I have just been reading about some of the Eastbourne Parish Registers and noted that several people who had committed suicide were buried at St Mary’s Parish Church. An entry in 1624 records the burial in the churchyard of John Crunden ‘who drowned himself’ and another in 1650 relates to 21-year-old John Herriot who ‘hanged himself in his mother’s house’.
The reason I was interested in these entries is that I had always believed that a suicide was always buried at a crossroads with a stake driven through the heart. This Common Law requirement seems not only barbaric but rather impractical too. I wondered if the practice was as widespread as we are led to believe.
Searching through the National Newspapers archives there are very few cases where it is reported that a burial of a suicide at a cross road actually occurred.
There are some references to such burials in the 17th Century however these were usually written about many years later. One such report was published in the Sussex Agricultural Express in 1883 and relates to a murder and suicide in Lewes in 1679. The report said that the case was ‘one of the most horrid in the annals of human depravity’ – so I had to read on!
The story relates to two Lewes men; a cutler Robert Brinkhurst and a draper William Moor who had a ‘close intimacy’ with each other. Presumably this was a euphemism to describe that they were gay.
Brinkhurst, was offended by something that his friend Moor said and contrived a plan to punish him. He acquired some poison in powder form, placed it in an envelope and sent it to his friend with a note purporting to come from a friend in London saying that the powder was medicine. Moor, who was the heir to a large landed estate, took the poison on 18th November 1673 and died a few days later with his ‘distraught’ friend at his side.
A post-mortem discovered the cause of death and by-and by suspicion fell on Brinkhurst. He was arrested and bought before three justices and partially admitted his guilt. He was asked the name of the poison he used but said, although he could not name it, he would recognise it. A Lewes apothecary was asked to make up some poisons to show the prisoner but, when he was presented with them, he grabbed a phial of yellow arsenic powder and swallowed it. He died four days later.
The coroner returned a verdict of ‘felo de se’ (This means making a felon of oneself i.e. suicide). Friends of Brinkhurst tried to have him buried at St Michael’s Church but this was refused so they decided that he should be buried in the garden of his own home at Market Street. Before this could be done however, two local constables collected the body and placed him in a dung-cart without a coffin. They took him to the crossroads near Spittle Barn (close to the present day ‘prison crossroads’) where he was buried in a grave dug ‘north and south’ and a wooden stake was hammered through him.
This was not the only Lewes murderer disposed in this way. Local historian Mat Homewood told me about Nan Kemp of Kingston who, in 18th century, murdered her new-born illegitimate child and, in an attempt to hide it placed it in an oven. On being discovered she ran to an adjoining wood-house and hung herself. The Coroner’s Jury returned a verdict of ‘felo de se’ and she was buried at the cross roads near the turnpike gates. In January 1833 workmen digging the road nearby and unearthed what was believed to have been her grave. The story was enhanced and changed from that of a poor depressed woman to ‘an evil witch who cooked her baby and served it up to her husband’
A story is told at nearby Chalvington, East Sussex of an ‘honest miller’ who hanged himself at his own mill. He was buried at a nearby crossroads and an oak stake driven through his body. It was said that the stake rooted and a became a tree which was haunted by the miller’s ghost. In 1829 some locals were digging near the oak when they found human bones, believed to have been that of the poor miller.
In June 1823, Abel Griffiths shot his father before turning the gun on himself at their house in London. At midnight on Wednesday 25th June a coffin containing Abel’s remains were collected from the work-house mortuary by a party of police officers. It was taken to the crossroad of Eaton Place and Grosvenor Place, SW1. At the grave site (now the entrance to the Victoria Coach Station) he was tipped out his coffin and wrapped in a Russian carpet tied with cord. He was then dropped into the five feet deep grave which was immediately filled.
Newspapers reported ‘It was gratifying to see that the disgusting part of the ceremony, driving a stake through the body, was on this occasion dispensed with.’
Despite the late hour over 200 spectators were present apparently ‘some of respectful appearance.’ The papers reported that ‘all were disgusted by this horrible ceremony’
This was probably the last suicide buried at a crossroads as a few weeks later the Burial of Suicide Act 1823 abolished the practice allowing a suicide to be buried in a grave-yard. However, there were still restrictions as the internment could only occur between 9pm and midnight with no religious ceremony. The Internments Act of 1882 removed these last restrictions.
So why were the Eastbourne suicides buried in a church and not at a crossroads? Why are there not more references to crossroads burials? It appears that in the case of most suicides, although the verdict was suicide the jury would add a rider that the suicide occurred ‘whilst the perpetrator was insane’. For instance, when the politician Lord Castlereigh cut his own throat on 12th August 1822, the Coroner’s Jury returned a verdict of ‘suicide whilst insane’ which allowed a funeral in a churchyard. (Although in this case he was actually buried in Westminster Abbey.)
It appears that the vast majority of suicides were treated with dignity and, despite the act being a criminal offence, most coroners, juries and clergymen were sympathetic to the grieving families.
The act of suicide remained a criminal offence until the passing of the Suicide Act of 1961. If you have a large family tree it is likely that one of your ancestors took their own life, however you can rest assured that they would have had a dignified funeral in a church-yard.