Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Felo de se Part 2, suicide by arsenic: William George Williams (1829-1866), West Norwood Cemetery

Guy's Hospital
In December 1866 Sarjeant Payne, the City of London and Southwark Coroner assembled a jury At Guys Hospital to deliberate on the cause of death of a 37 year old Welshman who had been picked up by a policeman in the Blackfriars Road in Southwark ‘reeling’ and pleading to be taken some where to lie down. Mr Donne, the house surgeon, told the inquest that the deceased had been admitted to the hospital at around 5am on Tuesday 4 December suffering from the effects of arsenic poisoning. He vomited copiously before he finally died at 8am, his stomach contents confirmed the presence of arsenic as did the post mortem. The deceased had told one of the nurses, Mary Ann Shore that he had been drinking for a week, had taken half an ounce of the poison and had spent £500 of someone else’s money.  The Ward Sister, Mary Jane Reeves produced a pocket book which had been found on the deceased. If it were his, which seemed beyond doubt, it named him as W.G. Williams and gave his address as Clifton Road, Newport, Monmouthshire. Inside was a suicide note which pleaded his wife’s innocence of the crime of stealing the money and begged for her to be taken care of. Sarjeant Payne was told that the Stewards Office of the hospital had written to Newport asking for someone to officially identify the body but had as yet received no response. The inquest was adjourned until the following Friday.  A full account of the proceedings on the Friday was given in The Brecon Reporter and South Wales General Advertiser of Saturday 15 December;

“An inquest was held at Guy’s Hospital, Friday evening, respecting the death of a man, named William George Williams, aged 37 years. The evidence showed that on Tuesday morning last a policeman was on duty near the Surrey Chapel, in Blackfriars-road, when the deceased reeled towards him, and asked that he might be taken to some place where he could lie down. He said that he had swallowed half an ounce of white arsenic, and did not feel well. He then gave the policeman a paper labelled “white arsenic,’’ and said that he had bought the poison at Newport, in Monmouthshire, four years ago. At that time he intended to poison rats, not himself. The constable led him to the hospital, and on the way the deceased told him how he had been guilty of spending a large sum of money which was not his own. If the poison had not a fatal effect he knew that a serious charge would be preferred against him, and against others who were more to blame than himself. He described himself as a clerk to a commercial house in Newport, Monmouthshire, and said that if he “got over” the poison the policeman would find out all about the money which he had wrongly taken. The amount was £5OO. At times he seemed exceedingly anxious that his life might be saved, and said that scarcely knew what was doing when he took the poison. He was admitted to the hospital, and died there in about three hours. Before his death he repeated much of what had said to the constable, and added that he had been drinking for a week before attempting suicide. He had about him a pocket-book, in which he had written as follows: “This pocket-book belongs to W. G. Williams, clerk, Clifton-road, Newport, Monmouthshire. My wife is quite innocent. I mean to die Monday. My wife had none of the money. Please take care of her. I die the day of the Reform Bill demonstration.” Whilst he was lying in the hospital it was ascertained that he had a sister residing in Chelsea, and she was sent for. At the inquest she stated that she had not seen her brother for 10 years previously, and for that time his family had entirely lost sight of him. A letter from his wife was read, in which she described herself as being utterly destitute, and ignorant of any place where she might obtain bread. She was sure her husband could not have spent all the money he had taken away with him. Alter deliberating for some time the jury returned verdict of felo de se. The coroner issued his warrant for the burial the body of the deceased by torchlight, and between the hours of nine and twelve at night. The hospital authorities stated that they intended that the interment should take place at Norwood. It appears that the metropolitan police have received intimation that the deceased was “wanted’’ for having embezzled large sums of money.”

The Surrey Chapel in Blackfriars Road, Southwark where the dying Williams approached a policeman for help  
The authorities wasted no time in carrying out the burial. The inquest took place on the Friday evening according to all the newspapers, and William G Williams was buried the same night. A market cart was used to transport the coffin to West Norwood, leaving Guy’s at 9.00pm. The Daily News of Saturday 8 December carried a full account of midnight interment:  

“For the first time within a quarter of a century, Norwood Cemetery was, on Friday, at midnight, the scene of the burial without Christian rites of the corpse of a felo-de se. The coroner's jury, which, last evening at 6 o'clock, found that the commercial clerk, William George Williams, had committed the crime of self-murder, imposed upon Mr Serjeant Payne the necessity of issuing his warrant for the burial of the body by torchlight between that time and midnight. The last verdict of felo de-se returned at Guy's Hospital was in the case a person who died there twenty years ago, and on that occasion the horrible form of driving a stake into the body was gone through. The ghastly ceremony was performed in the burial-ground adjacent to the hospital, and it is said to have been almost the last instance in which that obsolete barbarism was witnessed in London. Lest the tradition should be, by any misconception, carried out in the present case, the coroner expressly ordered that no stake should be used. About nine o'clock last night a common market cart, drawn by an old horse, emerged from the hospital gates. The end of a deal coffin hung over the tailboard, and the name Williams, written on it with a bit of chalk, showed that it contained the body of the suicide. In the course of an hour the cart, with its burden, was drawn up on the highway, alongside a hedge at Norwood. The night watchman at the cemetery was called, and informed of the business on hand. The functionaries at the cemetery were just going to bed, and were completely taken by surprise by the production of the warrant for an immediate burial so late at night. Mr Gardiner, the superintendent, sent messengers to the neighbouring public house, and was fortunate enough to find two gravediggers there. These men were promptly set to work to dig a grave at the south-east corner of the cemetery, beneath some lime trees. When the grave was deep enough, the cart, which had been left out on the high road, was driven into the grounds. Three men unceremoniously lifted the coffin from the cart, and, guided by the flickering light of lanterns, carried it to the roughly-made grave. The excavation was longer than the coffin, and, at either end, near the bottom, a candle was stuck into the earth, where, screened from the wind, which blew strongly and whistled through the trees, they cast a sickly light upon the yellow clay. The coffin was launched into its place by means of ropes. The earth was instantly shovelled down and stamped in, the lights were put out, and all was over.”

As with the William Vellens case, Dr Forbes Winslow DCL, FRCP Edin., MRCP, MRCS, MD, the ‘suicide’s friend’, availed himself of the pages of the Pall Mall Gazette to express his disgust. “Permit me again through your influential journal to enter my earnest protest against such barbarities. Can the act of suicide be considered as a crime in the legal definition of the term? Is it an offence that can be properly deemed cognizable by the civil magistrate? The attempt to cast obloquy and disgrace on the body of a suicide is a most indefensible and unphilosophical proceeding. The wretched man by his own act has placed himself beyond the vengeance of the law. He has anticipated its operation and made himself amenable to the highest tribunal, viz., that of his Creator. No human penal enactments, however stringent they may be, can affect him. By verdicts of felo de se the innocent relations of the suicide are disgraced and branded with infamy, and that too often on evidence of an ex pare nature. It is monstrously unjust, inhuman, and unnatural that the law should so punish the innocent family of a man who in a moment of frenzy terminates his miserable existence. It was clearly established before the alteration of the law respecting suicide that the fear of being buried in a cross road and having a stake driven through the body had no obvious effect in decreasing the number of suicides. When a man in a sound state of mind contemplates an outrage of the law, the fear of punishment has in a majority of cases a deterrent effect. But the unhappy person who is driven by feelings of despair or mental anguish to lay violent hands upon his own life is not amenable to such influences.”
Forbes Benignus Winslow, author of "The Anatomy of Suicide" 

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