Journal of the New Zealand Medical Association, 15-July-2005, Vol 118 No 1218
Human instincts, normal and pathological: self-preservation, or the love of life
This extract comes from a speech read at the Annual Meeting in Auckland by Herbert Barraclough, M.B., Auckland, and published in the New Zealand Medical Journal 1905, Volume 4 (16), p202–203.
“Are all suicides due to insanity?” And my answer is an emphatic affirmative. As an example to the contrary, we may conceive of a murderer fleeing from justice and in imminent danger of capture, blowing out his own brains, and still not be insane. But this is scarcely a case in point, as the man is only choosing between two forms of death—that at his own hands or those of the executioner—and deliberately choosing the former.
I remember the case of a medical student in Leeds, who poisoned himself by prussic acid, against whom the jury returned this very unusual verdict of “Felo de se”, on the ground that there was no motive for the act. Why, the very fact of there being no notice was presumptive proof of insanity; and this case was probably one of those impulsive, unconscious acts of suicide which occasionally occur. Frequently careful investigation reveals signs of insanity too slight to have been noticed by the eyes of a layman which have preceded the suicidal act.
In the absence of these, the very nature of the act sometimes points to insanity, as in a case which occurred some years ago when a young man who had every opportunity of committing suicide by other means deliberately thrust a red-hot poker through the roof of his mouth, penetrating the brain, and lived for twenty-four hours afterwards in mortal agony.
The whole balance of accumulated evidence points only in one direction, both theoretically and practically, and leads us to the inevitable conclusion that when no previous symptoms of insanity have been noticed they have been overlooked; and though every case must be judged on its own merits, I think that the very general verdict of “Temporary insanity”, given in cases of suicide, is technically correct, and not merely a matter of sentiment.
Whatever crazy sorrow saith,
No soul that breathes with human breath
Hath ever truly longed for death.
Ah, no. ’Tis life, not death, we ask—
More life and fuller that we want.
We no longer bury our suicides at midnight at the nearest cross-roads with a stake through their bodies. No, we are too civilised for that. But the Church still brands their souls by denying that they die “in sure and certain hope of everlasting life”, though it accords that same hope to those who have led a vicious life. And the emissaries of the law still hale before the Bench those who have attempted suicide, treating them as common criminals.
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