Alyson Brown, Edgehill University
There can be few documents as emotive and unsettling as a suicide note or letter. Even if the contents are brief or matter of fact, the knowledge of what followed the writing of that document is likely to make any of us reflect on the quality of mortality. When written on scraps of paper or even toilet paper, as was the case with the notes left by Ernest Collins, a prisoner who committed suicide in Dartmoor Prison in 1934, the ephemeral nature of those materials seems to increase their tragedy. Ernest Collins was found dead in his cell on 27 November 1934, shortly after he was informed his appeal against a prison sentence and corporal punishment (often referred to as flogging) had been rejected. His suicide notes make it clear he had been distressed at the thought of being flogged. The verdict of the coroner’s court was that he had hanged himself while in ‘a state of unsound mind’.
These scant records of the last remaining hours or minutes of someone who was about to take their life offer strong material for cultural history. The associations and judgements made about these tragic actions at the time, and those who committed them are reflected in the language used to describe, discuss and record them. Historically, they reveal the darkest aspects of human experience. Occasionally, these tragic acts take on broader meaning and importance. The suicide of Ernest Collins became politicised in a way that I certainly did not expect when I read the Prison Commission investigation about his suicide. This suicide became a weapon for reformers in the battle against the use of flogging as a penalty of the court and played a part in its abolition for adults (finally implemented in 1948). However, it continued to be used in prisons until 1967.
This blog post looks at another prison suicide that occurred a few years before that of Ernest Collins. There are similarities between the two, for example, they both attracted a lot of press attention because of the link made between the penalty of flogging and the suicide.
On 31 January 1930, James Edward Spiers was sentenced at the Old Bailey to 10 years’ penal servitude and 15 strokes of the cat-o-nine-tails for robbery with violence. The cat-o-nine-tails was an instrument used for flogging adults, which had nine leather knotted straps attached to a handle. Just a month later, on 3 February 1930, Spiers committed suicide in Wandsworth Prison by making a fatal leap from his first-floor cell headfirst onto the floor below. He died due to a compound fracture of the skull.
Early reports suggested he had actually been on his way to being flogged when he plunged over the balcony. ‘ON HIS WAY TO RECEIVE HIS PUNISHMENT’ the Lancashire Evening Post announced (3 Feb 1930). However, by 5 February it was reported that his impending penalty of flogging was not the cause of Spiers’ suicide. The Illustrated Police News (13 Feb 1930) and others reported a statement from his wife that Spiers had said to her, “I don’t mind the flogging; it’s the ten years I object to.” The Exeter and Plymouth Gazette (4 Feb 1930) said that he had told his wife, “Don’t you worry, kid. If I have to go through it I am quite prepared.” The coroner’s jury returned a verdict, reported in the Illustrated Police News (13 Feb 1930), that ‘Spiers met his death through jumping from a height, and that he killed himself during temporary insanity brought on by thought of his long term imprisonment.’
Early coverage shows how receptive the press was to interpret Spiers’ suicide as caused by fear of flogging. Some newspapers were especially alert to stories about flogging. In a few articles, Spiers’ suicide was used to condemn flogging as primitive, ‘DRASTIC TORTURES OF THE MIDDLE AGES’ (Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail, 5 Feb 1930). The Daily Herald (5 Feb 1930) quoted George Bernard Shaw, a socialist playwright, as stating that every ‘flogging judge’, ‘ought to have two or three dozen himself to bring him to understand’. ‘It was difficult, he went on, to speak without disgust, of a state of society in which such a thing was allowed.’ The Western Daily Press (4 Feb 1930) asked in a headline, ‘SHOULD “CAT-O-NINE-TAILS” BE ABOLISHED? It then quoted Cecily Craven and Marjorie Fry of the Howard League, a prison reform society. Fry referred to flogging as a ‘barbarity’ and ‘degrading’ and observed, ‘I sincerely hope this terrible event may hope to bring England into line with the many other countries which have entirely abolished flogging as a legal punishment’.
Lieut.Col. Rich, who was Governor of Wandsworth Prison, later recalled Spiers’ death in his memoir, Recollections of a Prison Governor (1932, p.219). He was a supporter of corporal punishment and critical of the stir the case caused in the press. He imagined there was ‘a perfect rush to the newspaper offices’ to sell the story that the ‘poor fellow had been on his way to be flogged and had torn himself loose and committed suicide rather than undergo the degrading performance. People fell over themselves in their haste to write letters to the Press.’ After investigation, ‘the matter whittled down, evidently, to its being the long sentence that he funked, not the “cat”’.
In many ways, the suicide of Edward James Spiers was primed to be the central case taken up by anti-flogging campaigners to drive through political action on the issue. However, when the link between Spiers’ sentence of flogging and his suicide became weak, particularly when his own wife suggested that his tragic act was not caused by his impending corporal punishment but by the long prison sentence, momentum was stalled. It was the case of Ernest Collins in 1934, who, according to his suicide notes, did commit suicide because of his fear of flogging that was to be an important part of reformers’ campaigns and the abolition of corporal punishment for adults.
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About the Author: Alyson Brown is Professor of History at Edgehill University. She is the author of English Society and the Prison: Time, Culture and Politics in the Development of the Modern Prison, 1850-1920 (Boydell & Brewer, 2003) and numerous articles on prison history, including ‘The Sad Demise of z.D.H.38 Ernest Collins: Suicide, Informers and the Debate on the Abolition of Flogging’, Cultural & Social History, vol. 15, no.1 (2018), pp. 99-114.