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This one seem to be all over trivia lists, but I'm having trouble finding a reference to anything credible. The claim goes something like this:

According to a British law passed in 1845, [attempted] suicide is a very serious crime,death sentence of hanging is the punishment.

Even if that's true, this is not case anymore the suicide act of 1961 decriminalizes suicide. However, did there use to be such a law?

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    Wouldn't that apply to attempted suicide?
    – Sklivvz
    Commented May 7, 2011 at 9:22
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    An anecdote from 1860 claims that a man was hung in London for the crime of suicide. He attempted to kill himself by slitting his throat, but a doctor saved him. The doctor warned that it would be useless to hang him -- the rope would merely cause the sutures to break and he would breathe through the hole in his throat that he'd cut in the suicide attempt. The doctor was ignored, but his words proved true. The aldermen convened to decide how to proceed and they decided to bind his neck below the wound. Thus he was executed. This anecdote was recounted in the book "The Savage God - A History of
    – user8314
    Commented Aug 23, 2012 at 22:30
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    One reason I have heard that suicide (not just the attempt) is a crime is because life insurance did not in some cases pay out where the death was the result of a crime. This prevented people from obtaining insurance then turning around and committing suicide to grant their family a windfall. Commented Aug 23, 2012 at 22:45
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    @BrianM.Hunt: The issue wasn't just insurance. Among the punishments for certain crimes, suicide included, was forfeiture of one's property to the state. Coroners used to be, in a sense, tax collectors, since findings that wealthy people committed suicide could be a source of government revenue.
    – supercat
    Commented Oct 6, 2014 at 16:38
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    @BrianM.Hunt Sorry, but that can't be true. The Catholic Church held suicide to be a mortal sin equivalent to murder from at least the 5th century until very recently, and Christian views of that strength have long shaped European law. In contrast, life insurance in its modern form has only existed since the 18th century. And insurers can always set the terms of their policy to exclude suicide regardless of whether suicide is legal. Commented Jan 17, 2018 at 14:53

2 Answers 2

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Yes, attempted suicide (and perhaps suicide) was a crime. Several formal and informal sources confirm the sentence of imprisonment for attempted suicide.

See section 1.3.1 and 1.3.2 of this PDF. It confirms the existence of a law(but not the quantum of punishment) and its overruling in 1961.

I found a paper "Suicide as a crime in the UK: legal history, international comparisons and present implications" by J. Neeleman. The paper specifically states the following:

However, R. v. Mann (1914) finally clarified that suicide was a felony and that attempted suicide was a misdemeanour, punishable by imprisonment and hard labour. Penal sanctions against suicide attempters continued to be implemented until as recently as 1955 (6), ...

From this article, which references the above paper:

Historically, suicide was deemed self-murder and those who attempted suicide were subjected to punishment. However, it became recognised that the mental state of suicide attempters needed to be taken into account and that imprisonment should only be considered in the interests of their health and well being (R v Doody 1854). Imprisonment as a punishment for attempted suicides was being used up until the late 1950s. Some concern had been expressed by magistrates over the use of such punishments (R v Trench 1955) and changing social attitudes brought a more compassionate attitude to those who attempted suicide (BMA 1959). Prosecuting those who failed in a suicide attempt did not assist them in their recovery. There was a call by the British Medical Association and the Magistrates’ Association to amend the law, in line with the situation in Scotland, so that attempted suicide should cease to be an offence (BMA 1959). Subsequently, suicide was decriminalised by the enactment of the Suicide Act 1961.

Some informal sources also confirm imprisonment as the sentence for attempted suicide.

From wikipedia (unreferenced):

Suicide may be defined as the act of intentionally ending one's own life. Prior to the Suicide Act 1961 it was a crime to commit suicide and anyone who attempted and failed could be prosecuted and imprisoned, while the families of those who succeeded also could potentially be prosecuted

From answers.com (again unreferenced):

Suicide is not against the law in the UK. It was until the 1961 Suicide Act which legalised it and introduced laws which dealt with assistance of suicide. Prior to 1961 suicide was illegal in the UK and was punishable by prison and fines (but not death!)

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    1.3.1 does mention that it was formerly an offence in England, but doesn't say it was a capital offence. This make some sense as it would be impossible to kill someone that's already dead.
    – user2466
    Commented May 7, 2011 at 8:41
  • @boehj:I had overlooked the capital offense part. :(
    – apoorv020
    Commented May 7, 2011 at 11:22
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    @user2466 It's not possible to convict a dead person of any crime in the UK. Commented Jan 17, 2018 at 11:42
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The anecdote was likely false because English law in 1858 revised the law on suicide and attempted and made it a misdemeanor punished by 2 years. Norman St.John-Stevas mentions this in his book Life, Death and The Law(1961) in the chapter on suicide.

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    The law was revised in 1858, but the question is about the law as it stood in 1845. Was it punishable by death at that point in time?
    – F1Krazy
    Commented Oct 1, 2022 at 16:21
  • iT'S HARD FOR USER TO GIVE DETAILED COMMENTS ON THIS BLOG I TRIED TO PUT A LIST OF THE CRIMES THAT CARRIED THE DEATH PENALTY IN 1750 FROM THE NOTED CRIMINOLOGIST LEON RADZINOWICZ IN HIS BOOK A HISTORY OF ENGLISH CRIMINAL LAW AND ITS ADMINISTRATION VOL. 1 BUT I COULDN'T PUT IT ON BECAUSE IT WAS TOO LONG. THERE WAS NO MENTION OF ATTEMPTED SUICIDE HOWEVER I HAVE TO DO MORE RESEARCH TO GIVE YOU A DETAILED ANSWER. Commented Oct 4, 2022 at 10:00
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    Please don't use all-caps, it's like you're shouting at me. If you have (or can find) evidence that suicide was a capital offence in 1845, you should edit it into your answer instead of trying to post it in a comment.
    – F1Krazy
    Commented Oct 4, 2022 at 10:36
  • Sorry about that I did not intend it to be emphatic. I forgot to turn off the capital key. From what I can gather there may have been a capital punishment for attempted suicide but it was rarely used again as far as I can see this penalty did not exist in the nineteenth century. After most of the death penalties were removed in the early 19th century by 1836 only treason, rape, murder and sodomy were punished by death. I will research further to give you exact references. Commented Oct 4, 2022 at 10:59

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