The View from the East End (67)
By Inspector HopkinsJune 14, 2007
Don’t Fear the Reaper (Part 3)
by Inspector Hopkins
Of all the methods for committing suicide, the use of handguns or other firearms is by far the most predominant, and is the leading method used in the United States today. Most people would think that it is a foolproof method, especially if the gunshot is directed to the head, but this is surprisingly untrue.
There are two cases in the Canon where this suicide method was used. Recall that in The Dancing Men, Elsie Cubitt was so overcome by the death of her husband that she picked up his revolver and shot herself in the head. Her motivation was undoubtedly a mixture of grief at the loss of her husband, and guilt for not confiding in him much earlier on. Indeed she may well have blamed herself for his death. So it is fairly easy for us to understand how in her moment of despair she would wish to die.
However, killing yourself with a gunshot to the head requires several things. First, the gun must be powerful enough to deliver a fatal shot. Secondly, it must be held at the correct location so that the bullet passes through the brain stem. Finally, the shooter must be experienced enough with firearms to be able to judge the recoil and not to flinch as the trigger is pulled. If any one of these requirements is not met, the suicide attempt is liable to be unsuccessful.
I have heard of cases where suicide attempts were made with a 0.22 or 0.25-caliber handgun with the result that the bullet only bounced off the person’s skull! Watson does not say what the caliber of Hilton Cubitt’s revolver was, but we may assume it would have been powerful enough to do the job. When suicide via a gunshot to the head is mentioned, most people tend to think of the “classic” pose of holding the gun to the right temple and pulling the trigger. Together with an incorrect angle, the bullet may pass through the less vital front portion of the brain, possibly blowing the person’s eyes out and leaving him/her blinded and horribly disfigured for life. There have been a number of cases where this type of suicide attempt got botched, leaving the victim brain damaged and physically impaired . . . but still alive.
Possibly Elsie Cubitt flinched as she pulled the trigger, but since she acted on an impulse, without pre-meditation, this was unlikely. She was probably just lucky enough not to hit any vital areas of the brain. (As an aside, if you are going to shoot yourself in the head, it is better to hold the gun against your ear and aim so that the bullet passes through and out the other ear. Death is then guaranteed by hitting the brain stem). At the end of the story Watson tells us that Elsie “recovered entirely” from her self-inflicted gunshot wound, a very fortunate conclusion indeed.
In contrast, the most notorious example of pre-meditated suicide in the Canon has got to be that of Maria Pinto Gibson of Thor Bridge fame. Recall that her “tropical, ill-balanced nature” caused her to hate Grace Dunbar so much that she schemed to commit suicide and made elaborate arrangements to make her suicide appear to be a murder committed by Miss Dunbar. Taking up one of her husband’s revolvers, she then shot herself in the right temple. Unlike Elsie Cubitt, this suicide attempt was successful.
Hers was truly a most dastardly motive, but one that is not completely unheard of. Some suicide victims wishing to exact vengeance on the surviving family members, friends, or colleagues will leave a note blaming them for their suicide. This certainly can have a traumatic effect on the survivors, and, out of all the reasons for suicide, is probably the most selfish and destructive motive there is.
Hence, The Problem of Thor Bridge reflects the ultimate sickness, depravity, hatred and insanity that would drive someone to kill themselves.
There are many reasons for someone to want to commit suicide, but desperation seems to be the main frame of mind of the victim at the time. The lasting emotional damage caused to the survivors is enormous and unfair to them. Suicide is not always as easy to commit as one might think. Botched suicide attempts, whether from poison, hanging, or firearms only cause more pain and problems for the victim. In fact, suicide was considered a crime in England until the early 1960’s, so if you failed at killing yourself, you could be convicted and sent to prison for it.
That’s what I really call “adding insult to injury”.
Until next time, and thanking you so much for your attention, I am,