Suicide is not longer a criminal act but until 1961 it was an offence under law. Indeed up until 1822 suicides could even have their estate confiscated by the state (an instruction that dated back to the 13th century). The rationale was that suicide was an immoral act, against God and the monarch and so deserved punishment. Even in the 1950s failed suicides could expect a prison sentence and this is why, in late May 1866, Abraham Gentleman found himself in Worship Street Police Court.
Abraham was a 54 year-old shoemaker living in Bethnal Green, in London’s East End. He was deaf and dumb and his wife and two of his sons had recently died of illness in Whitechapel hospital. He must have been a very low point in his life as one of his surviving sons told the court that day.
The shoemaker was himself ill and and that, with the addition of some strong alcohol (which he was not used to) must, his son insisted, have tipped him over the edge.
The police had been summoned to Gentleman’s home at 11pm at night and PC Mankerton of H Division had found him lying by the fire, insensible. There were rope marks around his neck and a ‘twisted line’ lying nearby. It seemed the cord had dislodged from a nail on the wall, thankfully (the newspaper said) saving him from certain death.
His son promised his father would eschew alcohol in future (and Abraham nodded his assent to this) and not make any further attempts on his own life. The Victorians had much less understanding of depression than us and perhaps less sympathy as a result. The justice, with what seems like callous indifference, merely remanded him in custody.
[from Daily News , Friday, May 25, 1866]