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1861: Determined suicide at Cuckfield

Updated: Dec 4, 2023

Warning: Please note the newspaper article reveals some distressing details of this tragic event

Brighton Herald

Saturday 14 December 1861

Determined suicide at Cuckfield

In our last number we had to record a fearful tragedy enacted at Slaugham, a village about 5 miles from Haywards Heath, by the wife of a farmer, named Agate, residing there, who had, in a fit of frenzy, murdered one of her three children, a little girl about five years old, and had also inflicted severe injuries on herself. Scarcely had the excitement caused by this event subsided, when another member of the Agate family deprived himself of life, without any apparent cause, unless such as may be supposed to arise from that temptation to follow a fatal example which is known to have a strong influence on some minds in a morbid state.

From information gathered by our reporter on the spot, we learn that the deceased's name is Steven Agate, and that he was about 60 years of age. He was a cousin of Mr John Agate, the husband of the unfortunate woman who now awaits her trial at the March assizes for the murder of her child.

The deed was perpetrated at Cuckfield, a town about two miles from the village of Slaugham, at which place the deceased carried on the business usually found united in country towns: those of draper and grocer. He had been married, but had been a widower for six years. He had six children, all daughters, three of whom are married to respectable tradesmen in various parts of the country, and the other three were residing at home with him.

The act was of a most determined character. Between 8:00 and 9:00 o'clock on Tuesday morning the report of a gun was heard to proceed from a hovel or wood-house adjoining the house in which Mr Stephen Agate and his family resided. Mr Bacon Jeffrey, nephew of the deceased, a tradesman at Cuckfield, and several other neighbours who were passing at the time, at once repaired to the spot, and the spectacle which presented itself to their eyes was of a most fearful nature. Mr Agate was found lying on the ground quite dead, the upper portion of his head and one cheek being entirely blown away. The tongue of deceased was also taken from its root and carried right away. By his side lay a gun, which had been recently discharged, and fastened to the trigger was a string formed at one end into a noose. The shoe of the deceased was inserted in this noose. According to all appearances, the wretched man had placed the muzzle off the loaded gun in his mouth, and had then deliberately drawn the trigger by pulling the string with his foot.

The deceased was a man who, in the eyes of his neighbours, was never known or suspected to be in difficulties. In the language of the villagers, he was said to have 'stuck to business' and seemed well to do. The only cause which can be suggested was having probably led him to commit the fatal act is, that his mind may have been affected by distress, arising from the calamity which had so lately befallen a branch of his family.

An inquest was held on the body at the Rose and Crown Inn, Cuckfield, on Wednesday, by F.H. Gell Esquire, coroner for East Sussex, when the following evidence was adduced:-

The Rose and Crown Inn (circa 1870) where the inquest was held

Joseph Bacon Jeffrey sworn: I am a farmer at Cuckfield. Deceased was my uncle. He was a general shopkeeper. I last saw him alive on Thursday night. I did not then notice anything particular in his appearance. I am not aware that deceased was subject to lowness of spirits. I hired some fields at the back of deceased's house. As I was passing through my fields between 8:00 and 9:00 o'clock on Tuesday morning, Miss Agate, deceased's eldest daughter, who was standing at the gate, called to me. She said her father was gone out with his gun and she couldn't think why he was not come back. I asked her if I should go in search of him? She requested me to do so. I did so.

The shop of deceased was not open then. It is generally open before that time. In my search for deceased, I first went to some men who were loading bricks a short distance from the house. I asked them if they had seen deceased passed this way. They said they had not. I then went to the lower part of deceased's garden, and from thence to a pond. Upon nearing the hovel I heard the report of a gun from the hovel. I then entered and found deceased lying on his right side. I did not stay to examine him, or the premises, but went out for assistance. Having got it, I went back to the hovel, and I then saw a gun lying by the side of deceased on the ground. There was a string attached to the trigger of the gun. The gun and string now produced by Superintendent Akehurst are the same. I observed that the right side of the face of deceased was much shattered, apparently from the explosion of a gun. The string was fastened to the trigger of the gun, when I saw it, as now shown. The string had a noose made at one end, which was entangled in the foot of deceased. I know of no cause that could have induced deceased to commit suicide. I cannot say whether he was in embarrassed circumstances. Deceased was a widower. He kept no domestic servant. Three of his daughters resided with him.

By a juror- I believe the gun to be a family prize.

Ellen Harriet Agate sworn: I reside with my father who kept a general shop at cook field. For several months past, his head had been much affected. He had no medical advice. I think it was a constitutional malady. It was, at times, attended by great lowness of spirits. He was of a quiet and reserved demeanour. The pains in his head increased upon him latterly. I have no reason to suppose he was in difficulties. I did not see him take the gun on Tuesday morning. At my request last witness went in search of deceased. The gun now produced is my father's. He kept it in his bedroom. I do not know where he stored his powder and shot. The usual time of opening the shop is 7 o'clock.

I was much surprised at not finding the shop open by that time on Tuesday morning. I had not the slightest idea that my father contemplated suicide. Deceased came to me on Sunday morning and told me he was suffering very much from his head. This time I notice a strange wildness in his eyes. His whole appearance was that of a person deranged. He was very strange in his conduct throughout the whole of Sunday last. He opened his shop as usual on Monday morning. He was decidedly more low spirited after this Slaugham occurrence than he was before it. He was continually speaking about it.

By a juror: deceased was subject to fits of late.

Elizabeth Croucher deposed: I am a widow, and reside at Cuckfield. I have known deceased for the last 10 years. I have been in frequent conversation with him. I have latterly heard him very much complain of pains in his head. I saw him alive last on Friday night. He then said he was suffering very much with his head. I recommended him to apply to Dr Byass. He said he should wait a few days, for it might go off again.

By a Juror: this conversation passed in deceased's shop.

William Wilkes sworn: I am a Cooper residing at Cuckfield. I am well acquainted with deceased. I saw him alive last on Monday morning. I went to his shop to purchase some goods. He began to talk, as he usually did, about foreign parts. He was talking about different persons committing suicide. He asked me what king it was that killed himself whom David superseded? I told him it was Saul. He replied, “he fell upon his sword; Do you think that was ordained by god?” I said I could not say, but no doubt it was a reprimand from God for his wickedness. Similar conversation had passed between us for some length of time. He appeared to be somewhat wandering in his talk.

By a juror: deceased was a very talkative person.

After hearing the evidence of Dr Byass, the medical man called in to examine the body of the deceased, the jury, without hesitation, returned a verdict of temporary insanity.

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