Category Archives: suicide

The death of Sir Bernard Spilsbury

The scalpel of Scotland Yard

So great was Spilsbury’s reputation, writes Dalrymple,

that juries were inclined to accept his testimony purely because it was his. In an age of gathering disbelief, people believed in the infallibility of Spilsbury, for he represented, as no one else, the certainty of science.

The newspaper words ‘Spilsbury called in’

meant (more or less) that someone—almost always the person the police most suspected—would hang.

At the age of 70, Spilsbury committed suicide by gassing himself in his hospital room. The reasons, says Dalrymple, are a matter of surmise, and he points to several possibilities, not mutually exclusive:

  • Two of his sons had died before him, one a recently qualified doctor, killed by a bomb dropped on St Thomas’s Hospital early in the war, and the second from fulminating tuberculosis.
  • He was not close to his third son, a philosopher, who did not altogether approve of him.
  • A somewhat distant man, he was estranged from his wife.
  • Never concerned with money, he was now short of it.
  • He was no longer the pathological lion of old, and his reputation was increasingly under attack.
  • He had declined physically, suffering at least two slight strokes, and he was possibly aware that he might be going senile.
  • He had long cherished the desire of writing a great textbook, based on his vast experience of 25,000 postmortems—his apologia pro vita sua—but now realised that he would never do so. He published nothing and was responsible for no definitive scientific advance.
  • It may be that he recognised that he had helped send some innocent men to the scaffold, and, a religious man, he felt a deep remorse.

Wild animal

Man

Dalrymple recalls a story told by Vera Hegi in Les Captifs du Zoo (1942), which he summarises as follows:

One day a man gave an elephant in the zoo three bread rolls, into the last of which, from malignity, he insinuated a razor-blade. The elephant managed to remove the razor-blade with its trunk.

Well, Dalrymple has a story of his own. He writes:

In the prison in which I worked as a doctor, a man repeatedly tried to cut himself, sometimes dangerously. He was under the constant watch of two guards.

However,

a prisoner slipped him a razor-blade embedded in a potato.

The prisoner managed to extract the razor-blade from the potato, and with the razor-blade,

he cut his throat.

Yes, says Dalrymple,

Man is definitely different from other animals.

Why should the dying have all the best deaths?

Dalrymple writes that Amsterdam may yet have its suicide parlours as it has its coffeeshops.

Too far gone for Salvarsan

Screen Shot 2016-08-24 at 22.48.55Dalrymple notes that Llewelyn Powys

detested the Kenyan colonists, whom he saw as greedy philistine brutes.

In one of the stories in Ebony and Ivory (1923),

a farm labourer is so badly treated by his employer, but has so little chance of escape, that he decides not to kill himself but simply to lie down and die – and he does, his corpse being burned as ‘Rubbish’, the title of the story.

In another story,

a young man just out to the colony starts out better and more refined than the other colonists but is gradually coarsened by them. He takes a local girl as a lover but contracts syphilis from her, so virulent that the doctor tells him that even Salvarsan cannot help him. He takes a pistol and shoots himself in the head.

Screen Shot 2016-08-24 at 22.54.33Screen Shot 2016-08-24 at 22.53.55Screen Shot 2016-08-24 at 22.54.13

Suicide: a petty-bourgeois deviation

Screen Shot 2016-06-08 at 23.13.27Recalling his student days, Dalrymple writes that he

shared a house with a Marxist-Leninist.

This youth, Dalrymple remembers, believed that suicide represented

the failure to accept the total sufficiency in life of Marxism-Leninism.

Some hangings

Screen Shot 2015-08-15 at 09.27.27In the prison where he works, a hanging Dalrymple is called to attend turns out to have been a case of murder. The hanged man’s cellmate boasts

that he had intimidated the dead man into hanging himself. He had threatened to cut his throat in his sleep if he did not hang himself first, and the man, who was two weeks from his release, chose the rope—or rather, the bedsheet torn into strips, dampened and braided into a noose. The cellmate helped him up on to the chair and obligingly kicked it away from under him.

Another hanging is

Screen Shot 2015-08-15 at 09.38.22complicated by the fact that the dead man had on his chest a small puncture wound that penetrated to his heart, inflicted by the thrust of a ballpoint pen, which I had not until then considered a potentially lethal weapon. Even where there is a high illiteracy rate, the pen is as mighty as the sword.

There have been, Dalrymple writes,

many more hangings in my prison since the abolition of the death penalty than there ever were before.

Screen Shot 2015-08-15 at 09.29.59Dalrymple is glad that it is not one of his duties to pronounce a man fit for execution.

The last doctor I met who had examined men for fitness for execution—in a former British colony—was an alcoholic, though I cannot positively say that he was driven to the bottle by a disturbed conscience.

Winson Green

Winson Green

 

One of New York’s premier diving spots

Screen Shot 2015-04-24 at 20.08.29

The diving boards

The new Whitney Museum, writes Dalrymple, is the

perfect place from which to commit suicide, with what look like large diving boards emerging from the top of the building, leading straight to the ground far below. Looking up at them, one can almost hear in one’s mind’s ear the terrible sound of the bodies as they land on the ground below.

There are also, he notes,

The industrial chimneys

The industrial chimneys

some — for now — silvery industrial chimneys, leading presumably from the incinerators so necessary for the disposal of rubbishy art.

He points out that the structure (cost: $422m) illustrates on the one hand the egotism and cack-handedness of the architect Renzo Piano and his kind, and on the other the

complete loss of judgment and taste

The façade, as charming as it is elegant

The torture chambers

of modern patrons.

The façade, which is practically without windows,

looks as if it could be the central torture chambers of the secret police, from which one half expects the screams of the tortured to emerge. Certainly, it is a façade for those with something to hide: perhaps appropriately so, given the state of so much modern art.

HQ of the secret police

Headquarters of the secret police

A monument to the vanity and aesthetic incompetence of celebrity architects

If the building were not

a tragic lost opportunity (how often do architects have the chance to build an art gallery at such cost?), it would be comic. It is as if struck already by an earthquake and in a half-collapsed state. It is a tribute to the imagination of the architect that something so expensive should be made to look so cheap.

A building that would truly have gladdened their hearts

New York at last has a building that would truly have gladdened their hearts

 

Physician-assisted suicide

Dalrymple can see both sides of the argument. ‘As I approach death,’ he writes,

or…as death approaches me…I pray that mine will not come in the horrible ways I have seen as a doctor. I think, though I cannot be sure, that I would like to choose my moment if one of those horrible ways were mine.