is still of the utmost concern. In murder stories the reader wants to find the murderer: who did it? what was his or her motive? In these detective novels of suicide, the question becomes not who killed the dead person but why he or she should want to die. Motivation is the key to truth, but all judgments must be based upon historical record or partial knowledge, since the self-murderer has passed from the scene. Suspense is heightened as we search for absolute truth and can only find partial truths. Drama is increased as we ourselves become the detectives.

The Law and the Lady emphasizes all this by offering as its detective/protagonist/first-person narrator a woman who stands most to gain by discovering the story's secret. Valeria Macallan is second wife to a man with a past. He has married Valeria under an assumed name, Eustace Macallan, to cover the fact that he has been tried for allegedly poisoning his first wife, Sara. At the time of Sara's death in Scotland, a jury could return a verdict of "Not Proven," allowing a person like Macallan his freedom, but condemning him to shame. When Valeria eventually learns Macallan's story after her marriage to him, her humiliated husband wants to leave her for her own sake. To keep him she is determined to exonerate him, and so turns detective. What she uncovers is a concealment of suicide that has been so successful that even Macallan himself has been unaware of it. Sara, who had originally tricked him into marriage, had become so distraught over Macallan's indifference to her that she had poisoned herself with the arsenic initially and pathetically purchased to clear her complexion and make her more attractive to her husband.

The true "secret" of this dramatic story is that rejection in love followed by suicide is a verdict more terrible than "Murder Not Proven." Sara's self-destruction — and it is that from start to finish — will never be revealed to the world. Valeria uncovers a suicide letter indicating in Sara a misery so deep that life no longer held any interest for her, and a love so obsessive that a mere smile from Macallan might have saved her. Concealment had begun immediately, through an eccentric admirer of Sara's, abetted by a physician, but it is carefully continued by Valeria, the woman who wanted truth at all costs: "There, on the table before [57/58] me, lay the triumphant vindication of my husband's innocence; and, in mercy to him, in mercy to the memory of his dead wife, my one hope was that he might never see it! My one desire was to hide it from the public view."(Collins, Works, vol. 5, p. 535) Valeria is "sickened" and "horrified" by this letter but ultimately feels she must at least offer it to Macallan. She leaves to him the decision to read or not to read:

"Let me be sure that I know exactly what it is I have to decide," he proceeds.

"Suppose I insist on reading the letter — ? " There I interrupt him. I know it is my duty to restrain myself. But I cannot do my duty.

"My darling, don't talk of reading the letter! Pray, pray spare yourself — ."

He holds up his hands for silence. "I am not thinking of myself," he says. "I am thinking of my dead wife. If I give up the public vindication of my innocence, in my own lifetime — if I leave the seal of the letter unbroken — do you say, as Mr. Playmore says, that I shall be acting mercifully and tenderly toward the memory of the wife?"

"Oh, Eustace, there cannot be the shadow of a doubt to it!"

"Shall I be making some little atonement to any pain that I may have thoughtlessly caused her to suffer in her lifetime?"

"Yes! yes!" [Works, vol. 5 p. 558]

Macallan foregoes the reading, and the verdict of "Not Proven" stands, but the Macallans are spared the further taint of a suicide revealed in their past.

By the 1880s, just after the suicide of Collins's old and close artist friend, Edward Mathew Ward, there are still more significant changes in Collins's fictional presentations of suicides. They tend to be males, not females, and their deaths are very violent. In I Say "No, " the second of Collins's detective novels involving a suicide, the self-murder is described in the manner of the Times, with a graphic, seemingly dispassionate style that fails to blanket the underlying horror: "The internal jugular vein had been cut through, with such violence, judging by the appearances, that the wound could not have been inflicted, in the act of suicide, by the hand of the deceased person" (Works, vol. 29 p.191) The bloody secret of this act of self-violence is kept through a cover-up quite true to life in Victorian England. Concealment here is instigated by a friend of the family, Sir Richard, a "great London surgeon" whose efforts are carefully described:

"He went with Miss Letitia to the inquest; he won over the coroner and the newspaper men to his will; he kept your aunt's name out of the papers; he took charge of the coffin: he hired the undertaker and his men, strangers from London; he wrote the certificate — who but he! Everybody was cap in hand to the famous man! " (Works, vol. 29 p.309) [58/59]

This suicide is discovered only years later. James Brown, the victim, was a man who, like Sara Macallan, suffered from unrequited love. Again his means of death have been unknown to his beloved, who finds out about her lover from his now grown daughter and responds with a stock Victorian reaction and no little remorse for once having said "no" to poor Brown: " 'Do you suppose I could for a moment anticipate that he would destroy himself, when I wrote my reply? He was a truly religious man. If he had been in his right mind, he would have shrunk from the idea of suicide as from the idea of a crime.' "(Collins, Works, vol. 29, p.501) One reason why Brown's lover deduces that Brown must have been insane at the time of his death is that she knows a deliberate suicide would quite literally be guilty of crime.

So a conventional Victorian might have thought. Collins thought differently. For him, cruelty was crime. His James Brown's sane despair becomes clear enough as the story unfolds, though he is never seen in so pitiful a light as Sara Macallan. There is daring in Collins's portrayal of Brown and realism in in his choice of the means for Brown's suicide. Victorian statistical tables and court proceedings show a higher incidence of the use of sharp instruments in male suicides and of poisons in female self-destruction; see Morselli and Winslow in bibliography. Collins kept his suicides true to the trends, consulting actuarial tables of suicide. He also kept his suicides true to his sense of human nature. What is sensational in his work is not only descriptions of death throes and jugular veins but exposure of concealment in pitiful middle-class suicide cases. Collins's self-destructives are less extraordinary cases than lost and saddened people. Wilkie Collins was sensational because he pointed out to the bourgeoisie that suicide among them was more pervasive than they cared to believe.

By 1875, the year of The Law and the Lady, the famous suicides from the Monument had passed into history. The Monument itself had now long since been "bird-caged" and further mishaps thus prevented. Some memory of those suicides lingered, but their bloody, authentic particulars were forgotten. In one of his characters, "No man in England could be less likely to throw himself off the Monument" (65). Monument suicides had passed into cliché. By the 1870s, too, the broadsides that helped publicize these suicides had become less available; tax-free after 1855, newspapers had taken over the function of reporting sensational crime. Charles Hindley was now out on the streets collecting broadsides so that those remaining would be preserved for posterity. And the Annual Register had quit indexing suicide as an item of special note.

Interest in self-destruction itself had, however, not really declined, only the interest in sensationalizing it. Collins's work reflects this point [59/60] of view, whereas Reynolds and the newspapers and broadsides of an earlier day had been out to expose outrageous or extreme behavior and to warn against deviation. From the 1860s on, suicide had been discussed more openly by social critics, lawmakers, and physicians, and it therefore seemed more pervasive. Suicides were not only special cases; suicide was a social problem, quite as Dickens had suspected. An 1861 editorial in the London Times posited that a generation of crime had given way to a generation of remorse, followed by a generation of reflection — of reasoning about human affairs (1 March 1861). Into that generation came men like Collins and the statistician J. N. Radcliffe, who searched for the causes of suicide. In studying "The Relevance of Suicide in England" in 1861, Radcliffe could find no positive correlation between crime or poverty and suicide, nor any alarming increase in its incidence. Reflection on these tasks instead brought him to what he would call "the great principle with the commission of self-murder": that "the suicide, truly, believes death to be an evil of less. magnitude than the ill from which he seeks to escape" (472). Far from being immoral or the act of a lunatic, after mid-century, suicide could seem a very sane retreat for the down-and-out Victorian Briton.

Last modified 12 May 2023