A Strange Suicide

When an on-duty constable patrolling the harbour on 11th March 1894 noticed something in the water at King William Dock, he quickly called for assistance in dragging it out of the water.  When the object was lifted to shore, they quickly realised that what they had pulled out of the Dock was a human body – very much dead.  So dead, in fact, that the local newspaper reported that it ‘gave considerable evidence of having been a considerable time in the water’.  With the body off to the mortuary, a search was made of his pockets, which revealed a letter addressed to a female correspondent in Calcutta and a pawn ticket in the name of William Panioty, amongst other small items.  By the afternoon, an acquaintance of the dead man, Alexander Brown identified the body as belonging to Mr Panioty, a clerk who worked in Calcutta.  Mr Panioty was aged around 40, and had went missing on 3rd February after returning to Dundee on a steamer around 23rd January.  He stayed on board the steamer for almost a week before lodging at the Sailors House and then in private lodgings in Dundee.  Mr Panioty was supposed to be heading to the Isle of Wight to see his grandmother, but for some unknown reason, he decided to stay in the city; perhaps he was just enjoying himself so much he wanted to extend his visit to Dundee!

Mr Brown had more to add to the tale, however, which added a bit more interest to the case beyond an accidental drowning.  Mr Brown told police that Mr Panioty had visited his home on 31st January and seemed to be in his ‘usual health and spirits’, which we must assume was jovial, as, at this point, Mr Brown had no cause for concern.  On 2nd February, however, Mr Panioty met with another member of Mr Brown’s family on the streets of Dundee and passed over a sealed envelope for Mr Brown, with explicit instructions not to open it until the following day.  The request was so strange that the Brown family failed to adhere to the instruction, and instead decided to open the letter that evening.  In it, Mr Panioty spoke of his lack of interest in life and that he intended suicide on the date of the letter, 2nd February.  His intention was, that by the time the letter had been read, he would have already done the deed and nobody would be in a position to try and stop him.

Obviously alarmed, having not detected anything on Mr Panioty’s last visit that would have led them to this conclusion, the Brown family immediately began a search of Dundee, walking all over the city, but to no avail.  They asked about him at the railway station and were told that some guards had seen him a few days prior to this, and he was discussing leaving for London very shortly.  The guards seemed to think Panioty was also in good spirits, and believed he had boarded a train for London.  Feeling a bit more relieved, and putting the letter down to no more than a drunken rant or a moment of temporary madness, the Browns returned home and did not think of the incident again until the morning of 11th March when Mr Brown identified the body pulled from the Docks.

Based on the decomposition of the body in water, it was estimated that Mr Panioty died on either the night of 2nd February or the early hours of the following morning.  When officers opened the letter in his pocket, addressed to his female correspondent, Mrs Duncan, it seemed to further confirm the theory that he had indeed killed himself.   In it, he made various statements that he intended to put an end to his life and that he was tired of life itself.  He wrote that she need not be surprised if she never heard from him again – but this was a letter she never received.  No mention is made in the article as to whether anyone informed Mrs Duncan, and, indeed, there is no mention of what happened to his body.  If his family were in the Isle of Wight, perhaps the body was taken there, or perhaps it was buried somewhere in Dundee; the story seems to raise more questions than it answered.

On the surface, it looks like a case of suspected suicide, corroborated by 2 letters written by the deceased.  But what if the letters weren’t written by him at all, but were perhaps written by someone else – someone who may, in fact have murdered him and put his body in the water?  If this is the case, then surely suspicion must fall on Mr Brown, who also happened to be in possession of a letter (which we have to assume, once again, was in the same handwriting as the letter to Mrs Duncan).  With no other handwriting evidence to go on, was it also just assumed that this was Mr Panioty’s handwriting?  Did Mr Brown inform the police at all after their search concluded that Mr Panioty did indeed go to London, or did he wait until the body had been found?  None of this is documented, frustratingly, and for us, leaves us thirsting for more information.  Perhaps we’re just too sceptical and this is just a case of a man, down on his luck and at a terrible point in his life, intending to take his own life, but, to us, this has the smell of a murder cover-up all over it.

Dundee Advertiser, Monday March 12, 1894, British Newspaper Archives Online.