Sunday, January 30, 2011

February 18, 1876 --- An Assisted Suicide Thwarted

A curious ad appears in The Daily Telegraph: "To Medical men in need of money, or students well up in chemistry and anatomy. A gentleman engaged in an interesting experiment is willing to give liberal remuneration for professional assistance." 

The advert was signed only W.Q.  A medical student named William Vance replied.  He received a letter back from William Quaril offering £100 if Vance could provide him with sufficient deadly poison to discreetly kill himself.  "It is not absolutely essential that the supposed means should be painless, or even very quick in their results."  In a lengthy exchange of letters, Vance finally agreed to supply chloral.  He helpfully suggested that the man mention to friends that he had a sleeping problem.  The death, when it came, could then be marked off to an unfortunate overdose rather than felo de se.  Alas for the correspondents, a letter was misdirected and opened by the postal authorities who notified the police. 

William Vance was arrested, as was "Mr. Quaril," who was, in fact, Mrs. Helen Snee, a young and  beautiful mother of two who lived in North London with her husband, a traveling beer salesman.  She was a woman of fragile physical and mental health with a "presentiment of an early death."  With her husband often away, she became involved with a local literary set.  She was the personal muse for John Payne, an attorney and hopeful poet.  The latter's biographer writes "out of this frail looking, poetical, ethereal woman, Payne fabricated a goddess." He dedicated a volume of poems to her; the book did not sell well. 

Payne now came forward to defend his "poor little friend" at the Old Bailey.   Mrs. Snee was portrayed as an overwrought, depressive woman who really had no intention of ending her life.  As for Vance, he made the case that he merely intended to take the money and run.  He received an 18-month sentence.  Mrs. Snee got six months.  Justice Mellor spoke sharply that Mr. Snee needs to spend more time with his family.

After her release from jail, she returned to her husband but her presentiment was right.  In the spring of 1879, she died at the age of 34.  The cause of death: phthisis and exhaustion.

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