‘You won’t see me alive in ten minutes’: a strongman’s wife reaches the limits of her despair

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I am struck by the frequency of attempted suicide cases that came before the London magistracy in the late nineteenth century. The Police Code book stated that:

A person who kills himself in a manner which in the case of another person would amount to murder, is guilty of murder’,1 which seems a supremely unhelpful directive under the circumstances.

Those attempting to kill themselves were ordered to be given medical assistance and then prosecuted for a misdemeanor. In most cases I’ve found the accused was remanded so that enquiries could be made into their mental health and character with the aim being, it seems, to ensure that they didn’t try anything so drastic again.

While there were several attempts at hanging and one of a man who walked into an underground train tunnel to end his life, most of the attempted suicides that made the pages of the newspapers were of women who had been prevented from drowning themselves in the Thames or one of the capital’s canals. In almost all instances their lives were saved by the quick reactions of a nearby beat bobby or member of the public. The case of Edith Sampson was a little different.

In late March  1892 Dora Hoffmeister was working as a servant at the Empire Hotel in Leicester Square. She knew Edith as one of the guests and met her by the front door to the hotel on the 31 March in the afternoon. Edith spoke to her saying darkly: ‘You won’t see me alive in ten minutes’, before hurrying off upstairs to her room.

Alarmed, Dora followed her and entered her bedroom where she saw Mrs Sampson sat at her dressing table. She took a small bottle from the table and poured its contents into a glass. Dora seized the bottle and realized it was marked ‘Laudanum. Poison’. She remonstrated with Edith who relented and poured the liquid back into the bottle and set it down.

Dora stayed as Edith dressed and went out, and then returned to her duties. About an hour later she decided to check on her again and went up to her room. There she found Edith lying on the bed where she had been carried by one of the hotel’s waiters after she’d been discovered earlier. Apparently another servant, Harriet Perrett had found Edith slumped on the stairs, a handkerchief in one hand and the bottle of laudanum in the other.  Dora rang for help and stayed with Edith until a surgeon arrived.

Dr Clarke examined his patient and the bottle and administered an emetic. Edith vomited up the poison and complained that the doctor should have let her die. ‘You don’t know my troubles’, she declared and continued to bemoan her fate until her mother arrived. Edith Sampson was just 18 years of old her mother explained, and had married  ‘Sampson, the Strong Man’ in September 1891. He was not about having left for Liverpool earlier that week. The couple had quarreled and Edith was clearly unhappy in her marriage. Nevertheless Edith’s mother was sure that this was a one off and told Mr Newton (the magistrate at Marlborough Street) that her daughter would never take her own life.

Mr Newton was much less sure however, and said she’d already made that attempt and might well try again. In his opinion the best course of action would be to have Edith secured in the infirmary at the local house of correction for a week. Edith Sampson ‘was led away crying, and evidently in deep distress’.

Edith was probably married to Charles A. Sampson, a famous strongman in the late Victorian period. He claimed he owed his remarkable strength to being hit by lightning when he was a child and he would appeared on stage throughout Britain and further afield. As a vaudeville showman Sampson would have been on the road a lot, with little time for his young wife. Edith, who was described as ‘good-looking’ and ‘fashionably attired’ might have enjoyed the trappings of a prosperous theatre existence but she may well have been quite lonely and worried that her new husband might be subjected to the charms of other women while he was out of her sight and care.

Hopefully this incident was enough to alert Edith’s family and friends to rally round her and give her the support she needed and, had it not been for the attention of a stranger, Dora Hoffmeister, a European immigrant worker in London, Sampson might have been burying his young wife without even celebrating his first wedding anniversary.

[from The Standard, Saturday, April 02, 1892]

  1. Neil R A Bell and Adam Wood (Eds), Sir Howard Vincent’s Police Code 1889, (Mango Books, 2015), p.174

A ‘frantic’ young woman attempts to ‘destroy herself’.

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Alongside petty crime, disorderly behaviour and violence the Police magistrates of the capital heard a considerable number of cases of distress and desperation. None more so than charges levelled against people (mostly women) who had attempted suicide by throwing themselves into the River Thames to drown.

It seems to have been a regular occurrence in the 1800s and featured in the BBC’s drama Taboo, where James Delany’s half-sister (Zilpha Geary, played by Oona Chaplin) leaped to her death. From the thirteenth century up to 1961 ‘self-murder’ was a crime, perhaps more importantly to some, a sin in the eyes of the church. As a result those accused of attempting to ‘destroy’ themselves frequently came before the metropolis’ magistracy.

While it was a largely accepted ‘truth’ that the ‘weakness’ of women’s minds was more likely to drive them to take their own lives, the reality was that men ‘committed’ (or attempted) suicide more frequently. However, gendering suicide in this way to make it a ‘female malady’ (as Elaine Showalter has dubbed madness in the 1800s) fitted contemporary tropes more closely. While men do feature in newspaper reports of attempted suicide it is more common for the examples to be of young women, like Zilpha and for the act to be one of drowning rather than hanging or other forms of self-harm.

So when Sarah Keyworth tried to jump off Westminster Bridge she was providing the Morning Post’s reporter with exactly the copy he needed to reinforce the weakness of the ‘fairer sex’ in the minds of his readership.

Sarah, ‘a respectable-looking young woman’ was seen running along Westminster Bridge by a gentleman named Houghton. Mr Houghton told the court at Southwark that she was ‘calling out in  a frantic manner’ before she ‘suddenly stopped and climbed over the railings of the bridge’.

He must have feared that she was about to jump so he reacted quickly and grabbed hold of her. She struggled, saying ‘let me go, let me go!’ but he held on until a policeman arrived to help. Sarah was taken to the local police station and brought up before the magistrate in the morning.

At her first hearing she was ‘sullen’ and said she had fully intended to have ‘destroyed herself and was sorry the gentleman had interfered’. The magistrate (Mr Woolrych) had remanded her and instructed the prison chaplain to visit her.

A week later and she was back up in court and this time her sister appeared with her to support her. Now Sarah was in repentant mood, through floods of tears she said ‘she was very sorry for such an attempt on her life. She knew the wickedness of it, and promised never to do it again’. Her sister told Mr Woolrych that she could only imagine she had been driven to it after ‘words with her young man’. She promised to look  after her and so the magistrate admonished Sarah and let them both go.

Sadly, attempting to drown oneself in the Thames is still one of the favoured options for those who feel that life is something they can no or longer wish to cope with. In 2014 over 100 calls were made to the City of London police on account of people trying to jump from one of the five bridges along the stretch of river covered by the City’s jurisdiction. Given that London has over a dozen more bridges (not including railway ones) that pedestrians can access the numbers of places where potential human tragedies could occur probably raises that figure considerably.

A 2016 report from the City noted that there were 20-25 suicides by drowning alone in the Thames and attempts have been made to prevent further deaths by installing information boards with the Samaritans phone number and even patrols on some bridges to look out for those in need. London can be a lonely place and it would seem that it always has been.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, March 11, 1865]

Tragedy, as a man murders his cleaner before turning the gun on himself

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From The Illustrated Police News, January 1882

In a break from the usual focus of this blog I am looking at a case that didn’t make it to the Police courts, for the simple reason that there was no one to prosecute. The source for all my posts are the reports of the cases heard at the Metropolitan Police courts in the Victorian press and these are usually situated with all the other ‘crime news’ in the papers. On the 2 January 1882 the usual record of events at the Bow Street, Guildhall and Marlborough Street courts was followed by the following headline:

Shocking murder and suicide.

It detailed the case of Robert Saunders, a 60 year old man who had given many years service as a butler to ‘a gentleman in Portman Square’. On his retirement from service Saunders had managed to accumulate enough money to purchase a number of small properties close to the Edgware Road. He rented most of these out but lived at 16 Shouldham Street with his wife Mary Jane in two rooms (the remainder of that house also being let to tenants).

Sadly what should have been a gentle and prosperous retirement for Robert was anything but. He was in financial difficulty and two of the leases of his properties had ‘fallen in’. Saunders feared that instead of prosperity, poverty was all that he and his wife had to look forward to. The former butler now fell in to what the report described as a deep ‘depression of spirit’.

In one of his houses, at 5 Newnham Street, lived a cab driver named Humphries and his wife Louisa. Humphries had had an accident and was being treated in the Marylebone Infirmary, as he was too sick to work. As a result Louisa was forced to take up charring for the Saunders and on Saturday 31 December 1881 she was at 16 Shouldham Street all day.

At half past five o’clock she had finished cleaning and went to see Mrs Saunders to let her know. The Saunders were seated in the parlour eating a meal. They were having hare but Mary remarked that they should have pork tomorrow, and asked him Mrs Humphries would oblige her by fetching some for them. She turned to her husband and asked him to give the cleaner 3s for the meat.

This simple request seemed to trigger something in Robert. He got to his feet and moved to the door, locking it. Slowly, he turned around and drew revolver from his pocket. In horror Louisa Humphries tried to rush to the door but Saunders shot her at point blank range in the face. She fell down dead on the spot. Mary screamed but ran at her husband, trying to wrestle the gun from his grip. He let off two shots, which missed her, before she knocked the weapon from his hands. As he reached for it she unlocked the door and ran out into the street, shouting for help. As she did so ‘she fancied she heard another shot fired’.

Neighbours soon rushed to the scene and a police constable (Stokes 156D) assumed control. He called for support and other police arrived including Inspector Measures of D Division. Mr. Saunders had locked the door again but they broke it down and entered the parlour where ‘a shocking scene presented itself’ (as the Illustrated Police News‘ artist imagined it above).

Mrs Humphries was lying dead in a pool of blood, the bullet had entered just below her left eye and had penetrated her brain, the money for the pork joint still gripped tightly in her lifeless hand. She would have died instantly, the report suggested. The former butler’s body was draped over a fender, the revolver close to his right hand. He had pointed the muzzle of the gun into his mouth and fired upwards, once again death would have been instantaneous.

The revolver still contained one charge; he’d fired one at his wife’s retreating back before locking the door behind her. The final shot Mrs Saunders had heard was the one that took her husband’s life.

A crowd had gathered outside the house and the bodies were taken away to the mortuary prior a formal investigation by the Middlesex coroner. There would be no trial but the readers could look forward to seeing if anything new emerged from the coroner’s enquiry in a few days time.   The question on everyone’s lips was how had an otherwise mild mannered former servant gotten hold of a pistol and why had he chosen to shoot an entirely innocent woman? Unfortunately, with no defendant to set in the dock and ask, these were questions that were unlikely to be answered.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, 2 January, 1882]

The Police Court: a progress report

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I thought I’d do something a little different this morning. I’ve been writing reports from the Victorian Police courts for over two years now and have collected several hundred stories which were beginning to give me some historical findings that I might be able to analyse more broadly.

There is a difference I’ve found, both in the nature of cases, the way the courts are used by the public, and the way in which they are reported by the press, and this seems to move in patterns across the period 1830-1900. I’m not at a stage where I can be completely sure about this but it does seem that the newspapers are clearly highlighting particular sorts of case or crime in much the same way as we see ‘hot topics’ appearing in our own papers today.

Sometimes that is a sort of criminal activity (and notably this is fraud of some sort when the Mansion House or Guildhall courts are reported). Other times it is begging and vagrancy – real concerns of the mid Victorians who had reframed the Poor Law to treat the ‘undeserving’ poor more harshly. Later see we plenty of domestic violence cases highlighted as this was something that certainly concerned several of the late Victorian magistrates who wrote up their memoirs. Child neglect, abject poverty, and suicide were also topics that come up time and again with varying degrees of shock, sympathy and distaste.

One of the key problems I’ve faced in undertaking this sort of research is that the papers only ever offer us a snapshot of the magistrates’ work. The daily or weekly newspapers run about a half page on the Police Courts and that means they cover about 5-8 courts and report on one (sometimes two or three) cases from each of them. But we know that these courts were busy places, dealing with hundreds of cases daily, especially on Monday mornings when the police cells emptied of the weekend’s drunks, brawlers, petty thieves and wife beaters.

Judging by the archival records I have looked at from Thames Police court (one of the few places where records from the 1800s have survived) most of those prosecuted there were fined for being drunk and disorderly, or drunk and incapable. Very many others were in for some form of assault and received fines or short prison sentences. Cases which were complicated and led to serious charges being heard at the Old Bailey were relatively few by comparison but were more often reported by the papers, because of course they were often more interesting for the readership.

So what we get is a fairly lopsided view of the police courts and I have been aware that I am also engaging in a selection process in offering up the ones for you to read. Once I realised that dozens if not hundreds of people were reading my blog did that affect they way I chose which cases to cover? It is a difficult question to answer; there are all sorts of factors that determine what I write about. I am drawn to certain types of case because they seem to offer insights into Victorian society at different points, but other times I just find the story sad, amusing or unusual.

Today I am speaking at the 2018 East End Conference, a gathering of largely amateur historians who have a fascination with the Whitechapel Murders and the context in which they occurred. I on quite late in the day and as this is the 130th anniversary of the so-called ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders I thought I’d take the opportunity to reflect on the phenomenon of ‘Ripperologly’ (the study of the murders) and the problems of historical evidence. This is because the Ripper case and the character of ‘Jack’ has been manipulated from the beginning of any interest in it. He has been used by tour guides, entertainers, politicians, social reformers, historians, video game makers and others for all sorts of purposes. Each generation has shaped their own ‘Ripper’ to suit contemporary concerns or tastes.

In the process we have lost touch with the reality of the murders which were brutal in the extreme. The Ripper figure has become separated from the real killer and an entertainment industry has grown which has exploited the victims and the area in which the killings took place. In the light of recent movements that oppose misogyny (like the ‘Me Too’ movement) I believe Ripperology needs to reflect carefully on the sometime casual way in which the killer has been turned into some sort of cult comic book figure – the mysterious topped hat gent with a knife and a Gladstone bag swirling his cape through foggy backstreets.

This characterisation has arisen from the lack of hard evidence we have for who ‘Jack’ really was. The vacuum has been filled by speculation – which is not in itself a bad thing – and by a vert partial reading of what evidence we do have. Much of this is gleaned from the Victorian press in the 1880s and I can see (simply by reading them every day for this blog) how careful we need to be about that material.

So writing this blog and writing and researching my own ‘Ripper solution’ book has helped me think more carefully about how we use and present ‘history’ and that will form part of what I have to say this afternoon. Normal service – in the form of the reports of the magistracy – will return tomorrow with a tale of pyromaniac who risked the lives of those he lived with. A tale appropriate for Guy Fawkes I thought.

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The magistrate tells a mentally ill mother to ‘remember to the end of her life what disgrace and danger she brought upon herself’.

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Today the British government has decided to mark World Mental Health Day by appointing a government minister to prevent suicide. The Health Secretary has admitted that under successive governments there has been too little focus of resources on tackling the problems of mental illness but, speaking on BBC Radio’s Today programme he stopped shorted of promising more money or specifying exactly how he intended to address the issue of mental health in the coming months and years.

The PM said this: ‘We can end the stigma that has forced too many to suffer in silence and prevent the tragedy of suicide taking too many lives’. They have pledged £1.8 to the Samaritans to help them run their free helpline. That is certainly something of course, but then we spend £38 billion on defence and about £45m on the Queen. The costs of mental health care do come out of the NHS budget of course and that budget is £124.7 billion and about 10% of that goes towards treating mental illness.

What all of these figures show is that mental illness is a massive problem in modern society and helps explain why upwards of 4,500 people take their own lives every year. Anyone visiting this blog over the last couple of years will probably have come across one or more story of attempted suicide prosecuted at the Metropolitan Police courts.  London was just as unforgiving and uncaring in the 1800s as it has proved to be in the 1900s and early 2000s. Policemen frequently prevented suicides simply by being on the streets (and bridges) at the right times.

Beat bobbies rescued men and women from the river, pulled them from canals, and cut them down from railings where they found them hanging. On more than one occasion a quick thinking guard or passenger saved a life on the overground or underground railways. Unlike today few of those attempting to end their lives received any help afterwards and all of them ended up facing prosecution for their ‘crime’.

Take the example of Maria Ford, a 28 year old married woman from Henry Street in Marylebone. She was charged before Mr Mansfield with attempting to murder her baby boy and then take her own life with poison. The magistrate was told that Maria was a drunkard with a history of being found incapable in the streets. After numerous appearances before  the courts she had recently promised to refrain from alcohol and had ‘signed the pledge’.

As a convert to the Temperance movement Mr Mansfield was prepared to give her the benefit of the doubt. The chaplain of the house of detention had written to him to attest to Maria’s attempt at reformation and he was keen to encourage her. He decided to treat the attempt on her son’s life as an accident occasioned by her being drunk but warned her against slipping ‘off the wagon’ in future:

‘He did not think she intended to injure her child’ he said, ‘but in her drunken madness she might have killed both the child and herself’.

He would therefore discharge her but now she had signed the pledge she had best keep it and ‘remember to the end of her life what disgrace and danger she brought upon herself by her drunken habits’.

I’m not sure anyone asked her why she drank or why there was no husband in court to support her. At least in that respects our society has made some significant strides forward even if, as Matt Hancock admits, there is still plenty of distance to travel.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, October 10, 1883]

for other cases that touch on attempted suicide see:

A man is driven to attempt suicide because of his ‘reduced circumstances’

‘She has been very low spirited lately’: The early casebook of the ‘Ripper’ surgeon reveals the extent of mental illness in London

A bad week in London, full of personal tragedy

‘If you had been pursued all over London and were hated by the government, you would wish to shoot yourself’: drama at Bow Street as a respectable citizen tries to take his own life.

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This story is both sad and dramatic as it concerns a man’s very public attempt at suicide. Most of the cases that I’ve written about previously that have involved suicide have been women and most of those have chosen to end their lives by throwing themselves into the River Thames or one of the canals that ran through the capital. Most were prevented by quick-thinking policemen or passers-by and ended up before magistrates because attempting to take one’s life was against the law in the 1800s.

In this example the defendant was a man, and a respectable one at that. Robert H. Rhodes lived in St John’s Wood and worked for the Land Revenue Record Office. So Robert was a middle class white-collar worker, he was married and he had children and so was a very long way, it would seem, from the desperation of the usually poor and destitute women (and men) who chose to throw themselves from the various bridges that crisscrossed the Thames.

Appearances can be deceptive of course, and mental illness is no respecter of class or wealth. Rhodes was under some sort of pressure: in his appearance that Bow Street he told Mr Bridge (sitting as the duty magistrate) that he had ‘been pursued all over London, and [was] hated by the Government and bullied by everyone’.

While we don’t know why exactly Robert decided to end his life we do know how. In mid September 1886 the revenue man walked into a gunmaker’s shop in Cockspur Street near Trafalgar Square. He showed the assistant a cartridge he’d brought with him and asked to see some revolvers that might fit it. The shopkeeper brought out some examples and Rhodes calmly selected one and loaded it with his cartridge.

Then he ‘turned the revolver round till the muzzle pointed to his head and was trying to pull the trigger when the shopkeeper seized his arm’, and saved his life. The police were called and Rhodes was led away. As the constable took him to the nearest police station Rhodes begged him to let him end his life saying that otherwise ‘his wife and family would be forever ruined’.

We get no further clues as to what had led Robert Rhodes to make this terrible decision to kill himself but perhaps he was about to lose his position, or owed a large amount of money, or was suffering in some other way with the pressures of his job? Two gentlemen approached the bench and said they would take care of him and be responsible for his future conduct. I presume these were his friends or colleagues.  They agreed to be bound for six months as sureties at £250 each (about £16,500 today, so a huge sum of money) and Mr Bridge duly released Robert on the condition he did not repeat his attempt within that period.

[from The Standard , Tuesday, September 21, 1886]

For other cases involving attempted suicide see:

A man is driven to attempt suicide because of his ‘reduced circumstances’

A bad week in London, full of personal tragedy

A destitute Essex girl in London makes the news

A circus artist for whom the show cannot go on alone

Pickett climbs a fence and saves a life

A bad week in London, full of personal tragedy

V0019421 A destitute girl throws herself from a bridge, her life ruin

George Cruikshank, ‘A destitute girl throws herself from a bridge, her life ruined by alcoholism’, (1848)

Sometimes the London press seems to have chosen to focus on a particular theme. In the third week of July 1864 it appears to have been the personal tragedy of suicide. I can think of no reason why acts of self-destruction should have been higher in that period than in any other year. In America civil war was tearing that nation apart but the only noteworthy event in London was the murder of Thomas Briggs by Franz Muller, the first ever murder on the railways. Perhaps the relative lack of news stories in July prompted the newspapers to concentrate on the personal drama of those that decided they could no longer cope with life.

Attempted suicide was a crime in the 1800s and so those caught in the process were liable to be prosecuted. On the 19 July The Morning Post reported that three individuals had appeared before the city’s magistracy charged with this offence.

The first of these was an elderly man called James Gander. PC 244 of B Division told Mr Selfe at Westminster Police court that he’d been alerted to the fact that a person was seen drowning in the River Thames. It was about 8 o’clock on Sunday night (17 July) and when the policeman reached the water he and a bargeman managed to affect a rescue, pulling the 60 year-old out of the river.

Searching him he found three large stones in his pocket wrapped in a handkerchief. When he recovered his senses Gander told the constable that ‘trouble of mind and family misfortunes had driven him to it’.  Gander was also quite drunk, or at least appeared to have been drinking heavily and in court his son told the magistrate that his father had taken to drinking recently.

He went on to say that his father had been a fairly successful master carman but some time ago that business had floundered and gone under. His wife had been away from the family for the last few months looking after her daughter-in-law and it seems Gander wasn’t coping well. The magistrate wasn’t particularly sympathetic; he remanded the old man for a week so he could reappraise the case but said he was minded to send him for trial for the crime.

At Southwark on the other side of the river Mr Woolrych had two unconnected attempted suicides to consider. PC 133M told the magistrate that at half-past five on the previous Friday afternoon (15 July) he had found Henry John Arnold lying on the pavement in Swan Street. A gentleman was standing over him and called the officer’s attention to him, saying he feared the young man was dead.

Arnold was alive, but ‘totally insensible’. The gentleman handed the policeman a bottle marked ‘laudanum’ which he had prized from the stricken man’s hand. Arnold was taken to Guy’s Hospital and his stomach was pumped to try and save him. He was lucky but it took a few days for him to recover sufficiently to be brought before the magistrate at Southwark to answer for his actions.

Mr Woolrych asked him if he been trying to kill himself and why. Arnold admitted he had and explained it was because he ‘truly unhappy’ having fallen out with his wife. This prompted a ‘decent-looking female’ to step forward and state that she was Mrs Arnold. She said they had argued about a young girl that worked with him, but she’d forgiven him. Arnold had taken it badly and had wandered off for a while and she’d not known where he was. She worried because he was often in ‘bad health’, and perhaps she meant in poor mental health.

This time the magistrate decided he would keep Arnold in gaol until ‘he was in a better frame of mind’, perhaps conscious that the young man had told the  arresting officer that ‘next time he would do it better’.

The final case was that of Mary Ann Willis. She was also brought to Mr Woolwrych at Southwark and charged with attempting to end her own life. A young lad named Samuel Carden testified that on Saturday afternoon (16 July) at 3 o’clock he’d been on Waterloo Bridge stairs where he worked assisting the watermen. Mary Ann came down the stairs and remarked to him that ‘it would be a nice place to commit suicide’.

Carden told her to be careful that she didn’t accidently fall in and said he would ensure no one tried to kill themselves while he was there. Regardless of this, she pushed past him and ‘slipped off the logs and went under’. Samuel acted quickly, grabbed her and pulled her back on to dry land, before she could be caught under the logs of the platform and be drowned.

In court Mary Ann denied all of this and said she’d fallen in by accident. The magistrate asked Samuel if he thought the woman had been entirely sober when he’d seen her. The lad said he was pretty sure she had been drinking as she looked unsteady on her feet when she came down to the jetty. Faced with this evidence and Mary Ann’s denial the magistrate had a decision to make. Whom did he believe?

Finally he decided that he would believe the ‘respectable young woman’ but probably because he felt she had acted on the spur of the moment and had planned to kill herself. Unlike Carden or Gander this seemed to be a life that could be turned around. But young Samuel had acted bravely and deserved a reward for saving her, so Mr Woolrych ordered that he been given five shillings from the poor box. Mary Ann he discharged.

Today none of these individuals would be prosecuted for what they had done or had attempted to do and hopefully all three would have been given some support from the mental health services. This doesn’t prevent thousands of people from trying and succeeding in ending their own lives of course and stories like these remind us that everyday people struggle with their personal demons and pressures, and some of them lose those battles.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, July 19, 1864]