I spent this morning searching for a man from the past.
On 5 February 1915 a Scottish solicitor called John Starkey Saunders died of a gun shot wound to the head.
For a gentleman employed in a respectable profession in the early part of the 20th Century, this was an unusual demise.
Thanks to the enthusiasm and helpfulness of a librarian in the local history section of Perth’s A K Bell library, I managed to view several Perth newspapers dating back to February 1915.
After a fruitless search in one particular paper, I was rewarded when looking at another, with the front page headline news –
“MR JOHN S SAUNDERS DEAD
Lawyer – Politician – Writer – Gentleman
Useful Life Cut Short – Striking Tributes”
This was more like it.
The obituary was extensive, taking up four columns and including a photograph of said Mr Saunders.
The gun shot death was described as an ‘unfortunate accident’, in which Mr Saunders had unexpectedly shot himself.
He was a member of a shooting club and the previous evening he had attended a shooting match with his chums. The match took place in the Perth club but they were using miniature rifles borrowed from the Scone (pronounced Skoon, a wee town outside Perth) club.
The match went off nicely, they all had a jolly time, and Mr Saunders took his miniature rifle back to his office where he secured it under lock and key, ready to return it to Scone the next evening.
The next day he went about his business as usual, indugling in various legal toings and froings, and then as everyone in the office was preparing to leave for the day the noise of a shot came from his room.
According to the Perthshire Courier, this was what happened:
“He put on his coat and hat, and recalled his journey to Scone. Accordingly, with business-bag in hand, he lifted the rifle from its resting place and turned out the light. In the process of this action the rifle, in all probability, swung in his hand, and, coming in contact with the chandelier, discharged the shot which penetrated the side of his head.”
The paper also stated that the gun contained one bullet that Mr Saunders hadn’t realised was still in the gun.
But Mr Saunders, being a member of the shooting club, was presumably a regular user of firearms. He would therefore, surely, know if all of the bullets had been discharged, he would also be very careful to make sure the gun was safe to handle. Would he really have allowed it to ‘swing in his hand’ in such a way that it came into contact with a light fitting causing the leftover bullet to enter the side of his head?
I find it hard to believe, and I said as much to the librarian.
She explained to me that in those days, as is often still the case today, it was considered blasphemous to overrule the will of God by taking your own life. For that reason suicides were not reported in the newspaper. There was also the question of insurance, which would not be paid out after suicide.
Why am I writing about this?
Well, the first reason is that a friend of mine is researching the Saunders family and asked me if I could find any newspaper reference to this death. With it having happened in Perth, which is my neck of the woods, it was easier for me to research this than for him.
Secondly, and this is what has delighted and surprised me today, I am intrigued to find out more about this chap.
This, I think, is what’s interesting about genealogy. John Starkey Saunders isn’t related to me, he’s not even related to the friend I’m doing the research for, but he has an interesting story to tell and life is all about stories. Children understand the importance of stories, but as adults we often forget.
As someone attempting to become a writer of stories, I’m now wondering about a story revolving around John Starkey Saunders. The more I find out about him the more interesting a fellow he seems. He died aged only 39 but with a wealth of experience and achievements behind him. He was a successful lawyer, policitian, public speaker, sportsman, churchman and writer. He even wrote a column for his local paper entitled “Random Notes”, which is something I’m keen to get a look at. I could easily have given this blog the same title.
Stories survive long after the people who wrote or contributed to them have gone and there’s something very reassuring about that, whether you’re the star turn yourself, or just a writer recording the details.