Embodying Suicidal Emotions in England, 1700-1860

Ella Sbaraini explores the embodied nature of suicidal feelings in the past

CN: this article discusses suicide, and features extracts from suicide letters.

In his suicide letter of 1856, Hugh Miller wrote that ‘My brain burns. I must have walked; and a fearful dream rises upon me. I cannot bear the horrible thought…My brain burns as the recollection grows’ (Miller and Brown, 1858, 481). [1] I ruminated over Miller’s words for a while: what did he mean? How does a brain burn, and what does that feel like? In my research – which explores the experience of feeling suicidal in England and Wales, from around 1700 to 1860 – I began to uncover repeated references to hot or burning heads. In her suicide letter of 1830, Mary Wainwright Atherstone wrote that she felt ‘as if I could scream till it reach’d Heaven or Taunton or Nottingham or all together – my poor head is so hot’ (Atherstone, 1830). [2] The anguish which would have been communicated in her scream was expressing itself in the body and almost, it seems, emanating from Atherstone’s head. I wondered whether this is what was happening to Miller, or indeed to any of the people who spoke of having hot or burning heads. I reflected on the line between literality and metaphor, and questioned how to ‘read’ these statements. Most of all, though, I was forcefully alerted to the place of the body in people’s suicidal experiences, and wanted to know more about how suicidality could be corporeally ‘felt’ in the past.

How suicidal feelings are registered literally and metaphorically on the body is a central thread of my research, because I want to bring people’s suicidal experiences to the forefront of the history of suicide. Currently, no early modern histories of suicide have been written from the perspective of people who felt suicidal, even though they were, of course, the protagonists in every case of suicide. The focus has predominantly been on legal, religious and literary attitudes towards suicide. The most significant work in this field – Michael Macdonald and Terence Murphy’s seminal 1990 Sleepless Souls – is essentially a metanarrative about ‘changes in attitudes and responses to suicide’, and most subsequent Anglophone histories have not only responded to their work, but assumed its agenda. (Macdonald and Murphy, 1990, 2) [3] R. A. Houston’s Punishing the Dead was, in his words, ‘the result of two decades of mulling over’ Sleepless Souls, and focuses not on the ‘meaning of suicide’ to ‘the people who die’, but on ‘the attitudes and behaviour of those who interact with the self‐murderer after death.’ (Houston, 2010, 2) [4] These works have pioneered the development of this field but, particularly in a discipline that is increasingly interested in emotions, a study of suicidal experiences is long overdue. If, after E. P. Thompson, ‘history from below’ concentrates on the poor and dispossessed, and, after Roy Porter, ‘medical history from below’ focuses on patients, I am seeking to write the first ‘suicide history from below’ (Thompson, 1963; Porter, 1985). [5]

It is in this context that I have been investigating issues of embodiment, and asking: ‘how did it ‘feel’ to feel suicidal?’ Aside from hot heads, there are numerous embodied experiences which appear again and again in my source material, which ranges from suicide letters, personal correspondence and diaries, to newspaper reports, judicial records and coroner’s inquests, which are discussed in more detail below. One important, recurrent feeling was a sense of weightfulness, lowness or heaviness. Mr Mulligan, a newspaper editor in Bath, wrote to his friend shortly before his attempted suicide in 1842, and complained of his ‘oppressive feelings, which weigh me down like a millstone’. (Monmouthshire Merlin, 1842). [6] Atherstone, too, talked of weight, and of the fact that ‘my childrens welfare and yours weigh my mind & soul to the depths of misery’, portraying her constant worry as a ‘thing’ pulling her down into gloom (Atherstone, 1830). [7] This language was partly figurative, but it may also have spoken to physical sensations of lowness. Indeed, contemporary medics thought melancholia could be expressed and experienced in ‘profoundly’ physical ways, with Dr John Connolly speaking in 1858 of the ‘drooping of despondency’ visible in bodily posture (Connoly, 1858, 369). [8] This lowness is evident also in the coroners’ inquests, which I use extensively in my research. These inquests were inquiries into the cause of someone’s death, in which witnesses, usually close to the deceased, were called to give evidence about their pre-suicide behaviour. In the absence of personal letters and diaries – which, though extremely useful, are actually very rare – these statements give us unrivalled insights into some of the experiences of otherwise ‘silent’ individuals, many of whom were troubled by a lowness or weightfulness. Such was the case with John Allen, who hanged himself in 1806. His close friend told the court how, on the night before he died, ‘he said to me that he had a heaviness in his heart & mind & appeared very low & dejected (when) I went away a little after 8 he wished me good night but in a very low voice’ (John Allen, 1806). [9] Of course, there are metaphors here about low spiritedness, but it also seems that Allen told his friend about a ‘heaviness in his heart & mind’, an idea which is suggestive also of physical sensations of being pulled down. It’s also interesting that his friend observed that his voice was ‘low’, as if this weightfulness impacted on multiple aspects of bodily presence.

Medical Times Gazette, “Suicidal Melancholy” 1858 Credit: Wellcome Collection

Some bodily feelings could not be visibly observed by others. Many suicidal people spoke or wrote of sensations in their heart, though they sometimes used other parts of their body to communicate the feelings located there. According to his colleague, Thomas Roberts, who hanged himself in 1778, exclaimed that ‘my poor Heart Bleeds within me, and clapped his hand to his Breast’, as if to gesturally communicate the pain that dwelt there (Roberts, 1778). [10] Heart pain was sometimes conveyed in the context of an apology, or an expression of the supposedly undeserved nature of the love a suicidal person had received. In her suicide note of 1816, Harriet Shelley wrote that ‘the remembrance of all your kindness which I have so unworthily repaid has often made my heart ache’, while W. Treble wrote, in his suicide letter of 1810, that ‘my heart bleeds when I think what my poor girl, and all of you, suffer on my account’ (Shelley, 1816; North Wales Gazette, 1810). [11] In this way, it seems that different suicidal emotions – ranging from despair to anger, despondency to guilt – were often expressed in particular parts of the body. Indeed, the hands were often thought, specifically, to express suicidal anxiety or worry. John Hanson, who killed himself in 1797, was observed ‘wringing his hands and saying “Oh my Brother my Brother what shall I do”’, while Jane Moore, who killed herself in 1778, was seen ‘frequently pick[ing] the Palms of her Hands’ and ‘frequently Hump[ing] her Hands about, and said “O I shall go Mad I shall go Mad”’ (Hanson, 1797; Moor, 1778) [12]. These are just two examples of many observations of hands being wrung, slapped, waved about and thrown into the air, indicating of course that there were tropes about suicidal behaviours, but also that the hands may have been used to express distress, anxiety and confusion.

Besides this other behaviour, ‘lunacy’ itself – which was generally assumed, by the end of the eighteenth-century, to be the cause of suicidal behaviour – was thought to be expressed in the eyes. There are many descriptions, in the inquests, of people’s eyes being ‘wild’, ‘wildish’, ‘glaring’, or even of ‘rolling about’ or remaining ‘fixed’ upon a certain object. I have, however, been cautious of these descriptions. It seems very subjective as to whether someone’s eyes appear to be ‘wild’ or calm, and I have also encountered no references to the eyes in people’s suicide letters or diaries – people cannot, of course, see their own eyes, making them a ‘window’ onto other people’s perception of their mind. This points us, again, to the difficulty of using these sources, and of the need to compliment the third-person, legal material with personal, first-person accounts.

To ignore embodiment is to ignore, therefore, an extremely important level on which suicidal experiences operated in the past. In my PhD, I seek to utilise a ‘historical phenomenology’ approach in order to delve into, and illuminate, these complex experiences, looking not only at embodiment, but at issues surrounding suicide writing, emotional languages, and interactions with suicide objects. This approach, which is fundamentally about the ‘study of sense experience during a specific historical past’, offers us a way to prioritise the most important people in any history of suicide (Curran and Kearney, 2012). [13] As my project develops, I hope to build upon a very simple idea, that of taking ‘historical actors at their word, with their perception of reality and their experience of it’, where heads, hands and hearts are as prominent in its narrative, as they were in people’s suicidal experiences (Boddice, 2017). [14] Looking at historic accounts of embodied emotions might also, perhaps, allow us to think more about how suicidal feelings are ‘felt’ in the present day, with this research having interesting crossovers with contemporary work on how distress is registered in the body, and on psychosomatic pain connections.

Ella Sbaraini is a PhD student at the University of Cambridge. Her research explores the experience of feeling suicidal in England and Wales, 1700-1850. She wrote her MPhil thesis on suicide among the elderly in eighteenth-century England.



  1. Miller, H. and Brown, T., 1858. The Life And Letters Of Hugh Miller. New York: Rudd & Carleton.
  2. Wainwright Atherstone, M., 1830, Mary Wainwright Atherstone To Edwin Atherstone. [Letter] Somerset Heritage Centre, Taunton.
  3. Macdonald, M and Murphy, T., 1990. Sleepless Souls: Suicide in Early Modern England. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  4. Houston, R. A., 2010. Punishing the Dead?: Suicide, Lordship, and Community in Britain, 1500-1830. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  5. Thompson, E. P., 1963 The Making of the English Working Class. London: Victor Gollancz; Porter, R., 1985. The Patient’s View: Doing Medical History from below, Theory and Society, 14: 2, 175-98.
  6. Monmouthshire Merlin, 2nd April 1842, vol. 8, no. 685 [4].
  7. Wainwright Atherstone, M., 1830, Mary Wainwright Atherstone To Edwin Atherstone. [Letter] Somerset Heritage Centre, Taunton.
  8. Connoly, J., ‘The Physiognomy of Insanity, No. 11: Religious Melancholia’, The Medical Times and Gazette, October 9th 1858, vol. 17.
  9. Allen, J., 28th July 1806, Westminster Inquisitions, Westminster Muniment Room, no. 43.
  10. Roberts, T., 20th July 1784, Westminster Inquisitions, Westminster Muniment Room, LL ref. WACWIC652240426.
  11. Shelley, H., Harriet Shelley to Eliza Westbrook, 7th December 1816 [Letter] The Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle, New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations, S’ANA 0063; North Wales Gazette, 20th September 1810, vol. 111, no. 142 [2].
  12. Hanson, J., 19th July 1797, City of London Inquisitions, London Metropolitan Archives, LL ref. LMCLIC650100327; Moore, J., 8th August 1778, Westminster Inquisitions, Westminster Muniment Room, LL ref. WACWIC652180331.
  13. Curran, K. and Kearney, J., 2012. Introduction, Phenomenology Special Issue, Criticism, 54: 3, 353–364, p. 354.
  14. Boddice, R., 2017. The History of Emotions: Past, Present, Future’, Revista de Estudios Sociales, 62, 10-5, p. 14.


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