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.)

Of the 158 suicides in the CSI:D sample, 117 were committed by men, 41 by women, a ratio of almost 3:1. 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.

In the inquests collected here, 31% of men and 7% of 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. Moreover, in the 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 slavery 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 couldn't swim. It is hard to quite call this a suicide. Was Lovina choosing to die or choosing to no longer be a slave?

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: Infanticide

 

Suicide Inquests

Displaying 1 - 50 of 158
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Method Inquest Finding
Abemolie[?] Gilreath[?] April 20, 1876 at the residence of A. M. Gilreath, Greenville County, SC gun

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 hanging

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 gun

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 drowning

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 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 gun

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 drowning

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 gun

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

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

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 hanging

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 hanging

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 gun

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 hanging

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

Bessie Gambrell Anderson County, SC poisoned

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

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

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

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

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 hanging

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

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

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 hanging

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

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

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 gun

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 hanging

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

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

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

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

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 hanging

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 drowning/alcohol

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

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

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

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

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 unknown

[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 hanging

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

E. M. Whatley August 31, 1893 at E M Whatley's, Edgefield County, SC gun

upon their oaths do say that the Said E.M. Whatley came to his death from a Gun shot wound inflicted by his own hands with suicidal intentions

Eli Givings July 15, 1850 at the late residence of Eli Givings, Spartanburg County, SC hanging

upon the evidence submitted on oath before us that Eli Givings came to his death by his own hand by hanging himself with a rope not worth more that 12 cts.

Eliza Jane Huckaby April 24, 1874 at the house of Jane Littlefield in Cross Anchor township, Spartanburg County, SC hanging

upon their oaths do say that … the said Eliza Jane Juckaby came to her death by her own hands by hanging herself with a rope in a rather mysterious way

Elizabeth Greer lunatic February 7, 1845 at the dwelling House of Mrs. Mary Greer, Union County, SC gun

upon their oaths do say, that from every circumstance shown to them that it must have originated from a former attact of lunacy, which had for a time appearently Subsided, they do believe that She did Shoot and kill herself through a partial derangement from the former disease

Elizabeth Rudisail July 14, 1872 at the late residence of John N. Rudisail, Spartanburg County, SC hanging

upon their oaths do say that the said Elizabeth Rudisail was at the time of her death suffering from a mental derangement [and] upon the second floor of the late resident of John N. Rudisail … did feloniously bring about her own death by hanging herself

Elizer female slave February 26, 1845 at John Forbise's, Union County, SC hanging

upon their oaths do say that the said Eliza did voluntarily and feloniously herself Kill by means of tying a Rope around the Neck and hanging herself to a Joice[?] in an out house

Elkanon Wells July 20, 1854 taken in Greenville Dist, Greenville County, SC gun

upon their oaths do say that the said Elkanon Wells in manner and form aforesaid they and there voluntarily and feloniously did himself kill or so wound himself

Ellick negro man April 26, 1851 at the house of W. F Prescott, Edgefield County, SC hanging

upon their oaths do say, that the said Ellick, … voluntarily, and feloniously, himself did Kill. By hanging himself by the neck, suspended by a rope form the joist

Ephraim Mayfield April 1, 1847 at the plantation of Ephraim Mayfield, Anderson County, SC knife

do say upon their oaths that the body of Ephraim Mayfield was found laying about two hundred and fifty yards from his dwelling within about seven feet of where a quantity of blood was discovered with his shirt collar unbuttoned and neatly rolled down. both hands very bloody with a wound across his throat some eight inches in length and two + half in depth having the appearance of four strokes. A small double bladed knife with the big blade open and was bloody....Our verdit is...that he purpetrated the dead himself.

Fan Negro Woman October 1, 1833 at James [?] Land[?], Union County, SC hanging

do say upon there oaths that she came to her death by voluntarily hanging herself

Flora Negro wench May 14, 1815 at Isaac Pearsons, Union County, SC hanging

do say upon their oaths Not having God before her eyes but being seduced and moved by the instigation of the devil … in a Negro house … with a certain Blind Bridle of the Value of One Dollar which she … put about her neck and the other end thereof she looped around one of the Joist of the said Negro house and herself ... voluntarily and feloniously and of her malice aforethough hanged and suffocated

Frankey slave May 23, 1835 at the Maj. R. Gibson Plantation on the Wateree, Kershaw County, SC drowning

The jury are of an opinion from the evidence before them that the deceased came to her death by drowning whether accidental or intentional they are unable to determine

G. Gallman February 26, 1842 at John H Galmons, Union County, SC gun

upon their oaths do say that in the house of the abovesaid John H Gallman the said G W Gallman did Shoot himself in the left temple with a rifle gun

G. Heath December 14, 1877 at S. G. Chapman's, Greenville County, SC gun

upon their oaths do say by a pistol shot from his own hands on the west side of Reedy River below fork Shoals Factory

Gabriel Hill Colored April 28, 1868 on the plantation of John N. Wilson, Anderson County, SC drowning

give our verdict as follows, that the deceased came to his death by his own act, that of drowning himself.

George C. Mitchell September 19, 1874 at residence of Marion Mtchell, Anderson County, SC jump from house

do say that George C. Mitchell came to his death by his own act..either falling or by jumping from the house top into the yard while laboring under derangeme

Giles Summer April 24, 1827 at Palmer A. Higgins', Spartanburg County, SC gun

doth say upon their oaths that the said Palmer A. Higgins … not having God before his eyes but being seduced by the Devil on the 24th day April inst. with force and [?] in his own yard … did with a rifle gun feloniously shoot a ball at the said Giles Summer ehich entered at the upper part of the wind pipe, passing through the easophegus and penetrating the third or fourth cervical vertebrae thereby destroying the spinal marrow

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