June 09, 2009

An account of a most strange and barbarous action

On Sunday 22nd March 1685, we read in the pamphlet by the same title as my article (for those interested its Wing Number is A188C and it is located on EEBO (subscription needed)), Smith (the wife of a sawyer Michael Smith in the city of London) jumped out of the window of Blackfriars jail, to her death below. The pamphlet suggests why Smith did this. Her husband Michael Smith had been 15 to 16 weeks in prison- the pamphlet does not mention why and a search of the Old Bailey online for "Michael Smith" between January 1684 and March 1685 produces no results. But at any rate, Smith was living in considerable penury, according to our anonymous writer the 'long and tedious imprisonment had reduced them to a very poor and low condition, as having been forced to sell even their household goods for a present maintenance'. Smith, 'despairing of his inlargement, asked him after they had dined to go upon the leads of the prison, having been there some time discoursing together'. After he had gone down to fetch more drink, she flung herself so our source says from the leads 'into Black-Fryers, which is at least four stories high, so that she was bruised to peices and was carried to a House adjacent'.

The story seems straightforward. Smith was distressed by her husband's condition and after a depressing conversation about his continued imprisonment, as soon as he was absent decided enough was enough and committed suicide. However there are a number of features of the pamphlet which are interesting to me and I think maybe to you. Firstly there is the fact that whereas the husband, Michael Smith, is named and the location and nature of his business is given, the wife's first name is ommitted. Secondly the pamphlet is about one and a half pages long, and yet the story of the suicide covers only the bottom of the first folio and the top of the second. It is preceded by a long discussion of 'how sad and dismal a thing it [suicide] is to consider', how it violates the law of natural self preservation and is the work of the devil. The concept of suicide itself is not actually placed into the story until a last clarifying words which lament the 'horrid sin of Self-Murther'. The two facts are tied together and give us an interesting insight not merely into Smith's condition when she tumbled from the leads, but also into the author's thinking about suicide.

The author's view of suicide is tied up with his view of the soul. The Devil 'tempts us to sin' and 'attaques us', he makes the 'strongest assaults upon our weakest guard', he is a 'cunning and subtile... Enemy'. The author's argument, particularly his emphasis on suicide's unnaturalness, moves the seat of the action away from Smith and towards the tempter. Of course she was down, but her tempter is the instigator, the real actor in this drama. He first conceived of suicide and she followed his direction, succumbed to his assault. The naming of the wife as Smith fits into this model: suicide is a sin, it is a betrayel of the law of God and more importantly the law of nature which motivates the heathen and christian. I would suggest that given the way her husband is clearly identified, Smith's identity is no mystery- but that the author wants to stress the gravity of the crime by depriving her of her name. Coyly he can therefore both identify her and also maintain the mystique of a crime whose name he does not mention until his own last words.

The pamphlet thus exposes an interesting aspect of the past. The anonymous author (and there are other interesting questions to ask, like who is writing and why- may we detect a neighbour or rival of Michael Smith) provides us with a fascinating insight into his own psychology and the way that he views his audience.


James Higham said...

Well, it's a bit both ways. It is the tempter's fault but the tab is still picked up by the doer of the deed.