For Kitty Jay

This is the final resting place of Kitty Jay.

The site, known as Jay’s Grave lies on the edge of Dartmoor, in England’s West Country. No one really knows the full story of her life, as the details have been lost in time, but the tragic tale usually goes something like this.

Kitty Jay was a teenage orphan, probably in the late 1700s, who was given a job in a local farm as an apprentice and later became pregnant by the farmer’s son. Some stories say she fell in love, others that she was raped, but either way, was considered to be an outcast, such was the attitude of the time.

In despair, she hung herself at the farm and this is where she lies. Although we know little about her life, we can infer a few things from her last moments from her now peaceful resting place.

Suicide, then usually referred to as self-murder, was a stigmatised act in the 1700s. In an article on the changing attitudes towards suicide at the time, historian Michael MacDonald describes how:

Self-murderers were tried posthumously by a coroner’s jury, and if they were found to have been responsible for their actions savage penalties were enforced against them and their families. They were declared to have been felones de se, felons of themselves: their chattels, like those of other felons, were forfeited to the crown and placed at the disposal of the king’s almoner or the holder of a royal patent. Their bodies were denied the usual rites of Christian burial. By ancient custom, based on popular lore, the corpses of suicides were interred at a crossroads or in some other public way, laid face down in the grave with a wooden stake driven through them leading to both penalties for the family – mainly the confiscation of property – and spiritual punishment for the deceased, as they were not allowed to be buried on consecrated ground.

The influence of the devil was thought to be key, part of the reason self-murderers were reviled, but this involved a psychological judgement of the deceased. The devil could only tempt those who had the power of reason:

The state of mind of self-killers at the time that they committed their fatal deed was crucial. Men and women who slew themselves when they were mad or otherwise mentally incompetent were not guilty of their crime. Edmund Wingate explained concisely that suicides had to be sane and to take their lives intentionally to be guilty of self-murder: “He is felo de se that doth destroy himself out of premeditated hatred against his own life, or out of a humour to destroy himself’. Idiots or lunatics who were insane when they killed themselves were judged non compos mentis by the coroner’s jury and spared both the secular and the religious punishments for suicide.

Attitudes softened as time went on, however, and by the time of Kitty’s presumed death, the courts declared that most suicides were due to insanity.

Kitty, it seems, was an exception. She was presumably judged sane, and therefore wicked, and buried at a crossroads. Perhaps the fact that she lacked a family meant the coroner’s jury had little incentive to show her leniency.

Her grave, however, is peaceful. It has always had flowers. Legend has it that Dartmoor pixies place them there, but it was known that author Beatrice Chase took the responsibility for many decades.

I have seen Jay’s Grave many times, as it is a regular resting place for walkers, but in recent years it has been resplendent with floral tributes.

Like the Cross Bones graveyard in London, it has become a point of remembrance for forgotten and abandoned people, in the hope that our collective crimes of convenient amnesia are not repeated.

I visited this morning with my father and, for the first time, we left flowers.

Link to Wikipedia page on Jay’s grave.

3 Comments

  1. Romeo Vitelli
    Posted March 25, 2010 at 9:10 pm | Permalink

    The laws surrounding suicide were slow to change. The last crossroad burial (also called ignominious burial) in the UK took place in the early 19th century. Property of suicides was confiscated by the state (unless it could be proven that it had occurred in a fit of madness). Either was also a terrible legacy for family members since suicide was considered to be hereditary.

    http://drvitelli.typepad.com/providentia/2008/08/lord-londonderr.html

  2. Katherine
    Posted March 25, 2010 at 10:50 pm | Permalink

    Touching post…I wasn’t aware of Cross Bones either until now. Thanks Vaughan.

  3. Andrew Keet
    Posted November 18, 2010 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

    If I am not mistaken, England was part of the Roman Catholic Church in the latter part of the 1700’s and to this day, the Roman Catholics believe it is morally wrong to commit suicide and still has great stigma attached to it so Kitty Jay must have been in a terrible predicament to have taken her own life, may she rest in peace. http://www.england.org.za


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