Suicide

On September 3, 1849, Sarah Shacleford was laundering some clothes with a friend when she suddenly stopped, excused herself, took a long handkerchief from the pile and walked into the woods where she hung herself from an unspecified tree. We will probably never know why she was doing laundry one minute and hanging from a tree the next. At the coroner’s inquest a friend volunteered that Sarah’s mind had been “deranged for some time” and perhaps it was.

The word ‘deranged’ comes up a lot in these inquests. Alexander Rogers cut his own throat with a razor, “being in a state of mental derangement”; George C. Mitchell jumped off his roof “while laboring under derangement”; and Elizabeth Greer shot herself because of a “partial derangement.” Such usage probably says less about the psychology of the victim than that of the witnesses. Suicide simply seemed to them a deranged thing to do.

“I seen one [wound] on her as if she had been struck with a stick, and one on her eye as if he had kicked her which she said he had done.”

The word ‘deranged’ covers a lot of territory, however. At her inquest, jurors used the same word to describe Jane Soseby, who hung herself on January 12, 1859. “I thought she presented some signs of derangement,” noted one witness. “I have heard of her being deranged,” noted another, or, at least, “[I] think [I have] seen her when she was not altogether alright.” And indeed Jane was not all right. Because her husband was beating her with anything handy. “I seen one [wound] on her as if she had been struck with a stick,” one witness told the coroner, “and one on her eye as if he had kicked her which she said he had done.” Another witness testified that Jane had showed her “some marks or bruises on her body inflicted as she said by her husband.... I should suppose they were done by a good heavy hickory.” (Southerners grimly knew their timber.)

Such spousal abuse is hardly surprising in an age when men were expected to ‘correct’ their wives as they might children or slaves. The indifference of Jane’s community is a little more surprising. Jane showed her wounds to at least five neighbors, admitted to all of them that she wanted to kill herself, and admitted to some that she thought she might “destroy her children [first] as they were suffering and would suffer” worse when she was gone. But the neighbors could not, or did not, intercede. And so, “no satisfaction to herself or any body else,” Jane tried to cut her throat but found the knife too dull, tried to find a river in which to drown herself, but could never find it, and finally gathered up her courage with her husband’s rope and went to the woods. Jane had found her exit strategy; her children would have to find their own.

Suicide rates have often been used by sociologists and historians as a sort of canary in the cultural coal mine, a way of taking the mental pulse of a nation or group at a particular moment in time. (Emile Durkheim pioneered this line of cultural commentary in Suicide (1897), arguing that integrated populations—Catholics vs. Protestants, women vs. men, people with families vs. those without—commit suicide at lower rates.)


CSI:D's antebellum suicides betray a penchant for the rope.

Of the 1190 suicides in the CSI:D sample, 928 were committed by men, 262 by women, a ratio of almost 4:1. Whole books have been written on the “gender paradox of suicidal behavior”—the tendency of women to more often attempt, and men to more often succeed at, committing suicide. (In 2013, 79.1% of deaths by suicide in the United States were committed by males.) But the nineteenth-century rural south was a vastly different world from our own, and all comparisons must be handled with humility. Today, most of the gender paradox relates to method: men are more likely to shoot themselves; women are more likely to overdose, giving bystanders and care-givers a chance to intervene. This was true in the nineteenth century too, where men were most likely to employ a firearm, women a poison.

In the inquests collected here, 31% of antebellum men and 7% of antebellum women killed themselves with a gun. Such lopsidedness is notable although it is less than what we see in the United States today where 85% of successful suicides are committed by firearm. In the antebellum CSI:D sample both sexes were most likely to hang themselves, rope being by far the most affordable and familiar ‘technology’ available. This conforms to the latest research suggesting that it is not true that determined depressives will always find a way to kill themselves. Rather availability shapes the outcomes. The classic example is Britain in the 1950s, where for the first half of the decade stoves were fueled by a coal-derived gas with a high carbon monoxide content, making gas inhalation the most common method of suicide. In 1958, when the country began switching over to natural gas, not only did gas-inhalation suicides go down but so did suicides generally. To a degree, a prevalence of means creates a prevalence of ends.

But only to a degree. The ‘why’ matters as much as the ‘how.’ Suicide correlates strongly with unemployment, trauma (including military service), and depression, along with their typical chasers—alcoholism and substance abuse. These forces are clearly at work in these inquests as well, though the victims were not, by and large, living lives of quiet desperation and succumbing to losing battles with what Churchill called the ‘black dog.’ Instead they were living lives of actual desperation in which suicide probably was the only way out.

This is most obvious in the case of the enslaved, and quite a few of these inquests were done over the bodies of men and women who saw suicide as an act of self-emancipation. In June 1847, for instance, an enslaved woman named Nancy was busy shucking corn when her mistress asked her to go to the stable to feed the horse. When Nancy’s baby started crying, the mistress went in search of Nancy and found that she had continued on through the stable and drowned herself in the Saluda River. Nancy had “complained for the last few days, and in one case yesterday acted as if deranged,” the mistress told the coroner, but it is equally likely that Nancy had simply reached her breaking point with enslavement mid-shuck. More typical triggering events, however, were imminent punishment or recapture. The dogs closing around her, a slave named Lovina plunged into a mill pond knowing full well she didn’t know how to swim. It is hard to quite call this a suicide. Was Lovina choosing to die or choosing to no longer be enslaved?

This sense of being cornered, literally or figuratively, is a common refrain among the white suicides as well. Doctor John J. Cobb drowned himself in Elkins Mill Pond rather than follow through on a marriage. (The would-be bride’s family was threatening to kill him if he didn’t, so it seems possible that he had impregnated her out of wedlock.) Money pressures too could drive men to the breaking point. E. M. Whatley shot himself in the head, telling his family that “he was not able to work for them and that before he would be a drag to his family he would put an end to him self.” Adam Barker shot himself twice in the chest, saying he would “rather be dead than to be poor and beholding.” There were, however, clearly cases in which internal mental issues, rather than external pressures, played a leading role. Jacob Pruitt, for instance, shot himself in the abdomen because he wanted “out of this troublesome world” and when Solomon Ellenberg gathered up some rope and left his house for the last time, he told his daughter he just “could not stay here any longer.” “I knew he] was gone to kill him self,” she told the coroner, and “[I] never expected to see him alive again.”

NEXT: Accident

 

Suicide Inquests

Displaying 1 - 50 of 243
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Method Inquest Finding
A. E. Powell at A.E. Powell's residence, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that deceased A.E. Powell came to his death by a Pistol Shot in his own hands in his parlor of his residence[.]

A. M. Hill March 19, 1879 at John P. Sathens, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do Say That the Said AM Hill in manner and form aforesaid then and there voluntarily him Self did kill againce the peace and dignity of the Same State afoesaid by drowning him Self in a well on the 19th day of March AD 1879

Abemolie[?] Gilreath[?] April 20, 1876 at the residence of A. M. Gilreath, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said A M Gilreath in his own house . . .with Colts [?] (5 shooter) Pistol did them and there voluntarily and feloniously shoot himself with 2 Pistol Balls

Adam slave August 22, 1828 at Camden, Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the said negro man Adam the property of Solomon Legare died by his own act, having hung himself

Adam Barker August 10, 1879 at the Residence of Adam Barker Decd, Edgefield County, SC

Upon their oaths do say that that the said Adam Barker came to his death. . . by two pistol Shots from his own hands each ball entering the left brest and penetrating the left lung

Aleck slave July 18, 1848 at Major J. Whitaker's plantation, Kershaw County, SC

that he came to his death by drowning in attempting to escape from Capt. Hale & Col. J. Chesnut's hands on the 10th inst

Alexander Calder May 15, 1803 at Calder's house, Laurens County, SC

do say upon theur oaths, that the afores. Alexand Calder came to his death, in his own house, on the 15th day of May, by means of a rope round his neck, fastened to a Joyst, or pole in his own house, by it he was suspended, or hung

Alexander Rogers July 15, 1818 lying in the home of F. Blair, Kershaw County, SC razor

after said examination and due deliberation are of opinion that the said Alexander Rogers caused his death by cutting his throat with a razor, he being in a state of mental derangement at the time caused by fever

Allen negro man September 4, 1858 at Mrs. Moor's, Greenville County, SC rifle

upon their oaths do say that the deceased came to his death by ball shot from a rifle gun into his forehead causing instant death, the gun lying by his side, the ram rod drawn out and lying on the ground, a long forked stick lying lengthwise on the body

Amos slave March 15, 1856 at the plantation of John McRae on the banks of the Wateree, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said negro Amos came to his death by jumping into the Wateree River where he was drowned

Andrew Craig December 1, 1813 at Cyrus Seay's, Spartanburg County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the said Andrew Craig did murder himself with a loded [sic] shot Gun

Andrew Thompson December 19, 1859 at Andrew Thompson's house, Fairfield County, SC razor

upon their oaths do say, that Andrew Thompson here lying dead came to his death then and there, voluntarily and feloneausly, himself did kill, by cutting his throat with a rasor

Angeyline Hainey May 16, 1847 at the dwelling house of Henry Iveys, Union County, SC razor

upon oath do say . . .the said deceased did kill and distroy her own life by means of cutting her own throat with the Raisor of Henry Ivey which was found lying with her dead body

Ann July 26, 1861 at Barrington Avery, Esq's Gin Pond, Laurens County, SC

upon their Oaths do say That having examined the body of Ann they are satisfied she came to her death by drowning herself in B. Avery's Gin Pond by her own act

Ann negro woman December 8, 1848 at the house of Benja F Landrum, Edgefield County, SC rope

upon their oaths do say the said Decd came to her death in the Shop of B F Landrum by hanging herself with a rope around her neck

Anthony slave June 1, 1841 at Camden, Kershaw County, SC rope

upon their oaths do say hat he came to his death by hanging himself with a rope in Camden on the 1st day of June instant

Aron slave, boy June 15, 1862 near the White house, Edgefield County, SC vine

upon there oaths do say that the boy came to his death by commiting suicide by hanging himself with a vine to a dogwood tree

Barbary Havard wife of Mark Havard November 5, 1840 in the house of Mark Havard, Anderson County, SC

do say that the deceased came to her death as they believe--by hanging herself

Basil M. Boone November 4, 1855 at the residence of Daniel Boone, Edgefield County, SC rifle

upon their oaths aforesaid do say that. . .they did then and there find the body of Basil M Boone of said District, prostrate upon the ground with his face upwards with a mortal wound in his forehead, which we believe was inflicted by a Rifle ball, finding a rifle gun there lying, with the muzzle, under the left leg of the deceased ... we believe that the said Basil M Boone ... himself did shoot and Kill

Belfast slave January 18, 1813 on the plantation of John Damson Esqr, Kershaw County, SC knife

do say upon their oaths that the said Belfast [did] voluntarily & feloniously ... kill and murder himself with a knife by stabbing himself in the neck

Benjamin Clark April 22, 1872 at Benjamin Clark's, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the sd' Benjamin Clark came to his death by his own hands by hanging himself by the neck in the horse lot to the limb of a white oak

Benjamin Yeargan December 11, 1865 at the residence of Benjmain Yeargans, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do Say that he voluntarily and felloniously himself did Kill by hanging him self to a Pine limb against the peace and dignity of the State aforesaid

Bessie Gambrell Anderson County, SC

we the jury find that Bessie Gambrell came to her death by swallowing Cartridge Hull No. 32 causing her death.

Biggers R. Mobley December 31, 1860 at Biggers[?] R. Mobley's, Fairfield County, SC

upon our oaths do say that the said Biggers R. Mobly [?] [?] said then and there voluntarily and felonously himself did kill by hanging himself with a rope

Bill slave May 14, 1848 at John H. Wofford's, Spartanburg County, SC hickory bark

upon their oaths do say that the said Negro man slave Bill did with a piece of Hickory bark by his own hand feloniously hang himself by the neck against the peace and dignity of the state

Billie Laney December 15, 1940 at Pageland, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Billie Laney received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Pistol Shot in the hands of Insufficient Evidence

Blassingame Wise April 27, 1848 at or near the Negro quarter of Mrs Wiley Glover, on Savannah River, Edgefield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say, that . . .the decd Blassingame Wise, . . .came to his death by voluntarily drowing himself in Savannah River

Bob slave November 19, 1850 at the residence of Capt. R. Smith, Spartanburg County, SC rope

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid boy came to his death by hanging himself with a rope attached to a small white oak sapling

C. B. Collins November 4, 1900 at C.B. Collins', Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: we the Jurors find that the deceased C B Collins came to his death by a gun shot wound inflicted by his own hand

Captain D. Harrison October 31, 1838 at the residence of Capt. D. Harrison, Fairfield County, SC

say that the Sd deceased being [?] and took from his pocket a knife, with which he with his own hand did cut his own throat which was the cause of his death.

Carna Blackwood June 23, 1879 at the residence of William Blackwood, Spartanburg County, SC bridle

upon their oaths do say that the said Carna Blackwood came to her death voluntarily and feloniously herself, did kill by hanging herself with a bridal within the dwelling of William B. Blackwood

Celia King September 8, 1857 at Peter King's residence, Anderson County, SC hank of cotton thread

do say the said Celia King. . .came to her death by hanging herself with a hank of cotton thread and suspended to a bush.

Cephas Palmer March 31, 1879 at W. G. Austell's Mill Pond, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Cephas Palmer came to his death by drowning being his own act

Charles slave June 8, 1840 at Mrs Margaret Beatys, Union County, SC small cord

upon their oaths do say that the said Charles did tye about his neck and to the Rafter of a ginn house a small cord and by his own contrivence[?] did distroy his own life

Charlotte negro woman slave June 25, 1825 at the house of Samuel I. Hary[?], Union County, SC shotgun

do say upon their oaths that. . .the decd came to her death by the forms[?] of a shot gun loaded with powder and shot. The [?] passing through the right hand and lodging in the right breast a little above the nipple. . . we believe the deceased was handling and [?] the said shot gun

Clarissa Couch September 17, 1887 near Hobbysville, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say: that the said Clarisa Couch came to her death by hanging on the premises of the Miles Bros.

Columbus Baskins December 20, 1912 at B R Rivers Doer, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: Columbus Baskins came to his death by gun shots inflicted wound by his own hand

Cubiner slave October 27, 1844 at the residence of B. Haile, Kershaw County, SC shotgun

upon their oaths do say that the said negro slave named Cubiner, the property of Capt. B. Hail, came to his death by shooting himself through the head with a double barrelled gun

Cuffy April 19, 1853 at Dorroughs Mill, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say we believe that said Slave did voluntarily feloniously himself kill by drowning against the peace and dignity of Said State afforesaid

D. M. Richards October 9, 1873 at Wm. Waters', Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said D.M. Richards voluntarily & feloniously himself did kill being of unsound mind

Daily Thompson December 8, 1876 at Daniel Thompson's, Anderson County, SC

do say that the said Daily Thompson at about the hours of between . . . 10 and 12 oclock . . . deceased came to her death by her own hands by hanging herself by the neck until it was broken.

Daniel slave, boy April 28, 1859 at L. Halls Tisery[?], Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that. . .Daniel came to his death by drownding whether axidental or intentional unknown

Daniel April 5, 1854 at a graveyard in Laurens District near Mrs Nancy Parks, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Daniel came death by disease unknown to us

Daniel Coleman November 21, 1837 at the house of Mrs Citha Rowles, Union County, SC

do say upon there oaths . . . not having god before his eyes and at the instigation of the Devil Commited Suiside by drounding himself in Broad River

Daniel Williams January 3, 1822 at Mrs. Mary Williams, Laurens County, SC

do say upon their oaths in pursuing their Solemn inquiry are of opinion that the said Daniel Williams on the 3rd day of Jany. 1822 died in a fit of insanity then, and there voluntarily cut his own throat with his knife against the peace of this State.

Darling Willis March 4, 1859 at Wade Holeston warter, Edgefield County, SC pistol

upon there oaths do say that the said Darling Willis came to his death by the shot of a pistol in his own hands in his house

David Weatherspoon April 5, 1827 at the dwelling house of Thomas Davis, Spartanburg County, SC

[do] say that they think according to the evidence given by Sally and Ly[?] Chandler that the s'd David Weatherspoon was accessory to his own Death

Dick slave May 25, 1845 at the plantation of Margaret Montgomery's near Sedar [sic] Shoal Creek, Spartanburg County, SC small rope

do say upon their oaths that the above named Dick not having the fear of God before his eyes but being moved and seduced by the instigation fo the Devil did voluntarily hang himself with a small rope on a limb of a walnut tree

Dillard Higgins September 29, 1837 at the house of David Higgins, Laurens County, SC

after taking and hearing the above evidence our opinion is that on the night of the 28th of this Instant the above named Dillard Higgins not having God before his eyes and being instigated by the Devil did voluntarily and of his own accord take a double Barreled Shot Gun and go into the Garden of David Higgins and then and there by the discahrge of one of the barrels shoot and kill himself by inflicting a mortal wound in the lower part of the throat against the peace and Dignity of the State.

Doctor James Glenn June 8, 1831 on the high way, Fairfield County, SC laudanum

do say upon their oaths that he came to his death by the affects of Laudnum. Given under own hand

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