With suicide in the news at the moment, it was by some coincidence yesterday that I happened to stumble across a particularly sad instance from the late eighteenth-century that took place practically on my doorstep.
According to newspaper reports from the time a “French gentleman, seemingly of fashion” committed the “desperate act of suicide” in Greenwich Park in the late afternoon of Saturday February 14th 1789.
He’d been staying at The Ship (even then a venerable old inn on the river, situated until the 1950s where Cutty Sark Gardens is today) with a lady and a servant, and on the Saturday morning dispatched the lady to London and dismissed the servant, presenting him with a trunk full of his clothes and two valuable watches by way of compensation.
From The Ship he went to visit Admiral Sir Hugh Palliser at Greenwich Hospital intending to present him with a large sum of money towards the upkeep of the residents there. Palliser, perhaps suspicious of such a massive bequest out of the blue from a strange foreigner who wouldn’t give his name, turned the money down, assuring the visitor that the hospital was already well provided for and the donation would have been useless.
On leaving the Hospital the Frenchman seems to have spent a couple of hours calling on various people around central Greenwich, trying to get rid of large sums of cash (up to two hundred pounds according to some sources). When he dished out eight guineas to a gaggle of students from Dr Egan’s Academy as he passed them in the street, the Doctor himself sent out an assistant and a ‘young gentleman’ to find the generous Frenchman and invite him to tea.
The pair caught up with the stranger in Greenwich Park and began a conversation in French. The man was polite, engaged and delighted to be able to speak in his own tongue but politely declined the invitation to tea, all the while trying to press another expensive watch on the young men. After apparently cheery farewells the pair left the Frenchman in the park only to hear the sound of a pistol shot a few seconds later.
They ran to the source of the sound and found the Frenchman dead, having shot himself in the head with two pistols, an act that, in the words of one newspaper, “rendered his dissolution instantaneous”.
The thing was, no-one had the slightest clue who the man was. Admiral Sir Hugh Palliser made enquiries, even as far as Paris, but nobody seemed to know him. The only clue seemed to be that his pistols bore the insignia of the Gens d’Armes, and there was some talk that he was an equerry to the King of Denmark, but he remained unidentified apparently to this day.
Palliser ensured a proper burial, commissioning a double-lined coffin in which the inner section had a glass panel installed to enable potential identifiers to see the man’s face, and that was that, the tragic and bewildering demise of an enigmatic stranger. I don’t know whether the man was ever identified: I’d love to know if he was.
According to contemporary reports the dead man was “tall and remarkably handsome, in manners elegant and polite, so as to impress those who were witnesses to his behaviour and his fate with the most lively regret”.
It later emerged that a detailed, eloquent suicide note had been found on his body, the revealing contents of which are reproduced here (click to enlarge):

The aftermath reveals much about contemporary attitudes to suicide. Three weeks after the incident, the Daily Advertiser carried a notice for a public discussion of the issue at the Clothmakers’ Hall, noting “the unfortunate affair that lately happened in Greenwich-Park, is at present a general subject of conversation among all ranks of people; that a man should deliberately become his own murderer, and thereby arraign the disposer of all events, for having conferred on him the privilege of human existence, is no less surprising than shocking, to those who believe in a state of future rewards and punishment. There are however, many who have dignified this horrid act, by giving to it the virtue of courage”.
The case was still being discussed decades later, with Solomon Piggott declaiming in his Suicide And Its Antidotes of 1824 that “it is evident from this and other instances that French philosophy, or irreligion, which banished the dread of futurity, encouraged the commission of this dreadful crime”.
Five days after the handsome, polite, elegant Frenchman’s demise the coroner handed down his verdict. The cause of death was, he said, “lunacy”.
Recent events have made suicide the subject of debate and opinion, a significant proportion of it ignorant bollocks, but at least these days those who decide they’ve had enough, even the most charming, polite, erudite and generous, are no longer officially recorded as ‘lunatics’.
One wonders what the conclusions of the Clothmakers’ Hall debate were, but, as with everything, the more public discussion we have about suicide and depression, the greater the understanding of what might drive an outwardly gregarious, contented, generous man to walk into a park and shoot himself in the head will be.