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The View from the East End (65)

By Inspector Hopkins

May 13, 2007

Don’t Fear the Reaper (Part 1)

by Inspector Hopkins

Ever felt like killing yourself?  I sure have.

The newer Sherlockian will no doubt have noticed that several of the characters in the Canon also felt the same way. Some of those suicide attempts were successful and some were not.  Without cluttering up this series with copious references and footnotes, suffice it to say that all the information presented here can be readily confirmed by consulting the many Internet sites devoted to suicide and suicide prevention. Let’s take a bit of a closer look at this subject.

Each year in the United States some 30,000 people die by their own hand, a figure that is higher than the number of homicides committed. Around the world, approximately one million people per year do themselves in. As a rough estimate, about half of all suicides are done with firearms. Asphyxiation and hangings account for 20%, another 20% poison themselves or take a drug overdose, and the last 10% go by miscellaneous methods such as jumping off bridges, etc. Those are the successful suicides.

It is estimated that many, many more attempts are made. Unfortunately many of those attempts are botched suicides that leave the victims alive, but in permanently crippled and disfigured bodies. It appears that in many cases the human body is a lot more difficult to kill than one might think.

One most serious side-effect of suicide is the lasting damage that it causes to the friends and families of the suicide victim. These suicide survivors must cope with the loss of their loved one, forever bearing that pain and perhaps never knowing exactly what the motives of their loved one were at their fateful moment. People may kill themselves for a variety of reasons, but essentially they are most vulnerable to suicide when their pain (whether real or perceived) outweighs their coping mechanisms for dealing with it. Guilt, fear, depression, escape from punishment for a crime, and even revenge on others are all typical reasons for someone to “take the bus” as expressed in modern parlance.

Name your Poison

In the Canon, we find that the most common suicide attempts involved poisoning. In GOLD and RETI, Anna Coram and Josiah Amberley took (or attempted to take) an unspecified poison. Anna was successful, but Amberley, obviously trying to escape the law, was thwarted by Holmes. Alkaloid poisons were mentioned in STUD, and were the means by which Jefferson Hope used to eliminate Enoch Drebber and Joseph Stanger. Although Drebber and Stanger were certainly not out to kill themselves, it is interesting to speculate that Hope may have had a death wish and was playing a sort of “Russian Roulette”. After doing some reading and research, I concluded that the poison used in these cases was strychnine.  It is fast acting, but could conceivably leave Anna a few minutes of life to tell her story to Holmes. A good thing, too, otherwise we’d all be scratching our heads trying to figure it out by ourselves. What puzzles me is why Anna wanted to kill herself in the first place. That is something that we will never know.


The Bottle on the Mantle

In the case of VEIL, Eugenia Ronder’s motives were much clearer and easier to understand. If your face was torn off by a lion and you had to live the rest of your life in a stuffy room with no companionship, how would you feel? Recall that she sent the bottle of her “temptation” to Holmes. She probably had been contemplating suicide for quite some time and thanks to unburdening her soul to Holmes, she changed her mind.

But what was in that bottle?  “Prussic acid” was the old fashioned name for hydrocyanic acid, or hydrogen cyanide. Cyanide is the poison of choice, and probably the fastest acting one there is. It can be made up by dissolving 1-2 grams of either sodium or potassium cyanide in a glass of cold water and allowing it to sit for several minutes so that the acid forms. Approximately one minute after drinking the solution, unconsciousness sets in, followed by coma and death within 15 to 45 minutes depending upon the contents of the stomach.

What puzzles me this time is where, and under what pretext, Ronder would have gotten that prussic acid. Cyanide salts were used in several industries including electroplating, textiles, explosives, etc. and I would not think they were something that a young woman could readily obtain. However, “Prussian Blue” was used as a pigment for making blueprints in those days and was derived from iron cyanide complexes. If this pigment is acidified, it could form hydrogen cyanide. Perhaps she could have obtained that material more easily, but then, she would have to have had knowledge of chemistry.

I suppose it all boils down to how badly someone wants to kill themselves.  Where there is a will, there will be a way . . .

Until next time, when we will continue our grim discussion, I indeed remain,

Yours faithfully,