The jury took just eleven minutes to reach its verdict. On this day in 1941, in Court No 4 of Britain’s Central Criminal Court in the Old Bailey, twenty-nine-year-old Irene Louisa Valeska Coffee (née Brann) was found guilty and sentenced to death for attempted suicide and complicity in the death by suicide of her mother, Margarete.
The Branns came from Dresden. Irene’s father, Alfred, who ran a successful animal feed business, died in 1933, the year the Nazis came to power in Germany. Soon after this her sister emigrated to Palestine. In 1937 Irene left for London, where she soon contracted a marriage of convenience with a man called Aron Coffee. She and her husband did not live together, but her new civil status enabled her to bring her mother to safety in England.
Irene found employment with an import-export agency, but still did not feel secure. With the advent of war, she felt – this was the experience of many Jewish refugees – that she was regarded by her neighbours not as Jewish but as German, a suspicious alien. The two women, mother and daughter, fell back on each other’s company and rarely went out unnecessarily. With the advent of the Blitz in autumn 1940 they began to feel that perhaps they had not escaped National Socialism after all: when the foundations of their house were damaged in a raid they moved to a nearby basement.
But the Germans were coming nearer. In January 1941 Bank underground station, beside Irene’s workplace, was destroyed and 111 people killed. In May, 550 German bombers dropped 700 tons of bombs on London. By late October, the Wehrmacht had overrun much of Europe and was encircling Moscow. It was in these circumstances, overwhelmed by despair and seeing nothing but a German invasion and deportation to a concentration camp ahead, that Irene Coffee and her mother took an overdose of sleeping tablets. These proved fatal to the mother but not to the daughter, who survived and was brought to trial for attempted suicide and murder (deriving from her complicity in her mother’s death).
The judge in the case, seventy-four-year-old Travers Humphrey, appeared sympathetic to the defendant but sadly, he found there was no ambiguity whatsoever in the law, which was based on a precedent from 1823. His duty, he told counsel for the defence, no matter what personal sympathy he might have for the circumstances of the accused, was simply to uphold the laws of the land. Irene Coffee was taken off to Holloway prison and the date of her execution set for December 31st, 1941. Lest the law be in any way diminished in its majesty she was, of course, put under a twenty-four-hour suicide watch.
That Irene Coffee was not actually hanged was due to the misgivings Judge Humphrey had in the case, in spite of his remarks in court. He had in fact written to the home secretary recommending commutation of the sentence to life imprisonment and in due course King George VI granted this request. In March 1942, as a result of further representations from her lawyers and other interested parties, she was released.
After being freed, Irene Coffee moved first to the north of England, then to Switzerland, and finally to Australia, where she married again. It is doubtful, however, if she succeeded in making a new life in the normal sense of the words. On September 30th, 1968, seven years after Britain decriminalised suicide, she again took an overdose of sleeping tablets. This time they achieved the desired effect.
Heidrun Hannusch’s book on the Coffee case, Todesstrafe für die Selbstmörderin – Ein historischer Kriminalfall, was published by Christoph Links Verlag in 2011. See also the Der Spiegel website, http://www.spiegel.de/einestages/absurder-prozess-a-947259.html and this from the Independent website: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/british-justice-shamed-in-case-of-suicide-victim-2240491.html