Category Archives: Winslow, Forbes


from The Anatomy of Suicide: Can Suicide be Prevented by Legislative Enactments?


The ninth son in a family that had lost its American property in the War of Independence and returned to England, the physician Forbes Winslow was born in Pentonville, London. He was educated at University College, London and the Middlesex Hospital. In 1835, he joined the Royal College of Surgeons of England, and subsequently received his M.D. from Aberdeen in 1849. He supported his own education through writing: he was a reporter for the Times and also wrote medical manuals for students. His work Physic and Physicians (1842) was a two-volume collection of anecdotes about doctors. Winslow’s rise to prominence as an expert on cases of insanity was furthered by his writings, The Anatomy of Suicide (1840), The Plea of Insanity in Criminal Cases (1843), and The Incubation of Insanity (1845).

In 1847, Winslow founded two private insane asylums in Hammersmith, where he experimented with humane treatment of mental illnesses. Winslow continued to write about insanity; he founded the Quarterly Journal of Psychological Medicine in 1848 and wrote many papers for legal and medical instruction. He was instrumental in gaining acceptance for the plea of insanity in criminal cases, including cases of suicide (felo de se). He died in Brighton in 1874.

In these excerpts from The Anatomy of Suicide, Winslow, though he sees suicide as a crime against God and man, insists that laws punishing suicide (which were still in effect in England at the time) were both unjust, since they punished the family rather than the alleged offender, and ineffective, since they did not serve as a deterrent to suicide. He is particularly interested in the way in which a kind of reasoning about suicide, a sort of obsessive perseveration with thoughts of suicide, can invite the act, particularly if it is believed to be justifiable. The remedy, for Winslow, is Christian moral education.

Forbes Winslow, The Anatomy of Suicide, Ch. 16, “Can Suicide Be Prevented by Legislative Enactments?—Influence of Moral Instruction.” London: Henry Renshaw, 1840, pp. 36-44, 334-339.



The only legitimate object for which punishment can be inflicted is the prevention of crime.  “Am I to be hanged for stealing a sheep?” said a criminal at the Old Bailey, addressing the bench.  “No,” replied the judge; “you are not to be hanged for stealing a sheep, but that sheep may not be stolen.”  Every punishment, argues Beccaria, which does not arise from absolute necessity is unjust.  There should be a fixed proportion between crimes and punishments.  Crimes are only to be estimated by the injury done to society; and the end of punishment is, to prevent the criminal from doing further injury, as well as to induce others from committing similar offenses.

The act of suicide ought not to be considered as a crime in the legal definition of the term.  It is not an offense that can be deemed cognizable by the civil magistrate.  It is to be considered a sinful and vicious action.  To punish suicide as a crime is to commit a solecism in legislation.  The unfortunate individual, by the very act of suicide, places himself beyond the vengeance of the law; he has anticipated its operation; he has rendered himself amenable to the highest tribunal—viz., that of his Creator; no penal enactments, however stringent, can affect him.  What is the operation of the law under these circumstances?  A verdict of felo-de-se is returned, and the innocent relations of the suicide are disgraced and branded with infamy, and that too on evidence of an ex-parte nature.  It is unjust, inhuman, unnatural, and unchristian, that the law should punish the innocent family of the man who, in a moment of frenzy, terminates his own miserable existence.  It was clearly established, that before the alteration in the law respecting suicide, the fear of being buried in a cross-road, and having a stake driven through the body, had no beneficial effect in decreasing the number of suicides; and the verdict of felo-de-se, now occasionally returned, is productive of no advantage whatever, and only injures the surviving relatives.

When a man contemplates an outrage of the law, the fear of the punishment awarded for the offence may deter him from its commission; but the unhappy person whose desperate circumstances impel him to sacrifice his own life can be influenced by no such fear.  His whole mind is absorbed in the consideration of his own miseries, and he even cuts asunder those ties that ought to bind him closely and tenderly to the world he is about to leave.  If an affectionate wife and endearing family have not influence in deterring a man from suicide, is it reasonable to suppose that he will be influenced by penal laws?

If the view which has been taken in this work of the cause of suicide be a correct one, no stronger argument can be urged for the impropriety of bringing the strong arm of the law to bear upon those who court a voluntary death.  In the majority of cases, it will be found that some heavy calamity has fastened itself upon the mind, and the spirits have been extremely depressed.  The individual loses all pleasure in society; hope vanishes, and despair renders life intolerable, and death an apparent relief.  The evidence which is generally submitted to a coroner’s jury is of necessity imperfect; and although the suicide may, to all appearance, be in possession of his right reason, and have exhibited at the moment of killing himself the greatest calmness, coolness, and self-possession, this would not justify the coroner or jury in concluding that derangement of mind was not present.

If the mind be overpowered by “grief, sickness, infirmity, or other accident,” as Sir Mathew Hale expresses it, the law presumes the existence of lunacy.  Any passion that powerfully exercises the mind, and prevents the reasoning faculty from performing its duty, causes temporary derangement.  It is not necessary in order to establish the presence of insanity to prove the person to be labouring under a delusion of intellect—a false creation of the mind.  A man may allow his imagination to dwell upon an idea until it acquires an unhealthy ascendancy over the intellect, and in this way a person may commit suicide from an habitual belief in the justifiableness of the act.  If a man, by a distorted process of reasoning, argues himself into a conviction of the propriety of adopting a particular course of conduct, without any reference to the necessary result of that train of thought, it is certainly no evidence of his being in possession of a sound mind.  A person may reason himself into a belief that murder, under certain circumstances not authorized by the law, is perfectly just and proper.  The circumstance of his allowing his mind to reason on the subject is a prima facie case against his sanity; at least it demonstrates a great weakness of the moral constitution.  A man’s morale must be in an imperfect state of development who reasons himself into the conviction that self-murder is under any circumstances justifiable.

We dwell at some length on this subject, because we feel assured that juries do not pay sufficient attention to the influence of passion in overclouding the understanding.  If the notion that in every case of suicide the intellectual or moral faculties are perverted, be generally received, it will at once do away with the verdict of felo-de-se.  Should the jury entertain a doubt as to the presence of derangement, (and such cases may present themselves,) it is their duty, in accordance with the well-known principle of British jurisprudence, to give the person the benefit of that doubt; and thus a verdict of lunacy may be conscientiously returned in every case of this description.

Having, we think, clearly established that no penal law can act beneficially in preventing self-destruction,—first, because it would punish the innocent for the crimes of the guilty; and, secondly, that, owing to insanity being present in every instance, the person determined on suicide is indifferent as to the consequences of his action, —it becomes our province to consider what are the legitimate means of staying the progress of an offence that undermines the foundation of society and social happiness.

In the prevention of suicide, too much stress cannot be laid on the importance of adopting a well-regulated, enlarged, and philosophic system of education, by which all the moral as well as the intellectual faculties will be expanded and disciplined.  The education of the intellect without any reference to the moral feelings is a species of instruction calculated to do an immense amount of injury.  The tuition that addresses itself exclusively to the perceptive and reflective faculties is not the kind of education that will elevate the moral character of a people.  Religion must be made the basis of all secular knowledge.  We must be led to believe that the education which fits the possessor for another world is vastly superior to that which has relation only to the concerns of this life.  We are no opponents to the diffusion of knowledge; but we are to that description of information which has only reference “to the life that is, and not to that which is to be.”  Such a system of instruction is of necessity defective, because it is partial in its operation.  Teach a man his duty to God, as well as his obligations to his fellow-men; lead him to believe that his life is not his own; that disappointment and misery is the penalty of Adam’s transgression, and one from which there is no hope of escaping; and, above all, inculcate a resignation to the decrees of Divine Providence.  When life becomes a burden, when the mind is sinking under the weight of accumulated misfortunes, and no gleam of hope penetrates through the vista of futurity to gladden the heart, the intellect says, “Commit suicide, and escape from a world of wretchedness and woe;” the moral principle says, “Live; it is your duty to bear with resignation the afflictions that overwhelm you; let the moral influence of your example be reflected in the characters of those by whom you are surrounded.”

If we are justified in maintaining that the majority of the cases of suicide result from a vitiated condition of the moral principle, then it is certainly a legitimate mode of preventing the commission of the offence to elevate the character of man as a moral being.  It is no legitimate argument against this position to maintain that insanity in all its phases marches side by side with civilization and refinement; but it must not be forgotten that a people may be refined and civilized, using these terms in their ordinary signification, who have not a just conception of their duties as members of a Christian community.  Let the education of the heart go side by side with the education of the head; inculcate the ennobling thought, that we live not for ourselves, but for others; that it is an evidence of true Christian courage to face bravely the ills of life, to bear with impunity “the whips and scorns of time, the oppressor’s wrong, and the proud man’s contumely;” and we disseminate principles which will give expansion to those faculties that alone can fortify the mind against the commission of a crime alike repugnant to all human and Divine laws.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Europe, Psychiatry, Selections, The Modern Era, Winslow, Forbes