Suicide at Christmas, 1875

29 December 1875


Great excitement was occasioned at Fort Nelson, one of the forts on the summit of Portsdown Hill to the west of the Nelson monument, on Sunday evening last, by the announcement that one of the persons stationed at the fort had committed suicide. It would seem that the soldiers of the 21st Royal North British Fusiliers stationed at the fort were quietly seated round blazing fires in the various casemates, when the report of firearms was heard, and in the course of a very few minutes the alarm was raised that one of the non-commissioned officers of the regiment had committed suicide. It appears that Sergeant Carter, a single man aged 33 years, a first-class staff-sergeant, who had risen to the rank of sergeant-instructor of musketry, had been drinking somewhat freely on the evening of Christmas-day, and that certain alleged misconduct of a nature not to be described in these columns on the part of Carter and a private of the regiment led to his arrest and the imprisonment of the man in question in the guard-room. On the following day a surgical examination of Carter was made, and at this time he was in a very desponding state of mind, doubtless from the nature of the charge for which he had been placed under arrest. A corporal was set to watch him, but he managed to elude the man's vigilance, and to secrete a skeleton rifle – one of two rifles of the Martini-Henry description, with barrels about a foot long – in his bed, the weapons being used for the instruction of the men. About seven o'clock on Sunday evening Carter signified his intention of retiring to bed for the night, and at that time he appeared perfectly sane. He undressed and got into bed, the corporal taking up a position at the table in the room for the purpose of watching him. Shortly afterwards the corporal heard a noise and looked towards the bed, but saw nothing to attract his attention. In less than half-an-hour afterwards he heard the report of a gun in the room, and on going to the bed he found Carter with the lower part of his face completely blown away. He at once gave information, and assistance came as soon as possible, but nothing could be done, death having taken place almost instantaneously.
          The shocking occurrence was the subject of an enquiry held before E. J. Harvey, Esq. (one of the Coroners of Hants), in the soldiers' reading room at Fort Nelson yesterday afternoon. – The jury having been sworn, proceeded to the room in which the sad affair took place, and there found the body of the deceased, which presented a most horrible spectacle, the whole of the lower part of the face and jaw being absent. On adjourning to the reading room, the Coroner briefly detailed the circumstances as given above, and called
          James Hurd, who stated that he was a corporal in the 21st Regiment, stationed at Fort Nelson, the parish of Boarhunt. He had seen the body shown to the Coroner and jury that day, and identified it as that of Sergeant John Carter, of the same regiment. Deceased was confined to his room on the evening of the 26th inst. for some misconduct. The deceased had served in the 21st Regiment for 15 or 16 years, and had arrived at the rank of a first class staff-sergeant, and was employed as a sergeant instructor of musketry. The deceased was about 33 years of age. He produced a skeleton rifle. There were two of such rifles supplied to the regiment for experimental purposes, and the deceased had charge of them. It was customary for persons of the rank of the deceased to be confined to their own rooms, but privates would be confined to the guard-room. Deceased retired to bed about a quarter to seven o'clock on the evening of the 26th inst., and witness, who was ordered to take charge of the deceased, sat in a chair, intending to remain up all night. – The Coroner: Did the deceased say anything to you when he went to bed? – Witness: No; he simply said "I think I will go to bed now." He appeared very low spirited. – Did you see or hear anything afterwards? – After he had been in bed a little time I heard a slight movement and looked towards him, but did not see anything. – Did you see or hear anything afterwards? – Yes; about half an hour afterwards I heard the report of firearms, and went to the deceased at once. I found a deal of smoke hanging about the head of the bed on which the deceased was lying, and I saw some blood flowing from the lower part of his face. There was a skeleton rifle in the right hand of the deceased. – Did you see him with the rifle before? – No. – Would he, as staff-sergeant and instructor of musketry, have charge of the cartridges, or the magazine, or the ammunition? – He had charge of any surplus ammunition which was drawn from the expense magazine at Hilsea for the use of the rifle club of the regiment. – The piece of metal you produce is a piece of the iron bedstead upon which the deceased was lying, and must have been shot away by the bullet which passed through his head? – Yes, sir. (The piece of metal in question was about an inch and a half square.) – You know nothing beyond the fact that the deceased was under arrest for an unnatural offence? – No, sir.
          Captain Thomas Capel Rose stated that on the evening in qustion he was the senior officer in charge of the fort. In consequence of a charge of misconduct which had been made against the deceased he ordered him to be placed under arrest. By reason of the serious nature of the alleged offence he placed a corporal in charge of him, fearing that he might do some injury to himself. He could not tell why he thought so. It was a sort of instinct which he could not account for. About eight o'clock the same evening he was sitting in his room, when information was brought to him that Sergeant Carter had shot himself. He sent for the hospital sergeant, and they went to the room occupied by the deceased, and there found him with the lower part of his face blown away. The deceased was dead. On turning down the bed-clothes they found the skeleton rifle produced. – The Coroner: Was he a quiet man? – Yes, very quiet, and he was a man of whom the officers of the regiment held a very high opinion. – Were you present when he was placed under arrest? – No. He was placed under arrest on Christmas evening by the acting sergeant-major. – Are you certain that the skeleton rifle produced is the same as that with which the deceased shot himself? – Yes, I saw it taken from the bed and handed over to the county police. I have had the key of the room ever since.
          P.C. Thomas Davis stated that from information he received from the last witness he went to Fort Nelson, and there saw the deceased. He took the skeleton rifle produced from the right hand of the deceased, the lower part of whose face was blown away. There was a hole through the skull of the deceased. He produced a piece of the iron bedstead upon which the deceased was lying, which had been shot away.
          Sergeant-Major Thomas Dunkin, a doctor of medicine of the Army medical Department, in charge of Forts Fareham and Nelson, stated that he saw the deceased as a patient at two o'clock on Sunday. The deceased had been reported sick, and witness had had orders from the colonel to examine him in connection with the offence which was said to have been committed. – Did you detect any symptoms of insanity? – No; he appeared cast down, and I thought this was occasioned by the serious nature of the crime which was laid to his charege. – The coroner: Have you seen the deceased since: – Yes. – What did you find? – I found the lower part of the face blown away. The rifle must have been placed close to ehc hin of the deceased on the right side, and the ball apparently passed through the brain and out over the left ear. – Did you make any post mortem examination? – No, as I did not think it necessary. I was satisfied as to the cause of death at once.
          The Coroner said this was the whole of the evidence he proposed offering, and it was for the jury to come to a decision as the cause of death. They could, he thought, have little difficulty in finding that the death of the deceased was caused by his own hand, and it then became their duty to find the state of mind in which the deceased was at the time. In cases where there was the slightest doubt as to the state of mind in which the person who destroyed his own life was when the act was committed, it was usual to return a verdict of suicide whilst in a state of temporary insanity, and there was no doubt that that was the most merciful vedict; but still if the jury thought that the deceased was in his right senses at the time, it would be their duity as Englishmen, according to the oath they had taken, to return a verdict of felo de se, no matter how revolting such a verdict might be to their feelings. He then briefly reviewed the evidence, and the jury, after a few minutes' deliberation, returned a verdict of "Suicide whilst in a state of temporary insanity." (Hampshire Telegraph)

SOURCE: Hampshire Telegraph, 28, December 1875.

CITATION: If you cite this Web page, please use the following citation:
Rictor Norton (Ed.), "Suicide at Christmas, 1875", Homosexuality in Nineteenth-Century England: A Sourcebook, 1 January 2019 <>.

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