When a suicide pact went wrong
William Stanton had wanted to die. But his wife died instead
Early one morning in September, William Stanton heard footsteps coming up the stairs of his cottage in Somerset. He knew who it was, and panicked. “I shouted out: ‘Go away, Nigel, leave me to it, leave me to it!'”
Nigel, a neighbour and family friend, did not go away. He came into the bedroom and found Stanton in distress, and his wife Angela lying dead with a plastic bag over her head. The Stantons had made a pact to end their lives together, and put it into effect just days after the director of public prosecutions revealed how he would apply the law prohibiting assisted suicide. It did not work out as they planned, and stands as a terrible cautionary example for anybody thinking that self-inflicted death is easily arranged.
I met Stanton last week in the neat and pretty bedroom where Angela's body was found. I noted a commode in the corner and a trolley-load of pills beside Stanton, who was sitting up in bed. He is 79 and obviously unwell — his doctors say bone cancer will kill him in three to eight months — but he complained only that the pills make him lethargic. He is being looked after by one of his two daughters. She sits in with us but does not want to feature in the story, except to say, forcefully, that the strain on her father is immense, and this will absolutely be the only interview he does.
From his bed, the view from the window includes Glastonbury Tor in the distance and a garden whose beauty he credits entirely to his wife, using the present tense to describe Angela, as he does several times during our conversation.
“She finishes lunch, has a half-hour nap, then I see her tootle out. I know that she is up and at it — she can't keep still.”
His eyes moisten several times, particularly when he reads aloud an account he wrote, for their golden wedding anniversary in 2007, of his first glimpse of her in Kensington Gardens in 1953, and his efforts to get to know her. “I noticed a slim and shapely young female walking ahead of me,” he says. “I was in no hurry, so I slowed my pace. She spoke to a gardener and I noticed a pleasant smile.” He was delighted to see her going into the entrance of Imperial College, where he was a student. “Not entirely by accident I encountered her in the corridor, made some remark and was rewarded by that smile. “Later I followed her to South Kensington where she took the lift to the Piccadilly line. I ran down and bought a ticket to be beside her in the crowded platform. ‘Have I not seen you at the registry?' was my gambit.”
She was an optician's daughter, he learnt, from Hillingdon, five years younger than him, “and willing to go out with me one day after work”.
He puts the paper down carefully, tears falling down his face. Four years ago he was diagnosed with cancer. “For three years it didn't make a big difference, but a year ago I found I couldn't do odd jobs about the house. I was falling behind and not keeping up with what I might be expected to do.”
After Angela's suicide, the couple's daughters issued a statement saying that the strain of caring for William had just been too much for her. But that is not the whole story, because about two years ago — before his decline started — Angela said to him: “When you go, I want to go too.” He had not expected this. How did he respond? He pauses to remember, wrinkling his brow.
“I would have said: ‘Are you sure? How can you possibly be so sure?' She said: ‘We have been together for so long, I would not want to be left on my own to cope with a world that I was not familiar with.' “We thought, we have had a wonderful life and it was clearly coming to an end. Much better to go out on a high. Why let it be spoilt by all the pains of old age? Anyone sensible would say the same.”
As far as he is concerned, that view is perfectly understandable. But Angela was only 74, in good health, with many years ahead of her. He says she gave him no alternative. She always wanted to get on with something once she had made her mind up.
It took them a while to work out how they could kill themselves. Eventually Stanton remembered being taught, as a young geologist training for cave diving, that suffocating in the absence of carbon dioxide was painless. They tried to procure nitrogen, but without success. Then they hit on the idea of using helium instead. “That's easy, you can buy it for party balloons,” he says.
They ordered a canister of helium, and when they had everything, Angela suggested they check it would work. “I said: ‘If you would be happier, we will run through it as an experiment to see if the apparatus will do the job.' “We sat on the sofa and each of us put a big plastic bag on our heads.” There was a bit of a fuss finding out how to switch on the helium (“not as simple as you might think”), but when that was resolved they filled the bags. Because this was helium, it made their conversation, from under the plastic bags, high-pitched. “We decided that we felt a bit woozy, so for a joke I said: ‘Why don't we just go now?' She said: ‘Oh, no, we're not ready yet.'” That was in July.
Over the next few weeks they set about seeing old friends and family, including their two daughters, now in their forties — but without telling anybody their plans. They had long ago written their wills, and now wrote goodbye letters urging people not to waste time being miserable, then invented a pretext for their neighbour Nigel to come into the house soon after they had gassed themselves.
Finding two old friends dead with plastic bags on their heads could have been devastating, I point out. “He's a sensible chap. And if we'd told him beforehand, he might have said he wasn't going through with it.”
For the same reason, they did not tell their daughters. “They might not have agreed, and it would have caused a big family row.” For legal reasons, we do not discuss how Angela died, though Stanton does say this: “We had rehearsed it beforehand. She knew exactly what to do, and she did it. I didn't do anything physically to help her.”
What went wrong with his own suicide attempt? “When I put the bag over my head it was too small. There wasn't enough space for the gas to flow freely around my head. Although I found it hard to breathe, I was choking and that was wrong. It should have been easy. So I tore it off and tried again. I realised what the trouble was. I tried to find a bigger plastic bag but I couldn't. And then I could hear Nigel coming up the stairs.” How did Stanton feel afterwards? “Awful. Awful. That's all I can say.”
Did he regret it? “I would rather have waited and done a proper job.” He says he would try again if he got the chance, but that seems unlikely. He is aware of what he calls “the tedious Dignitas”, the Swiss clinic where many Britons have ended their lives, but he says he never liked the idea of going there. “Doing it here seemed so obvious and easy.”
Shortly after Angela's death, a spokesman for Avon and Somerset police said: “The body of an elderly woman was found in her home in Westbury-sub-Mendip after someone visiting the address discovered her dead in her bedroom. A man aged 79 was arrested on suspicion of her murder at the address and taken into custody.” He was released, on bail, into the custody of his sister.
Later his daughters arrived from their homes in Wales and Oxfordshire. Between them, they have looked after him in a rota.
Stanton grew up in Street, in Somerset, among Quakers. His father was a conscientious objector in the first world war and was taken to France to be shot, but reprieved — an experience that his mother always spoke about with reverence, he says. It is interesting that he too has been reprieved, by the failure of his suicide attempt — though of course he regrets his reprieve. As a boy he conceived an affection for the outdoors, nature and science, exploring local caves that he carried on visiting till as recently as 18 months ago. At school he was captain of the rugby team, and at university threw himself into mountaineering, which went well with his studies in geology.
“There was a lot of original geology still to be done,” he says, brightening at the memory. “Rocks to hit, and look at under a lens.” He did his PhD at Imperial College, and after marrying Angela spent some years abroad, including a spell in Angola where they were caught up in the revolution during her first pregnancy. Altogether, he worked for 20 years for mining companies, and another 20 years as a consulting geologist for Wessex Water and the Bristol Avon River Authority. He is the author of many scientific papers, two books on the Mendip caves — and a comprehensive book of research, with vigorous polemical interpretation, The Rapid Growth of Human Populations 1750-2000.
One of Britain's foremost advocates of population control, Stanton is convinced that global resources, including oil, are in terminal decline and that the UK population must shrink from about 60m today to 2m by 2150. Here is how: by allowing women only one child each; banning immigration and putting arrivals, like all criminals, to work in chain gangs; and humanely ending an individual's life when, through old age, injury or disease, he or she becomes more of a burden than a benefit. “The alternative is starvation, lawlessness, mass murder and squalor. Either way, the population can't avoid shrinking.”
Before meeting him, I read his book, and the many articles and letters he has written for anybody who will print them, from his local paper to New Scientist. Inevitably, I wondered whether his suicide pact had as much to do with planetary angst as escaping the worst effects of cancer. I am still not sure. In its own terms, his population study makes perfect sense. But politically it is a non-starter. Which government would dare to impose it?
Stanton insists that if something is thinkable, even remotely, it must be possible.
The sacrifices people made in the second world war would have seemed unthinkable, he says, just a short while beforehand. What is more, he says some people might actively welcome euthanasia. “My mother struggled looking after my father who had Alzheimer's. We talked about it. He was totally incontinent, and she was tidying his bed. It was very cold weather at the time. I said, why do you keep him warm at night? You could leave the windows open and let him die of exposure. She said she couldn't.” Why not? “Habit.”
Despite his Quaker upbringing, Stanton the scientist clearly shares Richard Dawkins's opinion of religion, which he presents as a ragbag of patently false legends, and no guide to conduct. He has no time for classical Christian condemnation of euthanasia.
“These busybodies say, you can't do it, we know about Jesus and what he said. They say your relatives might want you dead to get your money. Well that's true, but lots of other bad things happen in the world . . .”
Until oil was discovered, he says, the idea that people had a right to life would be regarded as laughable. “Landowners joked, in medieval England, that their poorest tenants were ‘harvest sensitive'. In other words, they were expected to die in lean years . . . Compassion is a luxury available to people enjoying peace and plenty.”
Interestingly, Stanton wonders aloud if he might have done things differently if he had had any grandchildren. But there are no grandchildren, and as things are, he cannot wait to be buried alongside Angela in a woodland burial site on Salisbury Plain.
I ask if anybody has expressed disapproval about what he did, on that morning in September. “Not to us,” he says. Friends he has not heard from since school have written letters. Local cavers made a presentation that his daughter is getting framed. “I can't think of anyone who hasn't been kind. I'm sure that must say something — that they approve of what we have done.”
Is it not possible that they only pity him, and wish him well? It has been a long and difficult conversation. “Well, I'm not going to argue,” he says.