V13.5 – Willie Crowther (unmarked)

We stand here next to the grave of Willie Crowther – not the one with the beautiful light grey granite cross, but the unmarked space to the left of it. Yes, he is related to John Crowther, whose story you heard earlier… it is in fact his son. You will recall the statistic we gave you during his story about depression having a genetic link. While we cannot say for certain that is the case here, we believe it is worth bearing in mind.

Willie was unmarried and lived with his brother, also called John. Willie was the sexton for 24 years at Todmorden Parish Church. He was 48 years old in 1911 when he cut his own throat. This story breaks my [researcher Kara] heart so much, knowing these two brothers grew up without their father already, but knowing the circumstances around Willie’s suicide, it fills me with such sadness.

It came out during the inquest into his death that he had some 3 months previously lent his life savings to someone in order to start a business, and this had ended up being, so far as I can surmise, a scam. His savings
were completely gone. Now his daily accounts were all correct; in fact the Reverend Charles Paul Keeling, vicar of Todmorden, said that Willie brought his accounts to the vicar monthly, and that in the month before his suicide, every penny was accounted for and perfectly in order. It appears that Willie was a very conscientious man, and careful with his money. He was well known around Tod, and highly respected. To know he had been essentially robbed must have made him sick with worry for his future.

He confided his worries to his friend and boss, the vicar, who became increasingly worried about him. Dr Russell, a local physician, was contacted in May, but he and the vicar agreed that, although Willie had talked about taking his own life, they felt he had a better chance of recovery staying at home, rather than going to an asylum. They told his brother John to look after him, and all agreed that John could not have watched over him more carefully. Nonetheless, on Friday the 7 th of July, 1911, Willie was seen in the churchyard by his brother at
around 7pm. At about 10 past, John found Willie in a closet inside the church, standing on a chair, with a rope hanging from a beam. He said, “Oh Willie, what are you doing?” Willie replied, his last words that we know of… “I shall be forty years in misery.”

Willie hurried away from his brother, who pursued him, calling his name, but Willie must have rushed straight towards their home on Well Lane. By the time this person caught up, Willie’s mother had come running out into the street, screaming for help, but she was incoherent. Neighbours rushed inside and found Willie sitting at the table, hacking away at his own throat with a table knife. He lost a great deal of blood, but lingered on in this world until just before 6 am the following morning.

Close friends could not say what Willie meant by his last words, whether he referred to the past or the future, but I know he must have been looking toward his old age and wondering how he would manage, with no savings left. How it must have eaten at him over the months, how he must have berated himself for being a fool, even though every one agreed it was no fault of his own. Thankfully, the Reverend Keeling and Dr Russell staunchly testified that he was not in his right mind when he committed this act.

Scams are even more common now, if anything. Thanks to the internet, and society becoming every more depersonalized, a recent study showed that almost a fifth of the respondents said they had been victims of fraud to the tune of more than £1000. Almost all of these reported an immediate negative impact on their mental health. Little wonder. I read an interview with a fraud victim who said she felt “so ashamed and felt so stupid” and that when she “realised what was happening…the enormity of it all was overwhelming.” I can imagine these thoughts, like a cyclone in Willie’s mind, leaving him with no peace.

I hope you have peace now, my friend. We remember you for your integrity and your good nature,
as testified to by all who knew you. We remember you.

Willie Crowther – detail from a photograph in Roger Birch’s Todmorden Album vol. 4

The grave to the right, as we said, is of his brother John who took over as sexton and gravedigger from Willie after his tragic suicide. The family served the church for over 38 years in total, and were sincerely mourned after their deaths. Two very similar lives, begun in tragedy, following similar arcs, but very different ends: one honoured and remembered, and one forgotten. But not by us.

This story was part of our September 2023 Suicide Awareness Month Tour.

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