The Foxearth and District Local History Society

The Hysterical Hystorian

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Tuesday, December 21, 2004

'Sepultus in via'

Sometimes, the Resident Historian (GH) finds a story in the old newspapers that is so strange or alarming that it drives one to the reference books to make sense of it. Yesterday, he typed up the following story from the Ipswich Journal

July 31st 1779.

>William Snell and John Carter for sodomical practices to stand on the pillory at Bury.

On Wednesday William Snell and John Carter stood on the pillory at Bury previous to which Snell took several doses of arsenic which he said he had kept for several years, it had no effect on him till he was being carried back to the gaol when it began to operate and he expired about 7 in the evening. The coroner’s verdict was self murder in consequence of which he was to be buried in the King’s highway and a stake driven through his body, Snell was severely pelted by the populace but Carter came through unhurt nothing being thrown at him the fury of the people having subsided.

This story brought me up with a jolt. My great great great grandparents were in their prime in 1779. Yet we are here staring at an aspect of Britain almost too foreign to be recognisable. The pelting of sodomites in the pillory by a furious mob, the disposal of the dead suicide by driving a stake though his heart. A stake through the heart? Burial at the crossroads? It brings to mind the other instance of 'Sepultus in via' that we found, in the nearby parish of Ballingdon.

October 2nd 1783

There was an inquisition taken at Ballingdon in Essex near Sudbury on the body of Mr Harwood, a millwright of the place who on the day before poisoned himself by taking two ounces of arsenic, he remained in agony for five hours then died. The jury brought forward a verdict of self murder. On Sunday morning he was buried in the crossway with a stake driven through his body near the pound on Ballingdon Hill, agreeable to the sentence which the law thought proper to denounce on those who are guilty of this enormous crime.

The historical record is strangely silent on the subject of the burial of suicides. They were not permitted to rest on consecrated ground. Normally, coroners were merciful and either added the rider that it was temporary insanity, or invented a bizzarre accident to explain the death

Burial at the crossroads evidently enabled the Devil to escape easily, and the stake through the heart prevented the restless soul from haunting the living.

A verdict of suicide whilst insane, meant that the relatives could at least bury the body next to consecrated ground. Last year, two mediaeval burials were discovered outside the churchyard of Borley under a later barn. At first the two youthful male corpses were thought to have been interred in an extension of the churchyard, or that the barn had intruded over the original boundary of the churchyard; However, the pair, one of which had rather curious feminine characteristics in the bones, turned out to be an isolated burial. Suicides? possibly.

William Harrison, in his 'A Description of England' 1577, mentions the practice of 'Sepultus in Via' except that he says it was 'in a field'. This may account for the occasional discovery of human remains in fields.

"Such as kill themselves are buried in the field with a stake driven through their bodies."


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