Tuesday, 3 January 2012

This Melancholy Act: Suicide and Secrecy in Victorian Yorkshire Part 2

G. F. Watts - Found Drowned - Oil on Canvas ca 1848-50

I wrote last September here about the ripple effects through our family history of the suicide of my great great great great grandmother Nancy Turner in January 1856.

Friends who read this will know how much I want to understand more of what happened. My hope is to track down the actual inquest one day.

Blogging and social networking can bring such helpful blessings! One person who came across my blogpost was my fourth cousin once removed, David. David is also descended from Nancy and Thomas, through their youngest child, Charlotte, sister of my 3x great grandmother Hannah. We "met" through our mutual interest in our shared ancestry but had lost touch since I changed laptops!

He got in touch again, much to my delight, when he guessed I was the author of the post about the tragedy. He was kind enough to point me in the direction of the British Newspaper Archive. This resource is searchable for free online, and if you find a newspaper cutting you want to see in detail or to download, there are various levels of subscription, starting at a 2-Day Package of 500 credits valid for 2 days currently costing £6.95.

From the BNA, two issues of the Yorkshire Gazette reveal a little more of our ancestors' story. The first mention of the tragedy appeared on page 10 of the Gazette published on Saturday 26th January 1856. This was a shock in itself. I knew Nancy had died the following day, Sunday 27th, according to her death certificate, issued on March 20th after what we have to conclude was a lengthy inquest. So why was the incident being mentioned before it took place?

The truth is even worse than imagined. Nancy did not die quickly, but attempted to cut her throat with a penknife the previous Monday and was still alive, apparently recovering when the Gazette went to press at the weekend. More upsetting still, the paper reveals she was in bed with Thomas at the time of her attempted suicide. What he and the rest of our family living in the Barlby farmhouse at the time must have gone through, is hard to contemplate:

--On Monday last, the wife of Mr Thos. Turner, of
Barlby, farmer, attempted to destroy herself by cutting
her throat with a pen-knife. She was in bed at the time
with her husband, and he shortly afterwards, from the
noise he heard, found out what had been done. Medical
aid was shortly procured, and she is now in a fair way of
recovery. The unfortunate woman has been in a
desponding state for some time, which was no doubt the
cause of this melancholy act.

Without the full inquest, or some further insight into Nancy's state of mind, we can still only speculate what triggered the act of despair. We can't know if she was suffering from some form of depression we might recognise as a mental health condition today, or whether her final heartbreaking decision was triggered by events that she couldn't bear any longer, such as the emigration and death of several of her close relations including children and grandchildren. But we can glimpse the devastation and grief, even stigma the family had to face then and in the years ahead.

Sadly the Yorkshire Gazette's prognosis for Nancy's recovery was premature and flawed. She died the next day, after living on for almost a week in that state of utter agony and internal torture. The next issue of the Gazette on Saturday 2nd February carried her obituary on page 3:

On Sunday, the 27th ult.,...aged 66, Nancy, wife of Mr Thomas Turner,
of Barlby, farmer. In our last week's paper we stated that
she cut her throat with a penknife on the 21st ult.

R.I.P Nancy. Your blood runs through my veins, and I feel privileged to trace your story and share your sadness. I hope you have now found the peace you could not enjoy in this world. You will never be forgotten.

A Victorian chart analysing the causes of suicide: Nancy was deemed "Insane in mind" instead of the verdict "felo-de-se", deliberate, "intentional" self murder, which was still considered a crime in 1856. You were a criminal, by law, if you failed and insane if you succeeded (source: Victorian Web)
Thankfully, unlike many who were not permitted to be buried in "consecrated ground," I finally found Nancy's grave in the churchyard at Barlby, where, in the sad years that followed the "melancholy act," she was joined by her daughter Charlotte Vollans who died just after her 38th birthday in 1858 and Nancy's widower Thomas, who died in September 1861 and whose body was transported from his farm in Hatfield Woodhouse to lie beside Nancy near the home they once shared.

To the memory of
Nancy the beloved wife of
Thomas Turner of Barlby farmer
Who died January the 27th 1856
Aged 66 years
Also Charlotte Vol(l)ans daughter
Of the above named Nancy and 
Thomas Turner who departed this
Life June the 15th 1858
Aged 38 years
Also the above named
Thomas Turner
Who departed this life
September 6th 1861
Aged 77 years

1 comment:

  1. Just read both of your posts on this topic--they are heartfelt and well-researched. My great great grandmother also committed suicide and, like you, I found out when I received her death certificate and I was shocked. The secrecy and shame around it have reverberated through our family now for several generations--we just didn't realize it until I found out what had happened. Keep trying to dig up whatever you can find. I've been amazed at what I have been able to uncover even when it seemed like I had exhausted all leads. I believe our grandmothers want their stories told, want their sorrows and their mental anguish brought to light. Wishing you continued luck with your search...