You’re a Christian in eighteenth century Europe. Life becomes so unbearable that you don’t want to live. According to your religious beliefs, however, when you commit suicide, you are damned for all time. What to do?
But wait! Not if you murder someone else. You may be hanged for homocide, but you can repent on the gallows, obtain absolution, and spend eternity with Jesus in heaven. Voila!
This was the reasoning of a number of people from around 1612 to 1839. They no longer wanted to live, but in order to avoid an eternity of hellfire, they decided to commit murder instead.
But these were not uncaring people. In their “kindness,” they often killed an innocent child, one whose pure soul would enable him to go straight to heaven himself. (One woman slit a boy’s throat so severely, she said she could “look down into his neck,” in her own words.)
Once the deed was done, they immediately went to the authorities to report their crime, and await execution. A win-win.
I first heard about this convoluted thinking on PBS’s This American Life. Last August, the episode entitled “Loopholes” featured Kathy Stuart of the University of California Davis who has researched this phenomenon known as “suicide by proxy.”
Stuart discovered about 300 of these cases that occurred over 200+ years, usually committed by women. Some, she noted, did not even express regret over what they did. So how did that work? If they were not sorry, how could they be forgiven and escape damnation?
The priests or ministers at the gallows would often ask, “Do you think God can be fooled in this manner? You know that by doing this you actually have committed suicide.”
The perpetrators agreed, according to Kathy Stuart. But the accused merely confessed these crimes as well—and then repented. Problem solved.
Officials were frustrated by this trend and, in 1702, made the executions more painful and shaming. Nope. Didn’t work. These people were looking to die; they didn’t care.
In 1767, courts went so far as to take away the very incentive for the horrific crime—they removed the death penalty altogether. That should have stopped the behavior in its tracks. And yet, it continued.
Beyond understanding, the practice did not end until the next century. “It really seems like people didn’t get the memo,” Stuart says.
Sooo, they killed a small child, confessed, repented, and spent their even more miserable lives in some hole of a prison. Obviously, these “desperate housewives” were not as clever as they thought. The “dumb criminals” of yore.