I didn’t know if I was going to write about the suicide of my 2 x gt grandfather Richard Thomas Edmund (RTE) ROSE. I’ve touched on his life in my intro post. With September being National Suicide Prevention Month I felt a burning need to get this down and share my genealogical perspective on suicide. I often think of RTE (not just during this time.
When I started out tracing my paternal line I had no idea what I would find. A bit cliched but I wanted to find my roots, a place where I belonged. My father had long since passed away so there were no stories (other than those I had already heard about his childhood) I could hear from him and moving to Bournemouth during WWII from Hackney, he had broken most ties to his extended family.
Starting with my paternal grandfather’s death certificate I worked my way back. Through sharing my tree on Ancestry and Genes Reunited contacts flooded in and I got to chat to and meet other branches of the ROSE family. One of these contacts was a descendant from Catherine Rose, sister to my gt grandfather Alfred (Gus) Augustus Rose. It was exciting to all meet up – a ROSE clan together!
We had so much to talk about! I found out that a family member was alive who not only knew my grandfather but also remembered Gus (my gt grandfather) which was amazing and I loved hearing all the stories. From my research it had appeared that siblings had been close, baptising their children together and living close – the stories I heard only confirmed the paper trail. But when the conversation moved on and I said I was waiting for a death certificate it went silent. And the conversation was re-directed. I was intrigued as I couldn’t imagine what would be so awful that no-one would talk about it? So I guess I wasn’t too surprised when RTE’s death certificate came through.
At 70 years old, my gt gt grandfather had died from “Oxalic Lead Poisoning Suicide while Insane.”
What did insanity mean to our culture in the early 1900’s? What were behind these words which were certified by the coroner? I had only heard how great life was with musical evenings,shared love, shared laughter and everyone looking out for each other.
I was able to trace information on the inquest which was published in the Hackney Gazette on 12th June 1907:
The deceased had been staying at 148 Sandringham Road with his daughter, Mrs Esther Chapman, and her husband. He had been in the Hackney infirmary with bronchitis, and had been taken from there to Claybury suffering from insanity. After three weeks in Claybury he had been let out on trial, and a month later he had been discharged. Since then he had been living with the Chapmans, and had seemed “funny in the head”. He had taken the poison on Hackney Downs and been taken by policeman to the nearby surgery of Dr. Daly, and from there to German Hospital.”
He had planned to not come back from that stroll on Hackney Downs. Why else would he have taken oxalic acid (presumably from his French Polishing kit) with him? So many questions. Why was life so awful that he saw this as his only recourse? And at the age of 70. Bear in mind that life expectancy at that time for a male was 47 years … did he feel a burden on Esther? Before daughters Mary Ann and Esther married, the three of them had lived together. Did he feel that he no longer belonged anywhere?
My mind was imagining all sorts of horrors happening in the Claybury Asylum but I found out that if you were labeled as ‘insane’ then to be a patient at the Claybury Asylum was better than any other treatment around. It was groundbreaking in the way it sought to treat people ‘of an unsound mind.’ (Ironically, the area is now an exclusive gated community and is home to professional footballers and minor celebrities).
I read up on oxalic acid poisoning and the symptoms are horrific. Mental anguish that no-one understood and then extreme physical pain.
Members of my Rose extended family came forward to tell their stories. They all said the same. Once his wife Catherine had died he didn’t want to live. They had been married 42 years when Catherine died. And her death was quite sudden (although from the inquest it looks like Catherine was trying not to make a fuss).
Catherine’s inquest was reported in the Hackney & Kingsland Gazette on 23rd November 1900:
SUDDEN DEATH IN RICHMOND ROAD – Yesterday an enquiry was held by Dr Wynn Westcott at the Hackney Coroner’s Court, concerning the death of Catherine Rose, aged 59, lately residing at 36 Richmond Road, Dalston. Deceased, who was the wife of a french polisher, had been ill for the past week, but had not been attended by a doctor, as deceased objected to that course. But on Wednesday morning she became worse, and told her husband she would have a doctor. So later in the morning, when the husband had gone to work, deceased’s daughter fetched the doctor, who, however, only arrived a few minutes before death occurred. A post mortem examination revealed congestion of the lungs, and death was due to that affection. Deceased had obviously put off medical attendance until too late. A verdict was returned of ‘Death from natural causes’.
I think it was highly likely he held himself responsible for her death. His thoughts were probably stuck in a repetitive pattern ‘If only I had insisted she saw the doctor. If only I hadn’t gone to work as usual. If only …’ I can hear his daughters reassuring him ‘It wasn’t your fault dad.’ Which wouldn’t have made a difference.
I can imagine him in the infirmary, hoping the bronchitis would kill him. Not believing that he was getting better and would survive.
We know today that older people are more affected with depression than any other age group, mainly because life events make them vulnerable:
- being widowed
- being retired
- loneliness and isolation
These major life events were affecting RTE in 1907.
I loved hearing those stories of Gus’ generation when some of the Rose clan met and it was fabulous to be able to join in celebrating those who had gone before. Obviously the silence had carried down the generations from 1907 and it’s hard to admit that a family member has taken their own life (and that the following generations were watched closely for any signs of mental illness).
What is my genealogical perspective on suicide?
I’m proud to be related to RTE. I think his life was successful providing for his family which couldn’t have been easy in 1860’s and moving forward. All his children grew up to be successful (marriages, careers, their own families and functioning in society). I’m proud of his support for his two youngest daughters as they performed and entertained across the country in the music halls and the flying ballet. RTE was the one who started the French Polishing career that spanned another three generations.
He took his own life but that doesn’t invalidate who he was or the previous years of his life or the wonderful legacy he has left in us, his descendents.
Yes, I’m proud to have RTE’s DNA as a part of who I am.
I know we have a long way to go before mental illness loses its stigma. And that it’s talked about more openly. I’ve had counselling and Cognitive Behaviour Therapy and I’m just about to begin a Mindfulness course. There are times in life where we need tools to help us cope. It’s not a weakness to admit that we need help, although that’s how it is seen. Or that we have chemical imbalances that effect how we view the world. It’s not just in our culture either.
The theme of this years Suicide Prevention Day (10th September 2015) is Preventing Suicide : Reaching Out And Saving Lives. This is something we can all do and not just for one day or one month or one year. It’s simply reaching out and connecting with people. People of all ages.
How can we do this? By being empathetic. Empathy IS powerful. Being aware of the feelings and emotions of those around you and experiencing them for yourself reaches out and connects with the other person. Don’t confuse sympathy with empathy.
This video (2:53 minutes) from RSA Short ‘Brene Brown on Empathy’ is humorous and I would urge you to watch it.
Will you be reaching out?
In Loving Memory of Richard Thomas Edmund Rose
b 27 October 1836
d 10th June 1907
Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide (Bournemouth)
Papyrus (prevention of young suicide)
Royal College of Psychiatrists (depression in older adults)