Friday, 15 July 2011

Poison, mistaken identity and a sermon

In 1839, there was a mysterious death in Greenwich Park near the 'wilderness'. An unknown young man was found dead, apparently from poison. He was scruffily dressed but not impoverished, and there were no signs of violence. A loaded pistol in his pocket suggested suicide to the investigators, but there was no trace of a phial or paper which might have held the poison.

One part of the mystery was apparently cleared up when a Greenwich pensioner suggested he might know the man. Before joining the Navy, he had been in service; that very afternoon he had spent time with the son of his former employers. Sure enough, when he saw the body he was overcome with grief and positively identified it as his young friend.

However, there was a twist: the very next day, the pensioner met the 'deceased' - still very much alive and well. The identity of the corpse remained shrouded in mystery, but the manner of death was becoming clearer. The post mortem had found prussic acid in the stomach; an empty phial had also now been found near the site of the body, confirming the suicide theory.

Within a couple of days, the real identity of the deceased was established. He was one John Johnson, a 23-year-old compositor described as 'very eccentric' because he didn't associate with his colleagues, but 'remarkably steady'.

Matters might have been left to rest there, but a local preacher saw an opportunity. He quickly produced the following flyer:

SUICIDE.
THE REV. JOSEPH BELCHER,
Respectfully announces his intention of preaching a
SERMON AT BUNYAN CHAPEL SCHOOL AND LECTURE ROOM,
LEWISHAM ROAD, GREENWICH,
ON SUNDAY EVENING, SEPT. 8, 1839,
With a reference to the recent SUICIDE IN GREENWICH PARK;
In which he will communicate some awfully interesting particulars of the deceased.
THE ATTENDANCE OF THE YOUNG IS EARNESTLY SOLICITED.
Service to commence at half-past Six o’clock.
With the Reverend's promises of 'awfully interesting particulars', it is hard to fault his talent for publicity - although we might question his taste.

5 comments:

Hels said...

A seemingly insignificant story that people might have quickly forgotten.

But I love the moralising at every point :) Even in death, the poor man was described as very eccentric but remarkably steady. And the church notice said THE ATTENDANCE OF THE YOUNG IS EARNESTLY SOLICITED. Presumably to talk about the ungodliness of suicide.

CharmedLassie said...

Beauty of research is coming across snippets like this! Thanks for sharing this one.

SilverTiger said...

A nice story. What a pity the aptly named Belcher did not leave a transcript of his sermon for the wonder and edification of future generations. It would be interesting to know how many people attended to hear his words of wisdom.

Forensic science was then quite primitive compared with its modern counterpart and I am always cheered when I read that it produced good results as in this case.

I assume the death would have been investigated by the Metropolitan Police, then just 10 years old.

Jenny Woolf said...

Did anyone ever find out what information he communicated? Fascinating....

CarolineLD said...

Yes, Hels and Jenny, it would be interesting to know what he talked about. I agree it was probably the sinfulness of suicide, but the sermon perhaps wasn't that attention-grabbing as I couldn't find any reports of it.

SilverTiger, it was investigated by the Met - several officers reported to the inquest. As you say, both they and forensic science were in their early days so it must have been very satisfying to come up with answers in this case.

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