Hidden Histories

With a Stake in the Heart: Suicides or 'Self-Murder' and a Peculiar Custom

Thursday, 12/3/09

During the Civil War in September of 1863, one Margaret Tinney, age 23, a native of New Jersey residing on Trout Street in Philadelphia, committed suicide by taking a large "horse pistol," which she promptly placed within her mouth, then "pulled the trigger," after which the "upper part of her head was almost entirely blown off." A few days later she would be buried in Lafayette Cemetery, with her 'official' cause of death being listed as: "suicide by shooting."

Why Ms. Tinney did what she did is unknown. Perhaps she had a lover who'd been killed in a battle prior to that time, and thus felt alone without him, or she could simply have suffered from emotional distress, depression or some hormonal imbalance. The science of medicine or knowledge of disorders was not as advanced as it is today, but the fate of her body after death, would have been carried out much differently, if she had died previous to the American Civil War.

As late as November 29, 1908, the Philadelphia Public Ledger carried an account entitled, "Two Girls Who Tried to Die Are Repentant," individuals who were "arraigned" before a magistrate or judge, and "charged with attempting suicide," or 'self-murder.' The act of suicide for many centuries, was considered a felony or capital crime in many parts of the world.

The famed English writer, Charles Dickens, in his work, The Old Curiosity Shop, first published in 1841, has a character named Quilp, whose body was found washed ashore, after which an inquest was held on the spot, where it was determined that the man had committed suicide. However, the verdict did not end here. As we're told in Dickens literary tale, Quilp "was left to be buried with a stake through his heart in the centre of four lonely roads."

Lest we think such actions are limited only to the British Isles, fiction or literature, it is recorded in the records of Westmoreland County, Virginia, how on August 25th, 1661, "a man servant of Mr. William Frekes who was Drowned in the Creek neare to his master's plantacon {plantation}...hath wilfully cast himself away..." Thus according to local custom, he was "to be buried at the next cross path as the Law Requires with a stake driven through the middle of him in his grave, hee having wilfully Cast himself away."

The above was not an isolated case, since one Thomas Moverly, "a well known and highly esteemed citizen of the County of Westmoreland," had also committed felo de se, or suicide, considered a 'felony' at that time in 1726. Moverly's corpse was "buried in the fork of a lonely cross-roads," in Westmoreland, with a sign posted stating, "Thou has cast thyself away, wilfully." Such a posting was made as a 'warning' to others who would attempt such rash actions.

It was common practice for many centuries, that those who committed suicide, could not be interred in 'holy ground,' within a church cemetery or graveyard, a similar restriction being also reserved for such malefactors as murderers and thieves. Thus, in 1660 in Massachusetts, the Colonial legislature considered suicide to be 'wicked & unnatural' and thus enacted a law that every suicide victim "shall be denied the privilege of being buried in the common burying place of Christians, but shall be buried in some common highway...and a cartload of stones laid upon the grave, as a brand of infamy, and as a warning to others to beware of the like damnable practices."

As the result of an Act of King George IV, for July 8, 1823, at least in England, such practices as those mentioned above, were finally "put an end to," and considered to be a "barbarous mode of interring suicides," though another would transpire as late as 1825. Prior to that time, an individual committing suicide also prevented his spouse or family from inheriting any properties left by the deceased, but all was automatically "forfeited to the King."

It is interesting as well, when 'Duels' were such a prevalent custom in the United States, particularly during the 18th & 19th centuries, in such places as Massachusetts, that in order to dissuade individuals from engaging in such practices, those who were killed in a conflict were denied, "the right to be buried in a coffin," plus their bodies were "interred near the place of execution, or in the public highway, with a stake driven through them."

Just recently, the well-presevered skeleton of a middle-aged man, uncovered in a Turkish cemetery, at Mytilene on the Greek island of Lesbos, was disinterred and found to have been "nailed to his coffin with eight-inch iron spikes," through his neck, pelvis, and ankle.

Many societies feared that the 'soul' or 'spirit' of the deceased, would rise up and haunt the living, thus the reason for placing stones upon the corpse, or the custom of impalement and internment at a 'crossroads,' in order to prevent the spirit from leaving the grave. A 'crossroad' was also in the 'shape of a cross,' thus the inherent 'power' of the holy icon or symbol would hopefully prevent the ghost of the deceased from leaving his or her grave, in order to harass those left behind. A 'crossroad' would also purportedly 'confuse' the restless spirit as to which direction it should go, in order to inact its spiteful revenge.

Such laws, beliefs, customs, or superstitions as those mentioned above, and other peculiar accounts from historical records, may be found in abundance here, at The Historical Society of Pennsylvania.