When suicide was illegal

Posed by model

Up until 50 years ago suicide was a crime in England and Wales. But why were people prosecuted for attempted "self-murder" and how did things change?

When police found Lionel Henry Churchill with a bullet wound in his forehead next to the partly-decomposed body of his wife it is hard to imagine the emotional turmoil he must have been in.

He had tried but failed to take his own life in the bed of their Cheltenham home.

Doctors said the 59-year-old needed medical treatment at a mental hospital, but magistrates disagreed. In July 1958 he was sent to prison for six months after pleading guilty to attempted suicide.

His story made just a few column inches in the Times, but in the newspaper's archives his tale is far from uncommon.

Take out-of-work labourer Thomas McCarthy, 28, who "drank something bad" on the steps of St Paul's Cathedral after becoming depressed. He was sent to prison for a week for his troubles in October 1923.

And then there is Lieutenant-Commander Geoffrey Walker 48, of Heathfield, Sussex, who in June 1953 was fined £25 for attempting suicide with a French revolver he found on a beach at Dunkirk.

Prison warder The penalties for attempted suicide varied from a fine to a short spell in prison

And 31-year-old William Morgan, of Islington, north London, who tried to take his life in an elaborate way involving a van, was sent to jail for a month in February 1959.

Nowadays it would seem almost unthinkable to punish someone for attempting suicide, but until just half a century ago, it was a crime in England and Wales.

A Times leader on the subject noted that in 1956, 5,387 failed suicide attempts were known to police, and of those 613 were prosecuted. Most were discharged, fined or put on probation, but 33 were sent to prison.

"If they were hauled in front of a court for attempting to kill themselves, or even worse sent to jail, I can't even begin to imagine the impact of that, and the stigma (that followed) would have been horrendous," says Dr Caroline Simone, senior lecturer and expert in suicide bereavement at Derby University.

Some were shown leniency, like Lancashire man Harry Howard, 27, who tried to take his own life because he didn't want to spend the night in a "cold" police cell, and Mabel Sayers, 37, of Dartford, who, in a sudden "fit of depression" turned on the gas and gathered her three children around her.

World-weary hangman John Ellis, who turned a gun on himself, was also spared. "If your aim had been as true as the drops you have given it would have been a bad job for you," the chairman at Rochdale Police Court told him as he was discharged. "Your life has been given back to you, and turn it to good use in atonement."

Night-time burial

"Self-murder" became a crime under common law in England in the mid-13th Century, but long before that it was condemned as a mortal sin in the eyes of the Church.

Use of the word 'commit'

  • The phrase 'commit' when referring to suicide is still in common usage
  • "The connotation of 'commit' is that someone has committed a crime or committed a sin," says Dr Caroline Simone. "If you buy into the religious perspective it is a sin to murder one-self. When you say commit you suggest that person is making a rational decision."
  • The word 'commit' is not used by Samaritans
  • BBC guidelines advise against its use

For a death to be declared a "Felo de se", Latin for "felon of himself", an old legal term for suicide, it had to be proved the person was sane.

If proven, they were denied a Christian burial - and instead carried to a crossroads in the dead of night and dumped in a pit, a wooden stake hammered through the body pinning it in place. There were no clergy or mourners, and no prayers were offered.

But punishment did not end with death. The deceased's family were stripped of their belongings and they were handed to the Crown. "The suicide of an adult male could reduce his survivors to pauperism," Michael MacDonald and Terence Murphy wrote in Sleepless souls: Suicide in early modern England.

In many countries suicide was never criminalised. And in some cultures it was seen as a patriotic alternative to dishonour.

It is thought that Greek philosopher Socrates became his own executioner - sentenced to death by drinking poison - and in ancient Athens it was said city magistrates kept a supply of poison for anyone wishing to die. In Japan, Samurai warriors would carry out Seppuku, a ritual suicide by disembowelment, rather than fall into enemy hands.

"Attitudes to suicidal behaviour have changed over time and at different times in different places," says Prof Nav Kapur, head of research at Manchester University's Centre for Suicide Prevention.

'Shockingly slow'

So why was suicide punished as a crime in England and Wales until 1961?

"We were one of the last European countries to decriminalise suicide - we were way behind our European counterparts," Dr Simone says.

"We have been very slow and the punitive action that someone's possessions could be forfeited to the Crown up until 1822 is shocking really."

A Times report from 20 October 1959 A report in the Times from 20 October 1959

But Dr David Wright, professor of history at Canada's McGill University, says prosecutions were "rare" taking into account the tens of thousands of hospital admissions for suicidal tendencies.

"Sometimes it takes a long time to change legislation because it really isn't that relevant anymore," he adds.

Unlike the high profile cases that have peppered the assisted suicide debate in recent years, experts say there was no significant campaign for a change in legislation. Instead came a gradual realisation that the laws of the day were at odds with society's view, and that care not prosecution was needed.

"From the middle of the 18th Century to the mid-20th Century there was growing tolerance and a softening of public attitudes towards suicide which was a reflection of, among other things, the secularisation of society and the emergence of the medical profession," says Dr Wright, co-author of Histories of suicide: International perspectives on self-destruction in the modern world.

In 1958 the British Medical Association and the Magistrates' Association urged a "more compassionate and merciful outlook", and a year later the Church of England joined the calls for change.

The Times also campaigned, drawing attention to the fact that suicide was not a crime in Scotland. "Attempted suicide seems to have become punishable in England almost by accident," a leader stated in 1958.

Tragic tale founded Samaritans

Samaritans began in 1953 with Chad Varah, an Anglican vicar.

His first duty was to bury a 14-year-old girl. The girl had started menstruation, but, having no one to talk to, believed she was gravely ill and took her own life.

Reverend Varah vowed he would help others and set up Samaritans which later became the world's first 24-hour helpline service.

It has 18,500 volunteers and 200 branches in the UK and Ireland.

However as late as 1958, home secretary of the time Richard Austen Butler seemed unconvinced. "Although it is clear there is greater sympathy and understanding for suicides, there is no evidence that an alteration would be universally acceptable to public opinion," he told the Commons.

But St Pancras North Labour MP Kenneth Robinson, who raised the issue in the Commons many times, would not let the matter drop.

On 27 February 1958 he tabled a motion contending that suicide should cease to be a criminal offence. Within days 150 MPs had signed it.

When the law was finally repealed three years later it was widely welcomed and 50 years on it is still seen as an important moment.

"What was happening in the late 50s and early 60s was that attitudes shifted from suicide as wrongdoing or sin to the medicalisation of suicide, recognising that the majority of individuals attempting suicide or dying [from suicide] were in a great deal of distress," says Kapur.

Despite a much more sympathetic attitude, experts say there is more to be done.

A YouGov survey commissioned by Samaritans shows a third of 1,066 people polled would not talk to someone if they felt suicidal.

Clare Wylie, the charity's head of policy and research, says it shows many still consider suicide a "scary or taboo topic".

It is clear debate over attitudes to suicide will go on, but how far could we be from another change in the law?


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  • rate this

    Comment number 258.

    Reply to 27. GPM1 - Hitler orchestrated the systematic murder of 6 million people. Assisted Death is where a person wishes to die, asks for and is given help in doing so - this isn't murder. Better to end your life with dignity and help, if the situation cannot improve? I agree that it is important to work more on palliative care though and there are risks of corruption in assisted dying systems.

  • rate this

    Comment number 257.

    There must be many reasons why a person would contemplate suicide and as a sufferer of depression I can relate to why some people feel it's the only way to stop their pain. I don't believe that a person can be thinking rationally when they choose to end their life, but I do believe it's society's negative perception of mental health issues that stops some people from asking for help.

  • rate this

    Comment number 256.

    Some people just dont get it do they. Its not about what your faith tells you not to do. Its about what the suicidal person feels. Don't sit there all smug in your harmonious world being hypocrites to your faith by judging the actions of others. Suicidal people are in a bad place, and can see no way out. On the other hand, the rest of the posts on here give me hope and faith in humanity!

  • rate this

    Comment number 255.

    It is impossible to live someone else's life for them. Or live under their pain. They have to do it themselves. How arrogant would you have to be to tell someone else what they have to endure? It is their life and their choice. And your life and your choice. You bear what you can bear - or not - and let others do the same.

  • rate this

    Comment number 254.

    You are the captain of your own destiny. If you wish to end your current journey and move onto the next, that is your choice.
    If an able bodied person truly wishes to end their life, then there is nothing anyone can do, because they will not have told anyone.
    Suicide may be a selfish act, but so is living, because by living you are using up resources that could be used by others.

  • rate this

    Comment number 253.

    @ #251 - So you think that someone can be "sane" and want to kill themselves??

    @ All - A friend of mine from college hung himself some years ago. I still get cross with him about it but yet also incredibly sad. I've been in my own dark places since then and know how strong the urge can be to disappear even with a mild depression, thinking that everyone is better off without you.

  • rate this

    Comment number 252.

    I find life so unbearable that I try to leave it, but don’t succeed. As a result, I am sent to prison so that I may learn how wonderful life really is. What logic.

  • rate this

    Comment number 251.

    If you're sane, and you kill someone, you go to jail. If for example a wife was mentally tortured by husband for a decade and she kills him, perhaps she might be given leniency considering her state of mind i.e. temporary insanity (etc)

    So killing someone is illegal unless you are not in control of your mental faculties. So why should it be legal to top yourself if you are sane?

  • rate this

    Comment number 250.

    Many years after my son committed suicide (yes I do use the word because it is only a word) I still do not know why as he gave us no clues. Selfish? No because he was not a selfish person. We who are left are now the tortured souls.To protect the rest of the family from a repeat horror I don't even have the choice of suicide and so have to live life as best I can. Every action has a reaction

  • rate this

    Comment number 249.

    How sad it used to be when suicide was recorded on police statistics as a crime. I remember being responsible for the recording of the police crime statistics when in a force in North Wales in the late nineteen fiftees. There was an area that was policed by a Sergeant and a Constable and, one crime had been committed - that being suicide - Hence a 100% detection rate Add your comment...

  • rate this

    Comment number 248.

    #241 - Two people can go through the same kind of abuse, but one of them can find a way of coping with the pain easier than the other. The pain that you see as being in the past is in the present for the suicidal person.
    #233 - A suicidal person will not always answer you honestly, fearing that you will try to prevent them from carrying out what they believe is the best thing to do.

  • rate this

    Comment number 247.

    It is far easier to fall into depression than it is coming out of it. Medicine doesn't work and just masks the problem for a while.

    Even those with help from those who deeply care about someone is not always going to work.

    Every situation is different and loving a person and trying to work things out may not work in every situation.

  • rate this

    Comment number 246.

    To those who say suicide is selfish - when I was suicidal I honestly thought that removing myself would make the lives of those around me better - removing my misery and despair from their lives, giving my husband a chance to find a better wife, removing his money worries.....I realised I was unwell and needed help & went to my GP. Until you've been there you don't know how it feels.

  • rate this

    Comment number 245.

    A close friend of mine ended their life some years ago.They were simply not 'present' despite still existing and making plans they already knew they would not fulfil.They had written letters dated the previous week and posted them the day they died, having that day discussed plans with another friend for the following week. I don't think it's selfish, I think it's simply their end.

  • rate this

    Comment number 244.

    Well, there are some hideously unempathetic and frankly ignorant comments on here -

    But I'm overjoyed to see that these have been shot down by a sensible caring majority!

    Few things make my skin crawl more than self-satisfied fools bleating that "suicide is selfish".

    How limited is an imaginition that labels people tortured by depression/illness/tragedy to the point of SUICIDE as "selfish"?!

  • rate this

    Comment number 243.

    241 starimmanuel, try telling someone in the depths of that cave, particularly as half the time they do not realise they are in there in the first place. They believe they are being rational, if they do come out and look back and see the cave they may become stronger but that view is only visible from the outside.

  • rate this

    Comment number 242.

    Damnant quod non intelligunt.

    Sadly, having read through sop many posts on here today so many of truly have no ide at all what it is like to be there, in that zone of throwing yourself off a high building, stepping off the stool with a rope around your neck, swallowing pills etc., some of you should may try to see what it feels like to have no reason to carry on

  • rate this

    Comment number 241.

    People who commit suicide do so under overwhelming stress and sadness, but they are only temporary emotions. Legalizing it is saying stress and sadness is stronger than joy and happiness. Many great people have experienced depression but have come out stronger. No matter how hard it looks, there is always light out of every dark cave.

  • rate this

    Comment number 240.

    Suicidal people believe themselves to be at 'rock bottom', and that they cannot feel any lower. Only by showing them that somebody ACTUALLY cares, can you help them.
    A suicidal person is not thinking clearly (Despite believing that they are). So to ask a non-suicidal person if they would talk to someone if they were suicidal is ridiculous.

  • rate this

    Comment number 239.

    But do I think he was selfish... not at all. I think he was a remarkably brave man to end his life, leaving behind such a young family. The depth of despair he must have felt.... I cannot comprehend, nor judge...


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