Very sadly suicides seem to feature quite frequently in the reports of the London police courts. The Thames offered those in despair plenty of opportunities to take their lives and we must remember that in the Victorian period there were not the social services, health care or even many of the modern charities that support those with depression or other forms of mental illness. Nor were nineteenth-century asylums places one would want to end up in.
Ellen Whitby was brought up to be re-examined before the sitting magistrate at Mansion House in late September 1873. Ellen had tried to jump from London Bridge into the river below and this had not been the first time. She had attempted suicide ‘no fewer than four times’, once been dragged out of the Thames after falling from Blackfriars Bridge. After this most recent attempt she was locked up in Newgate for her own safety.
Ellen was a former circus performer. Under the stage name Lottie Marcella she had performed as an ‘equestrienne’ with her husband. But three years previously he had been killed in an accident and their act had come to an end. A public subscription had raised £400 for the widow but it seems she took his loss and the end of her career hard, turning to drink.
This ‘intemperance’ was accompanied by what today we would probably identify as depression and so led her to attempt her own life.
The ordinary of Newgate (the prison’s chaplain) appeared at court to speak on her behalf. He said he believed she would no longer try to kill herself if released. He added that ‘arrangements had been made to send the prisoner to an institution where she would be taken care of’ (an asylum one imagines). There she might be able to ‘regain her position’ he hoped.
I fear the ordinary might have been being a tad optimistic as Victorian ‘lunatic asylums’ had ‘a reputation as dehumanising, prison-like institutions‘, and I doubt ‘Lottie’ would have had much ‘care’ there.
[from The Morning Post, Saturday, September 27, 1873]