The Statesman's Suicide

The suicide of Robert Stewart, First Marquess of Londonderry on August 12, 1822 probably could have been avoided.

Despite a glorious political career including representing England at the Congress of Vienna, he had become increasingly unpopular at home. His reputation for integrity and honesty had made him numerous political enemies and he went into a decline after the death of his father in 1821. There are different theories over why be became mentally unbalanced (including the possibility that he was suffering from neurosyphilis) but no actual evidence exists.

Suffering from chronic gout pain and agitated over the stormy sessions in Parliament, Stewart became 180px-Castlereagh_death increasingly paranoid. He was heard to say, ""My mind, my mind, is, as it were, gone" and began suspecting friends and colleagues of conspiring against him. His colleagues all saw that Stewart was getting worse and, on the advice of his doctor, he returned to his home in Kent.

Called to an audience with King George IV, Robert Stewart seemed even more agitated than usual and claimed that he was being accused of homosexual conduct (there was no actual evidence of that either). The king promptly notified Stewart's doctor of what had happened. Although the doctor promptly went to Stewart's residence in Kent and took away all of his razors as a safety precaution, it wasn't enough. A penknife had been forgotten in a drawer and, after seeing his wife and the doctor talking together, Stewart used the knife to cut his throat.

The resulting inquest into Robert Stewart's death concluded that the suicide had been committed in a fit of insanity. The family was greatly relieved and with good reason. Under the English common law of the time, the penalty for suicide (known as a felo de se or crime against the self) was, to put it mildly, harsh. If a verdict of insanity had not been brought in, not only would Stewart's property have been confiscated by the Crown, but he would have been denied a religious burial.

Since the deceased could no longer be punished for the crime, the law also called for the body of a suicide to receive what was termed an ignominious burial (children were exempt). This usually involved burying the deceased in a crossroad with a stake driven through the heart (the reasons for this were never clear although it may have related to old superstitions concerning vampires).

While there were no real statistics regarding how often this was actually done (digging up crossroads can be expensive), the threat of family disgrace was very real. Families of suicides often either concealed the actual circumstances of the death or else obtained the all-important medical certificate verifying that the deceased had been mentally unbalanced.

While the verdict ensured that Stewart could be buried with full honours, it placed a double burden on the surviving family members. Not only did they have to cope with the stigma of suicide, but the stigma of insanity as well (and both were considered to be hereditary). It didn't help that Stewart's political rivals and critics used the suicide and the accusations of homosexuality to undermine his reputation (libel laws were a lot looser in those days).

One family member who took Stewart's suicide especially hard was his nephew, Robert Fitzroy. Despite a long and illustrious career (including serving as captain of the H.M.S. Beagle on its fateful voyage), he lived in dread of the "taint of insanity" in his family. He became increasingly depressed in his old age (helped no doubt by the unintended role that he played in Darwin's theory of evolution, but that's another story). In 1865, he cut his throat almost exactly the way his uncle had so many years before.

It was fortunate that he died penniless since the law concerning property forfeiture in suicide wasn't abolished in England until 1870 (although the last ignominious burial was in 1823). Suicide in the United Kingdom didn't actually stop being a crime until the passing of the Suicide Act in 1961.

While attempted suicide is grounds for mandatory psychiatric evaluation in most jurisdictions these days, actual criminal charges are usually reserved for aiding, inciting, or assisting suicide in any way. There are still places where attempted suicide is punishable with a prison sentence (i.e., Singapore and India), but legal sanctions over successful suicides usually focus on issues of neglect on the part of caregivers.

Although many religions view suicide as a mortal sin and have traditionally denied the deceased religious burial, this is slowly passing (some clerics still request proof of mental instability before authorizing religious rites). Fortunately, a stake through the heart is no longer required.

But the stigma lives on.


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