The poet and essayist Charles Lamb was taking a walk in London a few days before Christmas in 1834, when he tripped and fell, scraping his cheek slightly on the pavement. A few days later he was dead from that tiny scratch. Known nowadays mostly for his Essays of Elia, his Dissertation Upon Roast Pig, and the Tales from Shakespeare written with his deranged sister, Mary, Lamb was born on February 10, 1775, in London.
Both he and his sister suffered mental disorders, but Mary was homicidally psychopathic. In 1796 she murdered their mother. The Times of London gave this account:
It appeared by the evidence adduced, that while the
family were preparing for dinner, the young lady seized
a case-knife laying [sic] on the table, and in a menacing
manner pursued a little girl, her apprentice,
round the room. On the calls of her infirm mother to
forbear, she renounced her first object, and with loud
shrieks approached her parent. The child, by her cries,
quickly brought up the landlord of the house, but
too late. The dreadful scene presented to him the
mother lifeless, pierced to the heart, on a chair, her
daughter yet wildly standing over her with the
fatal knife, and the old man her father weeping by her
side, himself bleeding at the forehead from the effects of
a severe blow he received from one of the forks she had
been madly hurling about the room.
Charles arrived on the scene too late to stop her and could only snatch the knife from her hand to prevent more mayhem. He devoted the rest of his life to caring for Mary, who was eleven years older and outlived him by thirteen years.
Lamb’s essays were written under the pen name Elia, the name of a co-worker at South Sea House, the trading company that was the subject of one of the first essays. In two volumes, the essays are elegant, whimsical observations on scenes from his childhood and later life. When the South Sea House went out of business, Lamb took a job as a clerk at the East India Company, where he remained for twenty-five years. The Shakespeare tales, co-authored with Mary during her lucid periods, are simplified re-tellings of Shakespeare’s plays for children.
One of those people known as “spiritual but not religious,” Lamb had a distaste for organized Christian denominations but regarded the New Testament as the “best guide” for one’s life. At times he seemed drawn to Unitarianism. His good friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge was of the opinion that Lamb’s “faith in Jesus had been preserved” even in the light of his sister’s ghastly violence, and William Wordsworth also regarded Lamb as a faithful Christian. He wrote of him in a long poem after his death: “O, he was good, if e’er a good Man lived!”
Shortly after Lamb tripped and fell during his walk, he developed erysipelas, a streptococcal infection of the skin and soft tissue sometimes known as St. Anthony’s fire. It is accompanied by fever, chills, and malaise, and it can be fatal if it causes bacteremia or septic shock, which infect the blood system. This is evidently what happened to Lamb, and after four days of illness, he died on December 27, 1834, in the home on Church Street, Edmonton, in north London, that he shared with Mary. He was fifty-nine.
He is buried in the churchyard of All Saints Church in Edmonton, where Mary joined him in 1847.