A man is driven to attempt suicide because of his ‘reduced circumstances’

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This blog has covered the difficult topic of suicide in several posts over the past year; Londoners in despair quite frequently attempted to ‘destroy’ themselves by jumping off one the capital’s bridges or by hanging themselves. Luckily in all the cases I covered they were prevented by the quick actions of a policeman or a passer-by. Suicide was technically a crime until 1961 and so anyone attempting, but failing, to kill themselves would be arrested and presented before a magistrate.

Joseph Nadall was just such an unfortunate person. After he failed to kill himself in March 1866 he found himself instead the dock of the Worship Street Police Court before Mr Ellison the sitting magistrate.

Naval was described as a 35 year old labourer, who was ‘without hope’. He had taken poison, the court was told, and when he was found he was taken to the police station where he was examined by Mr James Sequira, a surgeon.* The doctor found him in a ‘very prostrate condition and suffering greatly’. He administered an emetic and then an antidote.

When his patient had received sufficiently he asked what had happened and related this to the court. Nadall told him he had gone to a rag shop where he had bought a small bottle and ‘two pennyworth’ of oxalic acid. He took these to a water pump in the street and added some water. Having mixed his potion he ‘drank it off’.

The magistrate inquired as to exactly how much oxalic aside was required for a dose to be fatal. ‘About half an ounce’ replied the surgeon. And what would that cost? Between a penny and twopence said Dr Sequira, so the amount Nadall had could easily have been fatal. It would seem this is fairly accurate because today it is estimated that a dose of 15-30 grams could be lethal if injected orally.

Now the hearing turned to whom had supplied it.

A young lad (who looked about 15 but was nearly 17 the court heard) stepped into the witness box and admitted selling Nadall the acid. He told the justice that he was ‘in the habit of serving these packets to shoemakers and others, who use it in their trade. The packets are 1d. each, and I have him two of them’. The magistrate was then shown a similar blue packet labelled as ‘Shoemaker’s poison’.

Mr Ellison was surprised and concerned that the young assistant had not asked any questions of Nadall and had not objected to selling him poison when he clearly didn’t look like a shoemaker. The lad’s master, Mr Blackwell, now presented himself and felt the full force of the magistrate’s anger.

‘This boy of yours has acted with great incautiousness – very great’ he declared. ‘Poisons should never be sold without at least inquiry being made as to the purpose for which they are wanted’. 

Blackwell mumbled that he always told the lad to ask questions before he sold anything, but without much conviction. He and his boy had not broken any laws and so having been publicly rebuked they were free to go.

As for Joseph Nadall he explained that he was ‘impelled to the attempt on his life by reduced circumstances’. Poverty and unemployment had driven him to such drastic action.

Mr Ellison had little sympathy. ‘You should have applied to the parish’, he told him and remanded him in custody while he decided what to do with him. I except that a few days later he would have been released. Whether he then visited the workhouse, found work or threw himself off the nearest bridge we will probably never know.

Nineteenth-century London was an unforgiving place if you were poor.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, March 24, 1866]

*James Scott Sequira was a prominent London surgeon of Portuguese ancestry, who seems to have appeared as an expert witness in several poisoning trials during the second half of the nineteenth century.

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