Sunday, January 30, 2011

February 17, 1856 --- Suicide of a Banker

A body is found on frozen Hampstead Heath, near a bog behind the pub Jack Straw's Castle.  From papers, the dead man is identified as John Sadlier, a respected Irish banker and MP for Sligo. The body is cold and stiff and at its side lay a bottle of "Essential Oil of Almonds" clearly labeled POISON.  He was 42.

At first, the news is greeted with shock. Described as "ambitious to an extraordinary degree," Sadlier had amassed a fortune through investments in railroads and banking, yet he lived simply and shunned the fashionable world. Friends attribute his suicide to overwork; "the unfortunate man's brain had become overexcited by the multiplicity and extent of his speculations." The Sadlier myth is shattered at the inquest with the reading of a letter he'd had left behind at his London home in Gloucester Square. In part, he wrote: "I cannot live. I have ruined too many. I could not live and see their agony." He had just learned that his largest creditor had discovered that many of the securities he held for Sadlier's debts were forgeries.

Within days of Sadlier's death, his Tipperary Bank collapsed, taking to ruin thousands of depositors, most of them poor folk from Ireland's West Country. Angry mobs besieged the local banks but to no purpose but the venting of their anger and tears.  Sadlier had lost hundreds of thousands of pounds in the collapse of the railway mania, especially abroad. The Ulster Banner reported: "The feeling of sympathy produced by the first announcement of his fate has been succeeded by a universal burst of indignation." Citing a line from Sadlier's note, "Oh! that I had resisted the first attempts to launch me into speculation," The Times adds, "There are many of the English public who would do well to lay seriously to heart the dying words of John Sadlier."  When Dickens created Merdle, the unscrupulous financier in Little Dorrit, the member for Sligo served as his model.

Curiously, although Sadlier's body was identified at the inquest, many of his victims suspected he'd faked his death somehow and fled to foreign parts to live and enjoy his tainted fortune. As late as 1868, The Times reported that "half Ireland" still believed the legend.

(From the biography, written by James O'Shea - Geography Publications 1999.)

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