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Preferring Death: Love, Crime and Suicide in Eighteenth-Century England

A seminar by Dr Amy Milka at The University of Adelaide.


Date: Monday 16 April 2018
Time: 12‒1pm
Venue: Stretton Room, Napier 420, The University of Adelaide, North Terrace, Adelaide
RSVP and enquiries: Jacquie Bennett (jacquie.bennett@adelaide.edu.au)

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In the early modern period, suicide was considered a crime against the laws of God and man, and those who deliberately took their own lives faced disgraceful posthumous punishment.  The so-called ‘English malady’ was rife in Britain during the eighteenth century, and was the subject of furious religious, philosophical and scientific debate.  Despite concerns about the sinfulness of self-murder, increasing pity and compassion for suicides was evident in discussions of mental health, extensive newspaper coverage and sympathetic portrayals in sentimental literature. 

This paper explores the legal, spiritual and moral issues raised by the unlikely meeting of suicide and capital punishment.  Eighteenth-century England was notorious for its frequent use of the death penalty, and the spectacle of execution was intended to enforce both fear and obedience.  But what happened when criminals took their lives and frustrated the process of justice?  While some capital convicts committed suicide before execution, a number of people deliberately committed crimes, making use of England’s harsh penal laws as a means of ending their lives.  What were the motives behind this unusual method of self-destruction?  How did ‘judicial suicide’ challenge the authority of English law and complicate the message of capital punishment?  And what did these suicides reveal about the social and emotional lives of people in eighteenth-century London?  Following the story of the lovelorn Samuel Burt, an eighteen-year-old apprentice awaiting execution for forgery, this paper explores suicide by capital punishment as a challenge to English law, morality and sensibility in the late eighteenth century. 

Amy Milka is a postdoctoral researcher with the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions, based at The University of Adelaide.  She researches eighteenth-century history, literature and culture, and is particularly interested in radical politics, print culture, and crime and punishment.

Presented by the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions and the Department of History at The University of Adelaide.

Image: Joseph Wright of Derby, The Prisoner, c.1787–1790. Courtesy of Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.