Tuesday, July 2, 2013

"Death By Sherlock" - The Thames Ditton Tragedy of 1894.

The Cemetery, St. Nicholas Church, Thames Ditton, Surrey.

One of many headstones still standing in the grounds of the Norman church of St. Nicholas,Thames Ditton, Surrey, marks the grave of a young Australian. His name was Lloyd Burdekin and he died in Thames Ditton, aged 20, just before Christmas. 1894.

Lloyd, an Oxford scholar, had lodged alone in the house of Mr. & Mrs. Fiveash for nine months, some time after dropping out of university. His premature death was reported at length in several Australian and New Zealand newspapers.

This post presents a transcript of the South Australia Chronicle's report of Saturday 9 February, 1895. I have introduced its penultimate paragraph from an otherwise identical report in "The Star" of February 8.
The original may be viewed HERE

The Transcript.



[From our Special Correspondent.]

London, December 29, 1894.

The sensation of this dolorous Christmas season from, an Anglo-colonial point of view is the suicide of young Lloyd Burdekin, who shot himself at his lodgings at Thames Ditton last Thursday under somewhat remarkable circumstances.
 Deceased was the son of Sidney Burdekin, said to be 'the well-known New South Wales millionaire,' and had, so far as can be ascertained, no earthly reason for wanting to take his life. He possessed plenty of money, was described by the manager of the Bank of New South Wales at the inquest as 'a careful, cautious boy, who had never had any troubles, financial or otherwise,' and seemed absolutely sane.
 His landlady said Burdekin had lived' at Thames Ditton nine months, was reserved and quiet in demeanour and habits, and drank only milk. She knew of no young woman in whom he was interested.
 Burdekin suffered badly from cacoethes scribendi, and left behind an enormous number of letters, in which morbid vanity and a desire to pose as an individual with a Sherlock Holmesian mind are leading characteristics. It looks, indeed, from the epistles read at the inquest, as though a too ardent appreciation of the works of Dr. Conan Doyle had turned Burdekin's brain.
 Deceased must have begun by planning how he would commit suicide so as to mislead people supposing he should ever desire to make away with himself. The more he thought about it the more (no doubt) he became enamoured of the scheme. At length its actual execution began to tempt him, and then the lad's brain, which can never have been strong, must have given way.
 Before shooting himself he wrote a big batch of letters. Two were to his parents. They were very brief, the lad merely asking for forgiveness from ''the dearest and sweetest of parents,' and saying that he left a full statement for them through Mr. George. In a letter to that gentleman the deceased said:

'December 19, 1894. Dear Mr. George— I have taken my life with my own hands in perfect sanity of mind. Directly Mrs. Fiveash discovers my body I have left the strictest orders that you shall be telegraphed for at once. When you arrive I wish you to take supreme control, both of the matters relating to the death and also of all my own personal affairs. With regard to the death I have taken my life deliberately, and have carefully planned so that the manner of the death itself may be thought a pure accident by the world. I wish the verdict of the jury to be 'Accidental death,' so as to spare my family from the name of suicide.
 When you enter this house first see the body, leaving it untouched, and the things lying around undisturbed. This is very important for the theory of accident Then carefully read these letters and arrange the line of policv you mean to carry out. Dr. Starkey, a very able man, and one in whose judgement my parents place the greatest reliance, will be telegraphed for at the same time as you are. He is a man of the strongest common sense, and will give you great help and loyal assistance in the matter. Read the letters carefully.
 In one letter you will see the whole theory of the accident as it is to be placed before the court, the press, and the public. Read that letter as you stand by the side of the dead body. It is the chart explaining the position of the body, and of the details lying around. It is as though the silent mouth were to open and to tell you the whole affair. You will not be able to understand it unless you do as I wish you ; that is, read it beside the body and follow every line as though it were a plan, and you will find that it corresponds exactly to what you see before your eyes.
The letter itself— in fact, all these letters — must be kept a profound secret from the public and the press. The death itself must be thought entirely unpremeditated ; in fact, every circumstance of the case has been planned with -the purpose of seemingly contradicting flatly any idea of suicide, and to throw dust in the eyes of. the public. The letter itself must be shown to Dr. Starkey and to the lawyer employed in my defence, and to no one else.
Before you leave this house, dear Mr. George, talk the matter over with the lawyer and Starkey. Decide what is best to be done, and carefully arrange the one simple line of policy you mean to carry out. Mrs. Fiveash can be implicitly trusted, and will give you great help. Make her thoroughly understand how important it is that there should be no gossip until after the verdict of the inquest. A verdict of accidental death should be very easy to win. Every single circumstance seems to point to it, if you can only stop the Fiveashes from gossiping. Tell them that they must have no knowledge of these letters ; that the telegram dispatched after my death must have been sent of their own free will from knowing that you and Starkey were my only friends. Tell them not to talk about this affair, to keep the neighbours, journalists, police, &c, out of the house, and that the public must think that it was a pure accident. Sir George Lewis is the proper lawyer for the case.- For God's Sake keep the case from all scandal. I can give you no more counsel about my death. The affair is before you, and you must do as you think best.”

The letter concluded with various instructions as to the disposal of his property. So that it should not be thought that he had no money he asked that the amount of £25. for which he-was indebted to his landlady, should be paid to her from his own account at the bank. His jewellery, books, clothes, &c, he bequeathed to various people, and he finally asked that all his papers should be destroyed, and on no account be allowed to get into the hands of strangers.

Emma Fiveash, of Fern cottages, Western green, Thames Ditton, stated that deceased had lodged with her since March, 1893. He. was reserved, but she had never noticed any thing strange in his behaviour. On Wednesday night she left him writing letters, and when she saw him in the morning he was still writing. He had been up all night. He had arranged to go to London, and about half-past 1 she went to ask him by what train he was going, and found him lying on his side on the floor, in front of the dressing table, with a wound on his forehead. There was a revolver beneath him. He was not dead, and she sent for Dr. Senior, who attended him until he died at half-past 9 the same night.
 There were three or four papers pinned to the looking-glass. One of them contained instru tions for her to telegraph to Dr. Starkey and Mr. George to 'come immediately to Lloyd Burdekin' who was 'seriously ill'. Another paper contained most minute and detailed instructions as to what she was to do on hearing the explosion in order to promote the impression that death was the result of a pure accident. Witness had no idea that deceased contemplated suicide.

The coroner read the letter, which began as. follows : —

'Dear Mrs. Fiveash — I have committed suicide, but for the honour of the family it must be thought an accident. I have carefully planned the affair so that the press and public will think that death was a pure accident, caused by carelessly handling the revolver and the trigger catching in the boot laces. I have chosen the very time when everything will favour this idea. My break fast will be waiting on the sitting-room table. My clothes will be brushed and packed up as if to start for London. I shall be discovered sitting half-dressed on a chair before the looking-glass, with the drawers of the dressing table open before me. Out of the drawer I shall have taken a pair of gloves, and on the glass will be a bootlace, with the end very furry. The bootlace is very important ; remember that on the bootlace hangs the whole theory of the accident. The theory I wish to make the public and the press believe is this — I shall be found sitting dead. My left hand will lie pressed into a boot, out of which I have taken the bad lace and replaced it by a new lace, which will be found threaded into two or three lace holes of the boot. All bootlaces are kept in the revolver drawer. Seeing the revolver, which is supposed to lie unloaded, in the drawer, I have stopped lacing the boot for a moment, and so have taken out the revolver with my right band to look at it. Suddenly the thought has flashed across my mind of the toy; pistol fatality of Clapham last week, in which Miss Cayzer shot herself accidentally, and about which I have spoken to you several times. You must remember this carefully, as it clearly shows that I believed my revolver to be empty, and to support that view of the case I have taken care that there shall be only one cartridge in the barrels. Thinking of this Clapham case, I carelessly place the revolver against my right temple. Some of the laces in the drawer, I must tell you, tangled round the trigger and hammer of the revolver. It will never be known whether my finger pulled the trigger or whether the laces pulled hack the hammer, but one fact is very plain — the revolver went off somehow, and as there happened by the greatest ill-luck in the world to be one cartridge in the barrel, the revolver exploded, the bullet went into my brain and killed me dead. That is my whole plan. It is so simple and natural that everybody will believe it.'

Dr. Senior said that the revolver must have been held close to the head, as the wound was scorched. Death was due to haemorrhage of the brain. The jury returned a verdict of “Suicide whilst temporarily insane”.

Suicide meant to be effective has an awkward way of missing its effect In no single point did Burdekin's elaborate deception succeed. His letters, instead of convincing the jury of his sanity, had the opposite effect. They found, in fact, that he had committed suicide whilst temporarily insane.

South Australia Chronicle Sat 9 Feb 1895.

It must. I think, be concluded the writer has given a Sherlockian spin to events for, by contrast, The Age for February 2, 1895, recounts the tragedy with more factual detail and no mention of Holmes or Conan Doyle. Click HERE for that account.

 Without access to the many letters alluded to in both articles, it cannot be assumed Lloyd Burdekin modelled himself directly on the fictional detective.

The Antipodean newspapers of the time do however have some points of interest for the Sherlockian. I began to read them on-line in the fruitless search for evidence supporting the myth that London city clerks took to the streets with mourning bands on arms and hats to protest the "murder" of their favourite detective in The Final Problem.

In general, I found rather an understanding acceptance that Doyle wished rightly to turn his pen to other projects. Indeed, more than one commentator thought it long overdue. 

What is crystal clear, however, is that, by 1894, Doyle was world-famous and Sherlock Holmes had passed into the language. I read several stories of true crimes and mysteries reported in Australia and New Zealand in which either someone is congratulated for showing Holmesian acumen or regret is expressed that no Sherlock Holmes was on hand to solve the case. I've noted such references in contemporary American newspapers too.

The writer of the article transcribed above was, I sense, employing a readily-identifiable short-hand very familiar to readers in attributing to the young suicide 'a Sherlock Holmesian mind'.

Lloyd Burdekin comes across as well- educated, very intelligent, ingenious and given both to introspection and elaborate, fantastical webs of thought. He is alone, in another country, a drop-out from Oxford. Doubtless, if it were not for his father's standing and the bank manager's perseverance, he might have disappeared for ever with that mysterious removal to Thames Ditton.

We gather (for whatever reason) he posed as one 'Power', a tutor. He lead a modest, even frugal existence, without apparent worries...or friends, male or female.

These elements conspired to bring about such extremity of introspection that proportion and perspective were tragically lost.

It is worth pausing to consider a Holmes alone. Perhaps Jonny Lee Miller's portrayal in the CBS Elementary series illustrates a Sherlock at his most vulnerable. Without the participation in reality prompted by Joan Watson and Inspector Lestrade, there but for the grace of God was a potential Lloyd Burdekin.

It has always seemed to me that Watson (and for that matter, 221b and Mrs. Hudson) are intrinsic to the agency's success and health. They bring an everyday concreteness to the (necessary) abstractions of Holmesian thinking. Frequently experienced by Holmes as irritating, they function not only as conductors of light but just as importantly as trusted and loved fixed points earthing a friend and ensuring the Great Detective operates on an even keel.

Perhaps at root Lloyd Burdekin died of starvation from that social interaction Doctor Doyle instinctively saw as a necessary balance to thinking like Sherlock Holmes and embodied in Dr. Watson.     

Lucy Liu & Jonny Lee Miller - CBS Elementary's Watson & Holmes.




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