Academic journal article The Historian

"Reported to Be Distracted": The Suicide of Puritan Entrepreneur Peter Cole

Academic journal article The Historian

"Reported to Be Distracted": The Suicide of Puritan Entrepreneur Peter Cole

Article excerpt

ON THE FOURTH OF DECEMBER IN 1665, prominent London bookseller and printer Peter Cole hanged himself from the rafters of his warehouse in Leadenhall Street. Richard Smyth noted in his famous Obituary that Cole was "reported to be distracted," and he surely had cause. (1) Business pressures, illness, and tumultuous political issues disturbed an already volatile spirit. This article investigates the suicide of Peter Cole within the context of the cutthroat world of partisan publishing in Restoration London and examines why he sought relief in death by his own hand. Despite his prominence in the world of print, Cole's story has never been fully explored before, yet his life and the circumstances surrounding his death provide a case study of the book business and the controversial texts it produced, as well as an insight into changing attitudes toward suicide in mid-seventeenth-century England. Peter Cole made a substantial fortune principally as a publisher of popular medical advice in English, challenging the authority of collegiate physicians and manifesting Cole's lifelong crusade against any established hierarchy. An outspoken Puritan and antielitist republican, he surely anticipated the legal and financial consequences of killing himself while a Stuart king ruled and so constructed a strategy to help his beneficiaries avoid those consequences. Ironically, Cole's notoriety and business pugnacity undermined his ultimate wishes by making his death notable and the manner of his demise newsworthy.

Although suicide was not uncommon in Stuart England, it was a civil and religious crime, a felony (felo de se) calling for penalties to be exacted from the deceased and his survivors. (2) Coroner's juries declared suicides murderers and confiscated their property on behalf of the crown. The king's almoner, who collected these forfeitures, often met resistance or delay from beneficiaries of the departed, and derelict families of suicides were prosecuted. Moreover, traditional religious beliefs demanded that suicides be treated as rational criminals who spurned God and yielded to the devil. Suicides despaired, contrary to unsentimental Protestant belief in salvation by faith, and many of them, according to clerical complaints, turned in their final days to witches for relief and recovery; some said Satan personally tempted them to self-murder. (3) The Church of England, like the Roman Catholic Church, denied burial in consecrated ground to suicides, regarding their actions as spiritually polluting and interring their bodies outside the churchyard or at crossroads, sometimes pierced through the heart with a stake to contain their restless souls. (4)

Suicide was a trap, however, which snared even the godly. Given the considerable religious turmoil in seventeenth-century England, sanctions exerted less effect over personal conduct. Puritans denounced suicide, but the spiritual demands of Calvinism sowed seeds of self-doubt and self-loathing in the consciences of some who fell short, in their own judgment, of the standards of sainthood. (5) Using the London bills of mortality, S. E. Sprott has asserted that Puritanism itself generated an epidemic of suicide in the capital. (6) He was not the first to do so; antisectarians after the Restoration routinely charged Puritans with insanity of the sort that leads to self-destruction. Those seeking for their own denominational purposes to encourage Anglican conformity often blamed melancholic vapors for "generating delusions and apparitions so powerful that their [Puritan] possessors felt they came from heaven." Even celebrated physicians commented that the delusions of religious melancholiacs would ultimately terminate in madness and suicide. (7)

Puritan artisan Nehemiah Wallington tired of battling temptation when he was only twenty and contemplated leaping out of a window or cutting his own throat to escape the constant barrage of evil desires in the metropolis. Wallington did not want to draw attention to his despair, but tried to hide his self-destructive impulses so as not to embarrass his family. …

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