- Accidental Death:Lizzie Siddal and the Poetics of the Coroner’s Inquest
“Accidentally and casually and by misfortune.” Such was the verdict of an inquest on the death of “Elizabeth Eleanor Rossetti” (née Elizabeth Siddall, later Siddal) held on 13 February 1862, two days after she died, having “accidentally [taken] an overdose of Laudanum.”1 On 14 February, the Daily News reported the “Death of a Lady from an Overdose of Laudanum,” including most of the testimonies from the inquest and closing with a succinct verdict: “The jury returned a verdict of Accidental Death.” A newspaper in Sheffield printed a similar notice. The coroner and the press seemed to dispose of all doubts about the cause of Siddal’s death (Hunt 312). The inquest had been brief and uncomplicated; the case was closed. On 17 February, Siddal was buried—along with a notebook of unpublished manuscript poems by her widower, a bereft Dante Gabriel Rossetti (DGR).
In 1869, her coffin was famously unclosed, exhumed to recover DGR’s manuscript. So had, in the intervening years, the inquest’s verdict of “accidental death” been reopened for scrutiny. Rumours circulated about Lizzie’s death as a possible suicide, whether to end her misery after a recent stillborn daughter, to lash out at DGR for emotional abuse and philandering, or to make a desperate cry for help. Oscar Wilde suggested that an exasperated DGR had murdered Lizzie by pushing a bottle of laudanum into her hands (Hawksley 205). On the title page of the early biography The Wife of Rossetti, Violet Hunt quotes from an alleged suicide note that Lizzie had pinned to her nightgown: “My life is so miserable I wish no more of it.”2 The note was supposedly destroyed, the evidence suppressed to avoid the scandal of Lizzie’s self-murder and its implications for her family.3 Jan Marsh has thoroughly discredited these rumours and instead historicized to whom they mattered and why.4 Nonetheless, the legend endures that Lizzie’s death was not an accident but a tragic and exemplary Victorian suicide, a fulfillment of her role in John Everett Millais’s iconic painting Ophelia (1851–52).
I do not intend to settle the case but rather to argue that such cases were never settled. The question of Lizzie’s death—like all fatalities in which causes were either suspicious or not immediately clear—received a hearing at an [End Page 17] inquest, during which the coroner (in this case William Payne, Coroner of the City of London) and a jury of twenty-four men from his district were charged with viewing the body and, at a public trial, discovering causes and motives. Their reports became public record and a source of ready-made content for newspapers. Inquest reports were ubiquitous at the time but largely overlooked in criticism and literary history concerned with the inquest’s very contexts, including the public sphere, the gaze and the body, crime, suicide, sensationalism, and the periodical press, to name only a few. Accidents present an opportunity for reconsidering inquests; indeed, inquests may have been the most conspicuous public forum for adjudicating what accident meant. What does a verdict of accidental death decide?5 In Lizzie’s case, jurors worked on the thresholds of casual tragedy and premeditation, with material consequences following their verdict’s certainty. I return to Siddall’s inquest not to suggest the verdict was wrong but instead to suggest how inquest verdicts were always statements of doubt, leaving open possibilities for their historical and imaginative reconsideration.
The coroner’s inquest was the site of significant debates about what professions and standards of evidence would govern the emerging biopolitics of nineteenth-century Britain (Burney). Those debates revealed dissatisfaction with, among other things, the failure of coroners’ verdicts to deliver hard facts. Conservative legal scholars and records keepers complained that inquest verdicts such as “natural causes” or “visitation of God” or “accidentally, casually, and by misfortune” were not causal statements but simply phrases whose variance made them difficult to establish as precedent or to normalize as data (Burney 68). In Lizzie’s case, it was only after her death that mortality statistics for laudanum...