Back to SherlockPeoria front page

The View from the East End (66)

By Inspector Hopkins

June 3 , 2007

Don’t Fear the Reaper (Part 2)

by Inspector Hopkins

As we saw last time, poison was a commonly used weapon for murder in the Canon as well as being a convenient method for committing suicide. Now, let’s look at another somewhat less sophisticated method for doing this.

Hang ‘em High

Recall the case of The Resident Patient: it appeared that Sutton aka “Mr. Blessington” had hung himself from a hook in the ceiling. Interestingly, the investigating police Inspector stated that suicides were most common at 5 o’clock in the morning, but I could not find any evidence of that in any of my own research. Of course, we know that Holmes determined that the hanging was in fact a murder and not a suicide.

Hanging has been used for centuries as a method of execution and quite a bit of effort had been made to determine the most efficient way to carry this method out. After much study and trial-and-error, it was found that there is an optimal distance that the victim needs to fall (based on body weight), and an optimal placement and knotting for the noose. In a typical execution, the victim stands on a trap door with the noose around the neck. If the knot is placed so that it is under the chin and slightly to one side, and the victim’s body drops the correct distance once the trap door is opened, then death will be instantaneous due to breaking of the neck.

Amateurs attempting to kill themselves by hanging, however, may tie a rope around their neck and stand on an object such as a table or chair. Then they either jump off or kick it away from underneath themselves. This is usually insufficient to break their necks and they die very slowly from asphyxiation due to obstruction of their airway. This is certainly not a pleasant way to go. If someone discovers their attempt and cuts them down in time, they might live, but they are likely to have permanent brain damage due to the lack of oxygen.

(As an aside, if someone is really serious about taking their own life, discovery and interruption of their attempt is a very important consideration. No matter what method of suicide is chosen, there is always the possibility that they will be found and resuscitated before their attempt is completed. For this reason, suicides often choose remote locations for their final journeys).

In the case of RESI, the victim was hoisted up by a rope around his neck via a hook in the ceiling by his confederates Biddle, Hayward, and Moffat, and slowly strangled to death. Although part of their motivation was to avenge the execution of their fellow gang member Cartwright, we can be certain that Cartwright’s death on the gallows was much faster and easier.

Hang ‘em Low

Although Sutton’s death was not a suicide attempt, “Mr. Pinner” of The Stockbroker’s Clerk clearly attempted to do himself in by hanging.  Recall that he excused himself from Holmes’s, Watson’s and Pycroft’s company, went into an adjoining room and hung himself a scant few inches off the floor. Again, this would have resulted in a slow and painful death by strangulation, but Holmes and Watson rescued him before he had lost consciousness.  Thus, he escaped both death and brain damage.

After Pinner read the newspaper account about his brother, his motivation for wanting to kill himself, unlike Anna Coram’s, was obvious. In his case, however, he ironically tried to escape a perfected and professionally administered death via the gallows by attempting to do it himself in a much, much harder way. What can we make of that?

Desperation is the answer that first comes to my mind. When people are desperate, they lose their logical thought processes, and cease to think clearly. As mentioned earlier, there can be a number of reasons for someone wanting to commit suicide, including guilt, shame, and fear, as well as the desire to escape punishment for a crime.

But there are other, more dastardly reasons which we will look at next time.

Until then, and thanking you for your attention, I remain as always,

Yours Faithfully,