Historic Pelham

Presenting the rich history of Pelham, NY in Westchester County: current historical research, descriptions of how to research Pelham history online and genealogy discussions of Pelham families.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

A Shocking Suicide During a Performance on City Island in 1875

A tragic and shocking event saddened attendees at a large picnic gathering on City Island in 1875.  During a festive "Congressional Picnic", a young man who was invited to perform a dramatic recitation in front of the crowd pulled a pistol and committed suicide before the crowd.  Attendees first assumed it was part of the performance, but soon were shocked to learn it was not.  An extensive article appeared in the September 2, 1875 issue of The New York Times.  It is quoted below.


The Congressional picnic held on Tuesday last at City Island terminated in a startling and shocking tragedy.  A young Italian artist named Pietro Viani, who was present as a guest, put a sudden stop to the festivities by committing suicide under circumstances of an unusual and dramatic nature.  Hon. U. H. Odell, member of Congress from the Westchester District, acted as host of the party, and the company included Hon. Smith Ely, Jr., Edwin R. Meade, member of Congress from the Fifth District; Congressman Bagley, of the Catskill District; Judge Abraham B. Tappen, of the Supreme Court; Rev. Dr. Monselle, Prof. R. Ogden Doremus, and a number of others.  Signor Viani, who was introduced to the company of Prof. Doremus, entered heartily into the spirit of the occasion, and rapidly won his way to the respect and esteem of his companions.  The party, numbering twenty or more, were conveyed from New-Rochelle to City Island in two yachts belonging to their host.  On landing they were received by Capt. Horton, the proprietor of the island, and a second party, composed of his guests and friends, among whom were several of the Pilot Commissioners and representatives of the Long Island Sound pilots.  The united excursions then adjourned to the beach, where a clam-bake was in preparation.  After an hour spent in discussing the repast, the after-dinner programme of toasts and speeches was begun.  Later in the afternoon, when the proceedings had assumed an informal character, Dr. Doremus remarked that his friend Signor Viani was an elocutionist of no mean order, and suggested that he should entertain the gathering with a dramatic recitation.  With this request the Italian gracefully complied, reciting a scene from Phaedra, as interpreted by Mme. Rachel, with much feeling and effect.  His effort was frequently interrupted by applause, and all present joined in commending it as an amateur performance of undisguised merit.  Signor Viani was in the act of uttering the closing words of the selection, when he suddenly paused, and turning to a gentleman named Perrazoni, who was standing near, exclaimed in Italian, 'God, who judges all things, will judge this!'  Mr. Perrazoni, surprised at this interpolation, looked up just in time to see the unfortunate young man in the act of putting a pistol to his temple.  In an instant more he had fired, and fallen on his face.  The spectators, imagining the tragic act to be merely the denoument [sic] of the scene they had been witnessing, were loud in their applause, when they were undeceived by Dr. Doremus, who, breaking through the crowd, rushed to the dying man, and, raising his head, disclosed the wound and the blood welling from the temple.  The terrible truth then burst upon the assemblage, and for several minutes the consternation at such a frightful event, coming close upon their merriment, absorbed everything.  Medical attendance was summoned at once, but without avail.  The case was a hopeless one, and, though for a full hour and a half the unconscious man breathed, death was inevitable from the start.  Shortly after 6 o'clock the suicide expired, without having once regained sufficient consciousness to utter a word.  The Italian Vice Consul and the friends of the deceased were telegraphed for at once, and early yesterday morning were in attendance at the island.  Preparations for the funeral have been already completed, and the ceremony is announced to take place at City Island to-day.

Mr. A. P. Bajnotti, the Italian Vice Consul at this port, who was the most intimate friend of the deceased in this country, stated to a TIMES reporter, yesterday, that the cause of Viani's self-murder was undoubtedly monomania.  The deceased, who was thirty years of age, and was of an exceedingly nervous and delicate temperament, arrived in New-York from Rome, or which city he was a native, some two months ago.  Although in perfectly comfortable circumstances, and aware that his professional labors were sure to yield him a handsome compensation, the temporary dullness of the past month sensibly affected his health and spirits.  His indisposition was still further augmented by the hot weather of the past week or two, and by a variety of incidents, which, in the diseased condition of his mind, were magnified and dwelt upon until monomania was developed.  Among the occurences which contributed to bring about the result was the appearance of a couple of tramps at his studio, No. 212 Fifth avenue, and their rude and threatening demands for money.  This and the loneliness of his position in a strange land, thousands of miles from home, and his solitary life, united to producing hallucinations, the most marked phase of which was that enemies were constantly following him and threatening his life.  Mr. Bajnotti said that for a week or more before the fatal act Viani called at his house daily at an early hour, with the information that he was pursued and must find shelter from his enemies.  As his delusion appeared harmless, and he was moreover able to to detect its absurdity when pointed out to him by his friends, it was hoped that the trouble would be only temporary, and would pass away with the return of cool weather.  On Saturday, by the advice of his friends, Viani made a visit to City Island, where he passed several days at the residence of Dr. Doremus.  On Monday the Vice Consul was apprised that the invalid's health was worse, and on his arriving at the island found his charge again suffering from his old delusion, but again, as on former occasions, amenable to reason.  After soothing the patient's excitement, and restoring in a measure of self-confidence, Mr. Banjotti returned to the City only to hear of his friend's death by his own hand in the manner already described.  The case was undoubtedly one of monomania produced by ill health, an unfavorable condition of the climate, and too much brooding over his loneliness and unsettled future.  The deceased's endowments, intellectual and personal, were of a high order, and had he lived he would, in the opinion of his friends, have achieved distinction."

Source:  A Dramatic Suicide, N.Y. Times, Sep. 2, 1875, p. 5.

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