Felo-de-se: the crime of self-murder
It's been said that of the seven deadly sins, despair is the most unforgivable. Only despair automatically excludes a person from God’s grace. In Regency England, it was believed that the Devil, in the form of despair, lured people to suicide--an act considered to be an offense against God. Inquests were conducted and the dead person was tried posthumously. If convicted of felo de se—crime against oneself (i.e. self-murder)--the deceased was denied Christian burial. The body was carried to a crossroad, thrown into a pit, and a wooden stake driven through it. No clergy attended. No prayers were said. And the Crown confiscated the victim’s property.[i]
If, however, the victim was found to be non compos mentis--not of sound mind—this harsh punishment was not meted out. But such a finding was rare. Of the more than eight hundred inquests held between 1580-90, for example, only five deaths were judged non compos mentis.[ii] And in a kind of macabre Catch-22, if a dead person was proved to be insane, his/her mental illness was considered prima-facie evidence the death was suicide.
The practice of burying these victims at a crossroad goes back to Teutonic times when criminals were executed where four roads met. The idea was to prevent the dead person’s spirit from returning to haunt or avenge itself against the living. Faced with paths stretching in all directions, the spirit would be confused and unable to find its way home. A stake was driven through the body as an additional precaution. Not only did it anchor the spirit in place, but the evil that drove the victim to take his/her life would be released.[iii]
In 1823, an overhaul of British law decriminalized suicide. It is likely that two high-profile deaths contributed to these changes. In 1818, Sir Samuel Romilly—a prime proponent for such reforms—killed himself out of grief over the death of his beloved wife. Then, in August 1822, Viscount Castlereagh—leader in the House of Commons and Secretary of the Foreign Office–committed suicide. At the inquest, the coroner led the jury in concluding his lordship had suffered “under a grievous disease of the mind.”
Despite the coroner’s finding of insanity, a firestorm of outrage erupted when the public learned Castlereagh was to be interred at Westminster Abbey. Nevertheless, the ceremony went forward, but without the pomp and circumstance of a state funeral.[iv] One year later, Parliament ended the custom of sepultus in via –burying in the roadway. It became lawful to consign the remains of suicide victims to consecrated ground, but without the benefit of a religious service and between the hours of 9 PM and twelve midnight. It also brought an end to the tradition of driving a stake through the body. The Crown still reserved the right to confiscate the victim’s property, however.[v]
But as the Castlereagh case demonstrated, old attitudes and superstitions died hard. In fact, not until 1961 was suicide actually decriminalized in Britain.
Religious sanctions against suicide remained strong. The Church continued to maintain that life was a gift from God and only He could take it away. Whether of sound mind or not, any person who committed self-murdered was considered damned. Killing another person involved only the body, while taking one's own life killed the soul as well.
Because Christians believe in the resurrection of the body on judgment day, it became the job of the clergy to safeguard the remains of the dead. When the Pope approved the creation of burial yards next to churches in the 8th century, it fell to the clergy to guard from the Devil’s influence those they interred there.
But even in death there existed a pecking order. More distinguished church members could expect a burial spot within the sanctuary itself. The less notable were relegated to the churchyard, but close to the structure. The humble and ignominious were planted further afield. Under special circumstances the clergy could refuse interment – if a child died unbaptized for example, or if the deceased had been excommunicated. The honor of lying in consecrated earth could be denied to lunatics (believed to be possessed by the Devil) and victims of suicide. These bodies were often relegated to the ground just beyond churchyard boundaries.
Certain burial customs have survived since the Iron Age. Even in earliest recorded history, places of worship were built facing east, toward the rising sun. Bodies were, and still are, laid to rest facing that direction--especially Christians, who believe the final summons to judgment will come from that direction. And while, historically, interments occurred on the east, west and south side of the church, the north side was reserved for those souls most in need of salvation. In the Catholic Church, the north or left side of the altar is known as the Gospel side, while the south or right hand is associated with the Epistle. Thus, the north side of a churchyard was reserved for sinners in need of the Gospel’s message of repentance.[vi]
It is interesting to note that wearing special mourning garments came out of a belief that one needed to disguise oneself from the departed’s spirit. Until the body was in the ground, the soul was thought to haunt its former flesh. Once the body was interred, however, the spirit became resentful of the living. Donning clothes not normally worn was believed to confound these spiteful phantoms.[vii]
[i]"And who is this they follow? And with such maimed rites?” Ophelia’s Burial; arts.ucsc.edu/faculty/bierman/Elsinore/burial/burialSuicide.html
[iii] “Chapter VIII: Churchyards, Cemeteries, Orientation and Other Burial Customs,” Funeral Customs; http://www.sacred-texts.com/etc/fcod/fcod11.htm
[iv]“Chapter One: Verdicts,” by Barbara T. Gates, Alumni Distinguished Professor of English, University of Delaware ; www.victorianweb.org/books/suicide/01.html
[vi]“Chapter VIII: Churchyards, Cemeteries, Orientation and Other Burial Customs,” Funeral Customs; http://www.sacred-texts.com/etc/fcod/fcod11.htm
[vii] “The Suicide’s Graveyard,” Nottinghamshire: History and Archaeology; www.nottshistory.org.uk/whatnall1928/general_cemetery.htm
Articles by Joanna Waugh
General consensus is that the modern novel was born in 1740 with Samuel Richardson's epistolary tale, Pamela, or Virtue and Reward. The book's frustrated sexuality sparked a firestorm of controversy, but on one issue there was no argument -- England's reading public was primed for such stories.
The demand for more books like Pamela sparked a flurry of publishing. But it also highlighted the dearth of circulating libraries and booksellers through which to distribute them. Prior to 1700, there were no circulating libraries in London. To be sure, may private institutions existed in conjunction with hospitals, churches, schools, and the military. But the advent of Gothic and romance novels brought a need for ones accessible to the general public.
During the 1700s, approximately one hundred circulating libraries were established in London. By 1850, that number had jumped to an astounding five hundred. Among them are names familiar to Regency authors -- Hatch's (est. 1759 by S. Hatch); Hookham's (est. 1772 by Thomas J. Hookham); and the most familiar, Lane's Minerva Circulating Library.
In 1763, William Lane decided to cash in on the novel reading craze. He opened his library in Whitechapel. Around 1790, the operation moved to Leadenhall Street in London where Minerva Press was also established.
Over the next fifteen years, Lane dominated the novel publishing industry. Among his stable of writers were Regina Maria Roche (The Maid of Hamlet, 1793; Clermont, 1798); Mrs. Eliza Parsons (The Castle of Wolfenbach, 1793; The Mysterious Warning, 1796); and Eleanor Sleath (The Orphan of the Rhine, 1798).
At the Corvey Library near Hoxter, Germany -- one of the world's largest collections of Romantic Era literature -- fully half of the editions collected for this time period were printed by Minerva Press. It's no wonder, then, that Lane made a fortune. According to the poet, Samuel Rogers, he was often seen tooling around London in a splendid carriage, attended by footmen with cockades and gold-headed canes.
In 1804, he took on Anthony K. Newman as his partner. And while Minerva's market share fell to about 39% between 1805 and 1819, it continued to crank out copious amounts of the types of novels that became synonymous with its name. Few authors who wrote for Lane and Newman are critically acclaimed today. And after its founder died in 1814, Minerva Press' share of the print market became negligible, giving evidence to the fragmentation and diffusion occurring within the industry at the time. But Minerva Press managed to survive into the 20th Century, where it ended up a vanity and subsidy publisher.
In 2002, following exposes by the BBC about shady business practices, the company liquidated. William Lane's vision of publishing seems to have died in much the same way it began -- amid charges of shoddy workmanship and inferior production.
A Brief History of Gretna Green Marriages
(the following information was taken from a now-defunct website)
In 1754, Lord Hardwick’s Marriage Act made it illegal for anyone under the age of twenty-one to marry without his/her parents’ consent. But that law did not apply in Scotland , where a person could marry at the age of 16. In Scotland , a couple had only to declare their intentions to be husband and wife in front of two witnesses. And since Gretna Green was the first village over the border on the main road from London , it became the ideal destination for eloping couples.
As in most villages, Gretna ’s blacksmith shop was located in the town’s heart. It was also at the juncture of five coaching roads known as “Headless Cross.” Since a blacksmith marries metal over an anvil, Gretna ’s blacksmith became the metaphorical choice for these quickie marriages.
Gretna ’s Anvil Priests
Gretna ’s “anvil priests” were not primarily blacksmiths, however. Some were fishermen, weavers, and saddle makers. As Gretna became more popular, these “priests” set up shop in coaching inns and hostelries. To perform a marriage, they simply asked the couple to plight their troth before two witnesses. If the couple didn’t bring witnesses with them, the “priest” enlisted them from the village.
The following is a list of Gretna ’s “anvil priests” from 1753-1940:
Joseph Paisley – (1753-1814)
Robert Elliot – (1814-1840)
David Lang – (1792-1827)
Simon Lang – (1827-1872)
Granny Graham – (circa 1938)
Richard Rennison – (1926-1940)
Efforts to Stop Gretna Marriages
Because the Church considered Gretna marriages to be scandalous and immoral, Lord Brougham’s Marriage Act was passed in 1856. It allowed couples to marry in Scotland , but only if one of them had resided in that country twenty-one days prior to the ceremony. It wasn’t until 1940 that Parliament finally put an end to anvil weddings. Not to be thwarted, eloping couples simply moved the ceremony to the Registry Office in Gretna . By this time, England had dropped the age of consent to 18 years. In 1979, Lord Brougham’s Act was repealed.
While traveling throughout England during the seventeenth century, John Wesley, the evangelical, stayed at the manor of a wealthy landowner outside Carlisle . While John was there, his brother, Charles Wesley, joined him. The house party also included a man named Eric Bholar from Moravia near Germany , and his traveling companion. The traveling companion instantly fell in love with the landowner’s beautiful twenty year old daughter, but when he asked the girl’s father for her hand, the old man refused. Since Gretna Green was only ten miles away, the couple made a dash for it. The father pursued them, but was unable to catch up in time. It was said that Charles Wesley played a part in pulling off the elopement.
In 1771, John Edgar and Jean Scott of Cumberland eloped to Gretna . They set off by horse, but Jean’s father was quick on the pursuit. Because he knew the countryside better than the runaways, he was soon ahead of them, waiting in ambush. When word reached the couple that they’d been cut off, they headed for the coast. At Burgh-by-Sands in England, the runaways managed to convince some seamen to help them reach Scotland . They set off across the Solway Firth , with Jean’s father still in pursuit. But when his boat overturned in a storm, drowning one man, Scott abandoned the chase. Jean and John managed to reach Scotland where, bedraggled and wet, they were married by Joseph Paisley.
In May, 1782, John Fane, the 10th Earl of Westmoreland, and Sarah Anne Child, daughter of Robert Child, director of Child’s Bank, eloped to Gretna . Enraged, Robert Child pursued the runaways, catching up with them at Hesketh-in-the-Forest between Carlisle and Penrith. There he shot the lead horse of their carriage, but the couple managed to escape. Thanks to one of Westmoreland’s servants sabotaging Mr. Child’s carriage, the earl and Sarah were married later that day in Gretna by Joseph Paisley. Child never forgave Westmoreland. He willed his fortune to Sarah’s eldest daughter, Sarah Sophia. The Westmorelands had six children and prospered in their own right. Sixty years later, Sarah Sophia’s daughter, Adela Villiers, eloped to Gretna with Captain Parke Ibbetson. The couple later underwent a second marriage ceremony in a fashionable London church.
In March of 1826, the public’s attention was caught by the abduction and marriage of a wealthy mill-owner’s daughter. Fifteen year old Ellen Turner was attending Daulby’s Seminary for the Daughters of Gentlefolk in Liverpool when a letter arrived stating that her mother was dangerously ill and she needed to come home. Traveling with the family butler, Ellen’s carriage stopped in Manchester to change horses. She was shown to a private room, inside which was a handsome, well-dressed man about thirty years of age who introduced himself as Edward Gibbon Wakefield. He convinced Ellen her mother wasn’t really ill, and that he’d come to escort her to her father in Kendal. When they arrived in Kendal and Mr. Turner was no where to be found, Wakefield then told Ellen that her father’s bank in Macclesfield had failed and his business was ruined. The only way to help him was to marry him, Wakefield . Because she was underage and beyond the reach of debtors, her father would transfer his estate into Ellen’s name. Once Wakefield was her husband, he would then hand back the property to her father. Unfortunately, Ellen’s sense of familial duty won out and she married Wakefield . After the ceremony, he whisked her away to France . Her uncles caught up with them in Calais, however, and she returned to England . Wakefield stood trial in 1827 and was convicted of felonious abduction and unlawful marriage. He was sentenced to three years at Newgate. Parliament annulled the marriage.
Chronicles of Gretna Green, by Peter Orlando Hutchinson
Photos of Gretna Green and its anvil priests
Gretna Green's World Famous Blacksmith's Shop
IT'S A MAN'S WORLD: 18th & 19th CENTURY WOMEN ASSUMING MALE ROLES
Katherine Ann Porter, author of Ship of Fools, once wrote: “It’s a man’s world -- and you men can have it!” She was born at the tail end of the Victorian Era, which stretched from 1840 until the turn of the century, so perhaps she can be excused this caustic observation. Her experiences as a woman growing up at the dawn of the 20th Century were markedly different from those encountered by her sisters at the end of it.
During the century in which Porter was born and lived, women and children were treated as commodities. In her first book entitled Indiana, written in 1831, Amandine Aurore Lucie Dupin -- aka George Sand -- declared that women were considered “domestic animals, useful to keep a house in order, prepare meals and serve tea. [A man] doesn’t do them the honor of entering into a discussion with them, their faults have no effect on him provided they do not interfere with his comfort or with his mode of life.” Yet the Age of Enlightenment birthed the concept of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” as inalienable rights. Women dared to believe that these principles -- although written by and for men -- applied to them as well.
How was change affected? Through incremental steps taken by truly determined and brave women who dared to assume male roles. Women, like George Sand, who strove to break social boundaries out of love. Females driven by financial need and/or a burning desire for personal fulfillment. Ladies compelled by their hearts and consciences to serve humanity and/or their country. Women forced to rise above their station in life because of calamity. They were often ostracized and ridiculed for their efforts but, thankfully, they persevered.
Consider for a moment how the lives of women today have been affected by these pioneers. Since Victorian times, women have assumed, and taken for granted, the right to hold what once were considered male roles -- i.e. such positions as reporter/secretary; nurse; accountant; librarian/teacher. There seem to be four reasons why women of the 19th and early 20th Century assumed male roles:
Financial, intellectual, emotional freedom
Need to serve humanity and/or patriotism
By far, the largest category is this one. It includes such notables as George Sand, who claimed for herself the right to “ask the support of no one, neither to kill someone for me, gather a bouquet, correct a proof, nor to go with me to the theater. I go there on my own, as a man, by choice; and when I want flowers, I go on foot, by myself, to the alps.” Revolutionary concepts for the time.
Gertrude Bell is another example of this kind of woman. Born in 1868, Gertrude was the daughter of a distinguished British scientist and businessman. Lowthian Bell was a partner in Bell Brothers, a company that eventually included ironstone mines, limestone quarries, collieries and steel mills. Gertrude was among the first women to graduate from Oxford University, with a degree in history. Through family connections, she was introduced to the diplomatic world of the Middle East and, at a time when women could not move about in public without a chaperon, Gertrude explored and mapped Iraq from the back of a camel. She was accepted as an equal at the tables of some of the most fearsome, and chauvinistic, desert sheiks.
It was Gertrude Bell who introduced T.E. Lawrence to the Arab world, and educated him in their politics. While Lawrence of Arabia led the tribes to victory against the Turks, Gertrude acted as their liaison with the British government, playing an enormously important role in the breakup of the Ottoman Empire. Despite two love affairs, she never married. Her professional life was marked by ostracism and ridicule from the men with whom she worked. But she became the most powerful woman in the British Empire prior to World War I, the “uncrowned queen of Iraq.” As Janet Wallach noted in her biography, Desert Queen, it was Gertrude who “drew the lines in the sand for Winston Churchill.” It was Bell who singlehandedly created the modern state of Iraq.
Need to Serve/Patriotism
Clara Barton and Florence Nightingale are probably more familiar than Dr. Mary Walker. While growing up in New York, Walker’s physician father refused to let her to wear corsets, believing that tight-fitting clothes were not healthy. As a result, Mary Edward Walker wore trousers most of her life -- and was ostracized for it.
In 1855, as the only female student at Syracuse Medical College, she was awarded a medical degree. A few months later, she married a former classmate, Albert Miller. But after four years, the couple called it quits and Mary moved on to set up practice for herself in Iowa, eventually divorcing her husband.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, she volunteered as a Union contract surgeon. A Confederate casualty wrote of her in 1864: “We are all amused and disgusted by the sight of a thing that nothing but the debased and depraved Yankee nation could produce. [A woman] dressed in thefull uniform of a Federal surgeon. She was not good looking, and of course had tongue enough for a regiment of men.” Walker’s medical colleagues ridiculed her as well, calling her a “medical monstrosity,” but Mary went on to serve such distinguished generals as George H. Thomas and William T. Sherman. In 1866, she was awarded the Medal of Honor by Congress for her services to her country. When she died in 1917 at the age of eight-five, she was still wearing male clothing.
In October of 1778, Deborah Samson of Plymouth, Massachusetts disguised herself as a man and volunteered to serve in the American Army. As Robert Shirtliffe, she remained undetected for three years, despite being wounded twice -- once in a sword cut on the side of her head, then shot through the shoulder. Deborah’s true sex was finally detected when she contracted brain fever. Dr. Binney of Philadelphia discovered her charade, and sent her to his home for protection. Legend has it that when she recovered, “Robert Shirtliffe,” was dispatched to General Washington himself who, by this time, was aware of Deborah’s true identity. He discharged her from the Army. After the war, she married Benjamin Gannett and produced three children. Deborah eventually received a pension and lands for services rendered to her country during the Revolutionary War.
The woman who would become one of the Caribbean’s most infamous l8th Century pirates entered this world as the illegitimate daughter of an Irish lawyer and the family maid. William Cormac fled his legal wife and England, taking his daughter, Anne, and her servant mother to Charleston, South Carolina where he prospered as a lawyer, merchant and landowner.
Anne Cormac was spoiled and headstrong. As a teenager, she met and married a penniless sailor named James Bonny on a whim. Bonny took his vivacious bride to the Bahamas where she eventually left him for a more flamboyant lover -- the pirate captain, Calico Jack Rackham. There, she also met Mary Read, another female pirate masquerading as a man to be near her husband. Together, Rackham, Bonny, and Read terrorized the Caribbean until their exploits came to a halt in October, 1720. Captured by the British, they were tried, convicted and sentenced to hang. But only Rackham was led to the gallows. Read’s and Bonny’s executions were stayed when it was discovered both women were pregnant. Mary eventually died in prison of fever but, after the birth of her child, Anne Bonny was reprieved. She disappeared back to America and was never heard from again.
Whether fact or legend, the story of Molly Pitcher following her husband into battle during the Revolutionary War is one that falls in the category of love and patriotism. It is believe the real Molly Pitcher was a woman named Mary Ludwig Hays McCauley who lived in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. But whether she did in fact take over at the cannon when her husband fell wounded or dead is still shrouded in mystery. All that’s known for certain is Mary McCauley received a widow’s pension in excess of that usually accorded soldiers’ wives, which seems to indicate she did something special to earn Congress’ regard.
World War II is a prime example of how catastrophic events often propel women into tasks normally reserved for men. We’re all aware of the image of Rosie the Riveter, for example. During the war, women filled in on all types of manual labor, only to have their jobs confiscated when men returned after the war. But there are other types of calamities that have challenged women over the years.
In 1856, off the coast of Rio de Janeiro, twenty-six-year-old Captain Joshua Patten of the clipper ship Neptune Car, collapsed on deck with brain fever during a severe storm. It was left to his nineteen year old wife, Mary, to bring the ship’s cargo of machinery, iron, and sheet lead to the California gold fields. She was in the first trimester of pregnancy.
Mary’s husband had taught her navigation -- an unheard of thing to do at the time. But it was that very skill which saved Neptune Car. When the ship arrived at San Francisco, its insurers expressed gratitude for what Mary had done by awarding her $1,000. They wrote, “[We know of no] instance on record where a woman has, from force of circumstances, been called upon, or assumed command of, a large and valuable vessel, and exercised a proper control over a large number of seamen, and by her own skill and energy, impressing them with a confidence and reliance making all subordinate and obedient to that command.”
The story of Lucy Brewer, whether true or false (and there’s a great deal of controversy concerning it), is indicative of many women who assumed male roles because of some calamity. There are several documented cases of British women, already social outcasts, who assumed male roles to volunteer as seamen and Marines on board fighting ships. In Lucy’s case, she was impregnated by a smooth-talking young man, then abandoned to face the consequences alone. Rather than humiliate her family, she ran away to Boston where her child was stillborn. She then turned to prostitution as a means of survival.
In 1812, Lucy conceived the idea of masquerading as a man to volunteer as a Marine on board “Old Ironsides,” the USS Constitution. She was supposedly discharged in 1815 undetected after serving for three years. During that time, she became proficient as a soldier and was involved in at least three sea battles. Her exploits were published the year of her discharge, in a moralizing book entitled, The Female.
As these examples indicate, the concept of women assuming male roles is one that fascinates because it titillates. The idea is fraught with sexual tension and the threat of discovery. Even such literary giants as William Shakespeare could not resist writing at least two plays in which his heroine passed herself off as a man. In Twelfth Night, Viola becomes the spitting image of her twin brother, Sebastian, in order to serve the Duke Orsino as his page. Rosalind disguises herself as a shepherd boy to Celia’s shepherdess in As You Like It. These tales go back even further than the Bard in storytelling tradition.
Perhaps the most provocative question we must ask about women assuming male roles is -- how did they get away with it? How did females masquerading as soldiers, and especially sailors, remain undetected? 18th and 19th Century sanitary habits notwithstanding, how did a woman hide her period each month? The obvious conclusion we must draw is that their identities were known and tolerated by the men around them. Their presence might even have been welcomed. Perhaps as long as the female in question carried her own weight and performed the work of a man, she was accepted. We have no way of knowing for sure since the documentation is sketchy and, at best, anecdotal. One thing is certain: women did assume male roles, and for a variety of reasons with which we modern women can identify.