THE PEOPLE OF THE ABYSS Liveblog Part 22

Suicide2

“Found Drowned” by George Frederic Watts OM RA—1867

Chapter 22 is about the prevalence of suicide among the poor of the East End. When the act was unsuccessful, the person involved was brought before the police court for punishment.

Jack London cited specific cases he witnessed in the Thames Police Court as examples. A teen boy who had lost everything including his job was remanded for trial after failing to drown himself. One woman was berated by the magistrate for not succeeding and causing the court so much bother. Apparently she was of no worth. Another young woman, destitute, tried to kill herself and her infant. The child died, but she recovered in hospital and was sent to prison.

Suicide

Hablôt Knight Browne’s illustration for DAVID COPPERFIELD shows Martha contemplating suicide—1850

At an inquest for the successful suicide of a woman, the finding was “Suicide during temporary insanity.” Jack London was outraged by this common verdict for suicide cases because those who failed to kill themselves were not generally considered insane, and were jailed or given hard labor.

He gives statistics concerning insanity: about .3% of men go insane. About .4% of women go insane. Among soldiers, there are less than .2%. Among those involved in agriculture, about .05%.

Jack London says that he would choose drowning over the prospect of a life in the workhouse.

Without commenting on the man’s sanity, he gave the account of a man who stood trial for murder. He was a house decorator whose boss was killed in a carriage accident. The man strove to find work for 18 months, at first doing any work that came along, yet it was never enough. He and his wife and children were going hungry, and within a short time he could not work. Instead of watching his family starve to death, he killed them all.

This is from the Author’s Note from my two novel volume Jack the Ripper Victims Series: The Double Event, which holds both Of Thimble and Threat, about the life of Catherine Eddowes, and Say Anything But Your Prayers, about the life of Elizabeth Stride:

My goal is to provide a glimpse into a time when the industrial revolution had created not only prosperity, but also unimaginable suffering in what was the greatest city in the richest country in the world. Apparently it was a society in which the impoverished, and especially poor, single, middle-aged women were considered by many to have little worth. The murders of the five canonical victims of the Ripper in the autumn of 1888 were only symptoms of the social ills in London.
[…]
I see a modern reflection of the victims of Jack the Ripper in the homeless of twenty-first century America. Much of the cause of that homelessness went unseen in Victorian times, as it does now. With the rise in the numbers of the homeless, then as now, people had a tendency to shy away from the problem.

My natural inclination is to avoid knowing why so many people are hungry and without shelter. I want to look away, and I don’t want to look away. My experience is that many people are just as ambivalent. Many of the homeless are intoxicated much of the time or begging for the means to become intoxicated. I can easily become disgusted with the endless need of the addicts among the homeless. I could justify my righteousness by blaming their lack of hygiene, and their crimes of desperation. However, I am a sober alcoholic and expect myself to have compassion for them, even when it doesn’t come naturally. There, but for providence, go I.

Although I avoid those who are clearly intoxicated, on occasion I’ve asked someone begging on the street for their story. Most aren’t good at telling a story, perhaps because they are rarely asked for one. Even so, from what they say, I’ve always gotten the sense that they have had happier times, that they have capabilities, and that they have aspirations involving their own personal interests and those whom they love.

Worse than the surface irritation of having to deal with a person who might be slovenly, dirty, inconvenient, or in-my-face is the emotional stress of considering the plight of an unfortunate person. My immediate response is to want look away. I speak of my experience to take responsibility for my reactions, yet I’m not alone. We find it easy to scorn the beggars on the streets and then project that disdain on all homeless people, further isolating them. As a result, the down and out are less likely to find help when in danger. If they are seriously harmed or killed, fewer people step forward to try to find out what happened. Those who prey upon the homeless more easily get away with their crimes. The same was true for the down and out of Victorian London.

NewCover_TheDoubleEvent_Text_FlatPart of the reason I’ve been writing the Jack the Ripper Victims Series is that I wanted to know how walking the streets of London in that time, especially after the whitechapel murderer had begun his killings, had become reasonable for the women who were his victims. Surely after the second murder, that of Annie Chapman, the three that followed her fate knew of the dangers, yet they were willing to stagger drunken along the streets at night, looking for strangers to pay them for sex. To understand, I had to look no further than the environment that those in power in England at the time allowed to exist. The answer was simply desperation, a need to get on in life despite the dangers or end it; the same as what drove so many to commit suicide or even murder/suicide.

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

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