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'Tied up from self-murder’: Writing about suicide in the wake of the South Sea Bubble

Published 12 May 2022, Imogen Knox

Following an EMECC funded research trip to Edinburgh and inspired by a recent collaborative session with Birmingham (Lightbulb moments), Imogen Knox explores an eighteenth century discussion of suicide prompted by the collapse of the South Sea Bubble.

When the South Sea Bubble burst in September 1720, investors were devastated. By 1721, deaths attributed to suicide had risen by 40 per cent in London.[1] In response to this apparent epidemic, an anonymous writer published Two letters, in Edinburgh, in 1721, which discussed the public response to the South Sea Bubble collapse, and considered the rise in suicide in light of Roman examples of self-inflicted death. This blog post focuses particularly on the second letter, discussing suicide, which offers ‘a comparison between the suicide of the ancient Romans and that so frequent of late among the English’.[2]

The letter, addressed to Nathaniel Mist, the editor of The Weekly Journal, followed the standard conventions of writing into the paper.[3] The source is of particular interest due to the stance it adopts towards suicide – it does not condemn suicide as intrinsically wrong as many texts in the early modern period had (and continued to do throughout the eighteenth century). Neither did it argue for the morality or legality of suicide. Scholars of early modern suicide Michael MacDonald and Terence R. Murphy argued that the increase in suicide following the South Sea Bubble (and their secularised reporting in newspapers) contributed to an increase in sympathy for self-inflicted death.[4] Yet this piece, which juxtaposes the honourable Roman suicide with the ignominious eighteenth-century self-murder, suggests a more complex view.

In many ways, the Comparison is typical of writing on suicide, identifying an epidemic, speaking in dialogue with other printed material, drawing on ancient examples, and discussing suicide and its causes in light of virtues and vices. Yet in other aspects, this source is unusual. It locates suicide in the specific context of the South Sea Bubble and adopts a rather secular, and particularly ambivalent, stance for the period.

The author of the Two letters did not give their own name. This was common for those writing into Mist’s paper, particularly in the context of the South Sea Bubble.[5] The letters appear to have been written by the same person, but they bear different pen names. The first letter is attributed to Cato, a figure often referenced by those writing about suicide in this period. The name had also been adopted by those critical of governmental policy in the early eighteenth century, drawing on Cato’s reputation as an opponent of tyranny.[6] The attribution given for the second letter, Philalethes, translates as ‘lover of truth’, and had been used as a nom de plume by many British writers throughout the seventeenth century. It is this second pen name to which I will reference the author.

Philalethes justified the writing of his letter with the ‘late circumstances’ of the South Sea Bubble, and his perception that suicide had grown ‘so frequent’ since the collapse. The belief that suicide in one’s own time had reached unprecedented levels was not an unusual one. Earlier authors had tended to attribute this generally to a decline in morality and Christian values, a trope that the Comparison also followed. Philalethes noted that the English, despite having ‘a better religion than the Romans, have worse Principles and less refined sentiments’. In this way, the author expressed an ambivalent attitude towards the act of suicide, something which was so often condemned by his contemporaries. Philalethes, writing in reference to the South Sea Bubble, was rather novel in identifying a national event which could explain the increase in death by suicide.

Ambivalence is further suggested in the discussion of the various virtues and vices related to death by suicide. In his opening statement, Philalethes links honour and integrity, placing them opposite cowardice, dejection, guilt and infamy. The latter four traits are explicitly connected to suicide. Philalethes associates other negative traits with suicide throughout the piece, including despair, fear, rashness. Yet he seems to admire the ‘motive of honour’ with which he sees ‘great men’ having taken their own lives. While he saw eighteenth century Englishmen as being sick of ‘themselves’, and killing themselves due to an inability to ‘stand the test of their own actions’, Roman ‘heroes’ were in contrast ‘sick of the times’ and took their lives as ‘true patriots’. For Philalethes then, suicide could be judged on the motive with which it was carried out; it was justified in the cases of Cato and Marcus Brutus who took their lives because of their own ‘virtue’, but not for those who had suffered a ‘domestic misfortune’ such as the bubble.

The Comparison makes no references to Biblical suicide. Usually, in such discussions, classical, Biblical, and early Christian examples were scattered throughout the text to evidence the author’s argument. The only vaguely Christian reference in this source is to Julian the Apostate, the fourth century Roman emperor who rejected Christianity. Drawing a parallel between Julian’s suicide and that of the South Sea investor, Philalethes asked ‘who can wonder at such impieties from a set of people who, in strength of their riches, have boasted and blessed themselves for being above the reach of Providence?’. Yet Philalethes seems disparaging of the ‘rules of faith’ which have ‘restrained’ Christian people from taking their own lives. He further suggests that such ‘principles’ have produced an environment in which people kill themselves out of shame, to avoid ‘scandal’ or ‘pain’, rather than the ‘raging fit of honour’ with which Romans had carried out the same act. Perhaps in referencing ignorance of providence, Philalethes meant to criticise pride, rather than atheism.

The Comparison’s discussion of suicide speaks to a complex understanding of suicide in the early eighteenth century. The almost wholly secular context in which Philalethes discussed suicide was also a significant departure from previous work on the subject. Earlier authors had either drawn on historical examples to condemn all self-inflicted deaths, or to argue for increased leniency to suicide in the present. In emphasizing the honour of the Romans and disparaging his contemporary gentlemen, Philalethes outlined a more nuanced relationship with the act of suicide in eighteenth-century England than has been acknowledged, one which he suggested ‘every body knows’.

To learn more about the South Sea Bubble, listen to fellow EMECC member David Fletcher’s audio play ‘Bubble Fever’:

[1] Julian Hoppit, ‘The myths of the south sea bubble’, Transactions of the RHS 12 (2002), 158

[2] All quotes from Cato/Philalethes, Two letters, the one concerning the present sentiments of the people of Great Britain, particularly with respect to Mr. Knight, late cashier of the South Sea Company. The other containing a comparison between the suicide of the ancient Romans and that so frequent of late among the English. The former directed to the author of The London journal. The latter directed to Mr. Mist (Edinburgh, 1721)

[3] Matthew Thomas Symonds, ‘Grub Street Culture: the newspapers of Nathaniel Mist, 1716-1737’, UCL PhD thesis (2013) pp.109-10

[4] Michael MacDonald and Terence R Murphy, Sleepless Souls: Suicide in Early Modern England (Oxford, 1993), pp.305-7

[5] Symonds, ‘Grub Street Culture’, p.118

[6] See various works by ‘Cato’: A letter to the people of England, occasioned by the letter to the dissenters (London, 1714); Serious and cleanly mediations upon a house of office (London, 1723); Patriotism: A Political Satire (London, 1767). All available via Eighteenth Century Collections Online

William Hogarth, The South Sea Scheme(c.1721)




Letter to the London Journal, National Library of Scotland