Labouring under temporary insanity

While searching the British Newspaper Archive for relevant family members in West Grinstead and Shipley I happened upon a report of the inquest of the death of one Edward Freeman in December 1841.

Edward Freeman
Sussex Advertiser – Monday 13 December 1841. Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.


Now this name rang bells with me.  I realised that he had witnessed the marriage of my great great grandparents Caroline Osborne and Thomas Mitchell.  He also witnessed the second marriage of her older brother Caleb.  Their younger sister Sarah Anne married a John Freeman in 1845, so I wondered whether there was a connection there.

Now Caleb, Caroline and Sarah Anne’s father was also called Caleb and was a cordwainer by trade.  According to the newspaper report Edward Freeman was also a cordwainer, and the 1841 census reveals that he lived near the Burrell Arms in West Grinstead.

It’s a sad report.  It seems that he was “subect to excessive hypochondriac attacks”.  Perhaps today he might have been diagnosed with depression.  We glean some information about his working and living situation:  he had a ‘shop’, employed a journeyman, and had a wood house with a loft over it.  His wife (who it turns out was Ann, née Harris) had gone out for the day to work, but their teenage son William was  at home.  Edward was found “hanging by a cord to a rafter” in the aforementioned loft.  The verdict returned was that he “deprived himself of his existence whilst labouring under temporary insanity”.

Coincidentally I had been listening to a podcast on The National Archives site on Coroners’ Inquests – a talk given by Kathy Chater in 2012.  These podcasts are worth dipping into for useful background information .  Kathy asserts that the local paper is often the best and fullest source of information arising from an inquest, and I think this report is a good example of that.  She points out that a verdict of intentional suicide would mean the deceased could not be buried in consecrated ground, so here the verdict of “temporary insanity” is important.  A quick check of the West Grinstead burials on the Sussex Family History Group website reveals that Edward was indeed buried in the churchyard, four days after the inquest.

Further delving on the SFHG website reveals Edward Freeman’s baptism in West Grinstead in 1789 and the baptisms of his children Elizabeth, William and Edward.  Unfortunately it would seem that the John Freeman who married Sarah Anne was unrelated, having come from Thakeham.

But there is more:  on looking through the marriages on my West Grinstead CD (Sussex Parish Register Transcripts) I discover that Edward Freeman was some sort of professional witnesser of marriages.  From 1820 he was witnessing every other West Grinstead marriage, it seems.  Perhaps he was paid to act in this capacity.  The last marriage he witnessed was just under a month before his death.

How sad, that someone who was witness to so much joy in other people’s lives should have suffered so much that he took his own life.