Monday, 18 September 2017

Suffering in Silence

This entry is a digression from: Wittgenstein's Birmingham Notes, 1913

                When Wittgenstein arrived into Birmingham for the second time, almost exactly a year since he last stayed at Lordswood House, the moods of suicidal despair which had plagued him during his holiday with David in Norway, had forced him into a resolution of sorts. He had decided to cut himself off from the man he loved and from all the chatter and distractions of Cambridge life. At the end of the week he planned to Norway and live a wholly ascetic life in devotion to the study of Logic.

                As a male heir of Karl Wittgenstein[1] a threat to take one’s own life was to be taken seriously. As a role model Karl had been less than exemplary. Even after his death at the beginning of 1913, his intimidating expectations of great purpose in life were still plaguing his three surviving sons. Kurt would go on to shoot himself in the last days of the war while the Austrian troops were in general retreat. This was either because he wished to avoid the dishonour of court martial after he refused to pointlessly sacrifice his men, or, as the other version states, he shot himself when his troops deserted him, leaving him to be captured or killed. But Kurt’s suicide was by no means the first in the family.


                   Karl’s eldest two sons had already taken their own lives. In 1902 Hans disappeared. It was reported as a canoeing accident in Chesapeake Bay, but the family eventually accepted it as suicide. Nevertheless, somewhat fanciful rumours circulated that he had actually faked his death, and fled into obscurity to escape his Wittgensteinian identity. Hans was the eldest son and bore the greatest expectations from his father who insisted that he follow him into business and engineering. But Hans had no intention nor inclination to follow in his father’s footsteps. Described by his sister as ‘peculiar’, Hans may have been on the autistic spectrum. He was incredibly mathematical in his outlook and extremely talented musically. Music was, in fact, his greatest love and the career his wished to follow, but Karl would have none of it to the point of strictly regulating his access to instruments. His suicide was a stubborn defiance against Karl’s plans for him. There was also a report that Hans was homosexual. If the truth of his sexuality was vague, his brother Rudi’s was less so.


                Exactly two years after Hans’s disappearance, Rudi Wittgenstein walked into a bar in Berlin, ordered some food and a glass of milk to which he dissolved some crystals of potassium cyanide. He asked the pianist to play a mournful song as he drank the deadly concoction. Two minutes later he was unconscious and beyond saving. Like Hans, Rudi was passionate about music, and also photography and theatre, but in Berlin he was studying chemistry. Unlike Hans, however, the story of his demise centres on his sexuality rather than his career choice. It seems Rudi had been out-ed as gay when the sexologist Dr Magnus Hirschfeld published a case-study which implicitly identified him. A year before Rudi had gone to the Scientific Humanitarian Committee for help with his sexuality, but when the organisation published its year book, to his horror he felt Hirschfeld’s piece contained too much detail about him. Compromised and betrayed, Rudi decided there was only one course of action: to end his life

                   For his father Karl, the pain and humiliation were unspeakable. No sooner were the burial rites concluded than he hurried his family from the cemetery, forbidding his wife from turning to look back at the grave. In future neither she nor any member of the family would be permitted to utter Rudolf’s name in his presence again.[2]

                In Birmingham the local press of October 1913 showed that suicide was not restricted to the noble young men of Viennese society. If Ludwig Wittgenstein had read the papers on his last visit, he would have discovered that cutting one’s own throat was the local style of self-annihilation in 1912. A year later the papers reported poison to be the popular choice.

                As he was arriving into New Street Station to meet David Pinsent, not far away in the Wagon & Horses pub on Edgbaston Street, William Pethard[3] of Small Heath ordered a glass of brandy to which he added his owner deadly mixer from a bottle of oxalic acid. He then took out an envelope and wrote, “Goodbye; sorry for what I have done. Can’t stand the worry any longer.” He was later joined in hospital by Benjamin Hardiman[4] of Ladywood who, having reached for a glass of whisky, had instead drank nitric acid. Already in hospital, however, lay Charlotte Betterley[5] of Duddeston who had been admitted on Sunday after a row with her husband which had culminated in her downing a bottle of disinfectant.

            If these attempts to end it all, planned, mistaken or spontaneous, had not been shocking enough, one of the biggest local stories of the week was the investigation into the Smethwick Poisoning Mystery. 

                Robert Anderson Carter was described as ‘excitable’ by those who knew him a little. Those who knew him better added that he was inclined to melancholic moods and had often spoken of being tired of life. He had in fact attempted suicide once before. He might have been described today as having a bi-polar condition. Carter, 35, lived in Smethwick, and worked as a deputy to the registrar of births and deaths, Fred Stevens, 44. Their relationship went beyond work as Stevens had taken Carter in to share his home.


                On the afternoon of 26th September Stevens called into the workplace of Herbert Griffiths, a tailor’s salesman in Birmingham. The two knew each other and decided to head off to the Colonnade Hotel [above] for a drink, and then another at the White Horse on Congreve Street where they were joined by Carter for more bottles of beer. With some business to be conducted in an antique shop on Broad Street, the trio headed there, then for a final drink that afternoon at the Crown Inn [below], beside the Church of the Messiah. Feeling peckish now Stevens, Griffiths and Carter drove back to Smethwick. After dinner Stevens and Carter had words. Stevens being his boss, had pointed out a mistake Carter had made in one of their ledgers. The relationship must have been quite fraught for it seems to have been a final straw for Carter.


                With dinner out of the way, Carter in a bit of a huff announced he was going out. Stevens and Griffiths then left half an hour later for the Red Cow Inn, also on Smethwick’s High Street. After drinking in a hotel in Soho, Carter decided now that he would join them, but first he made a stop at the pharmacy run by Horace Oakley where he convinced the chemist to sell him a bottle of tablets containing perchloride of mercury. Carter claimed they were to be used in photograph development. At the Red Cow more beers were imbibed until 11.30 when the party, now joined by the pub’s pianist Frank Cruise, returned to Stevens’s house, Carter returning with a bottle of whisky, and they ‘commenced to have a time of jollification’.[6] At first everything seemed quite merry with everyone enjoying a drunken sing-song, but then Stevens and Carter had words again and the latter’s mood changed for the worse.


                Stevens had clearly heard it all before from Carter as he refused to believe his threats to take his own life. He even dismissed warnings from Herbert Griffiths about the poison in Carter’s possession. When Carter swallowed four of the perchloride of mercury tablets, Stevens, presumably in an attempt to show him up as a dramatic liar, or perhaps for a much darker reason, took two of the tablets and swallowed them. Griffiths, and this surely must be a decision only someone without the full faculty of reason under the influence of alcohol could make, put one in his mouth and immediately felt a dreadful burning sensation. Sobriety must have kicked in at this point as he spat it out and the family doctor was sent for.


                  When Dr Kendal arrived at the house he found the two men in agony. Carter who was laid out on the couch was falling in and out of consciousness surrounded by vomit. Stevens was also in a bad way but managed to survive the experience. Carter however was clearly dying, and despite the doctor’s attempts to restore him, a magistrate and his clerk were summoned to take his deathbed deposition.

            W.C. Checkley, Deputy Coroner, led the enquiry at Smethwick Town Hall. There were conflicting testimonies from the witnesses. Their dubious claims of sobriety that Friday evening were undermined by differing versions of events produced by their inability to recall clearly what exactly had happened. Rumours spread throughout the neighbourhood. Rumours which Checkley called unfounded. The jury returned a verdict of suicide while of unsound mind.


            The police were not convinced that Stevens’s intake of the poison was an accident and charged him with attempted suicide. The case was referred to the Registrar General, Sir Bernard Mallet, who summoned the Clerk of the Birmingham Union’s Board of Guardians (who had supervisory powers over the registration) for interview at Somerset House. Stevens was immediately suspended from his job as Smethwick’s Registrar by Mallet. On Wednesday 15th October the General Purposes Committee of the Birmingham Board of Guardians discussed the case at their regular meeting. The committee, under the chairmanship of Althans Blackwell and vice-chairmanship of Frank Juckes[7], heard selections of the evidence presented to the Police Court and subsequently recommended that Stevens should not be reinstated despite his case having been dismissed by the magistrates. The evidence, and no doubt the rumours, had been enough to condemn him in the committee’s eyes. If not guilty of a crime, he was ‘guilty of conduct quite unbecoming a person holding his responsible position’.[8] With Carter dead and Stevens out, it was left to the acting Deputy Registrar, W.E. Curtis, to record the demise of his predecessor.





[1] See Alexander Waugh, The House of Wittgenstein: A Family at War (Bloomsbury, 2008), pp22-27
[2] Waugh, p23
[3] Birmingham Daily Post, Tuesday 7th October 1913
[4] ibid
[5] Birmingham Daily Post, Monday 6th October 1913
[6] Birmingham Gazette, Wednesday 15th October 1913
[7] Frank Juckes (1857-1926) was a Justice of the Peace, Guardian of the Poor, chairman of the board of Birmingham Union (1912-13), governor of Birmingham University (1912-1913), City Councillor (1911-1912), Freemason, supporter of the Moneyhull Colony and Prisoners’ Aid Society, chairman of the visiting committee of the prison, and, by trade, a printer. It was the company he founded, Frank Juckes Ltd, which printed Nicholas Bachtin’s only publication in his lifetime, Introduction to the Study of Modern Greek (1935).
[8] Birmingham Union: General Purposes Committee Minute Book 1912-1914 (Library of Birmingham Archives GP/B/2/8/2/1)