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 Methodsort descending Inquest Finding
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

George Smith December 27, 1914 at Mr. Geo. Smith's Residence, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That he came to his death by gun shot wounds. Inflicted by his own hands

Peggy Walden October 31, 1840 at the house of Joseph Walden, Spartanburg County, SC

do say that the deceased Peggy Walden came to her death by her own act (viz) self murder in hanging herself from a branch of a certain. . .oak tree near the dwelling house against the peace & dignity of the state

Joseph H. Sellers October 6, 1878 at the residence of J. S. Sellers, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that on the 6th day of October AD 1878 at the residence of J. S. Sellers in the County and State aforesaid the said Joseph H. Sellers came to his death by voluntarily shooting himself twice with a Pistol once near the pit of the stomach and once in the forehead.

Lonnie Jordan February 4, 1934 about 5 miles east of Jefferson, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their Oaths, do say, that Lon Jordan came to his death by gun shot wound in the head, by his own hand.

John P. Sloan August 26, 1884 at Geo Y Youngs place in Laurens County - Known as the Brick house place, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said John P Sloan came to his death on the 26th day of August AD 1884 about 11 oclock AM - and in Laurens County by two pistol shots in the neck the said pistol shots having been fired by the hands of the said John P Sloan and so the jurors aforesaid do say that the said John P Sloan in manner and form aforesaid then and there voluntarily and feloniously himself did Kill and slay against the peace and dignity of the same State aforesaid.

Mary Peck February 23, 1828 in the District aforesaid, Laurens County, SC

do say upon their Paths, "That the said Mark Peck, came to her death, hanging herself with a hank of spun cotton, to the end one of the logs of the Chimney, while in a state mental derangement.

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

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

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

Henry Coil man supposed to be Henry Coil December 25, 1824 at the premises of [??], Union County, SC

do say upon their Oaths that he with Strolling About Perisht with hunger & Coald . . .did kill and homicide himself

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

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

John Flommett March 22, 1841 at John Hammett's, Spartanburg County, SC

upon oaths do say that the dec'd came to his death by his own voluntary act by hanging himself by the neck. . .in his cuting [sic] roome [sic] or Lumber house

Joseph Spires January 17, 1935 at Patrick, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Joe Spires received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by a pistol shot in the hands of Party unknown to us

Earnestine Rewie April 19, 1944 at Cheraw, S.C., Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Earnestine Rewie received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Burns . . . She came to her death by burns - probably accidental

Matildy Posey July 13, 1831 at Charles Poseys, Laurens County, SC

do say that the said Matildy Posey not having God before her eyes but being Seduced by the instigation of the devil at the River then & there being alone in then called Redy River herself voluntarily & feloniously drowned.

Phil July 29, 1821 at Laurens Court House, Laurens County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the said Phil not having God before his eyes, but being seduced and moved by the instigation of the Devil in the gaol of Laurens District aforesaid, being then & there alone with a certain piece of blanket which he then & their had one end of which was tied round his neck, and the other end thereof tied to the grate of the door of the dungeon, and himself then & there with the piece of blanket aforesaid volunarily & feloniously and of his malice aforethought, hanged & suffocated: And so the jurors aforesaid, upon their oaths aforesaid, say that as a felon of himself, feloniously, voluntarily & of his malice aforethought himself killed, strangled & murdered against the peace of the said State.

Howard Birdsong August 4, 1863 at Greenville, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death by his own hands by "Hanging"

William Owens October 13, 1831 at the Machine house of Pressley Owens, Laurens County, SC

do say upon their oaths - not having God before his eyes but being Seduced by the Devil at the Machine hoise of Pressley Owens standing and being the said Wm. Owens being then and there alone with a certain cotton plough line which he then and there had and held in his hands and one end thereof he then and there put about his neck and the other end thereof he tied about the rib of the aforesaid Machine house and himself then and there with the cord aforesaid Voluntarily and feloniously and of his malice aforethough hangd and sufficated [sic]...

Thomas Hill May 26, 1825 at Thos Hill's, Union County, SC

say upon their oaths that the said Thomas Hill . . .voluntarily and Feloniously as a felon of himself did Kill and homicide himself

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.

Lucy Gray December 27, 1867 in the house of John Brown, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Lucy Gray came to her death [by] voluntarily & feloniously hanging herself by the neck in the house of John Brown aftoresaid to one of the joist of said house

William negro January 13, 1847 at Robert Smiths, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say that . . .the said negro bill did by tying a small Rope a Round his neck and to the Rafter of the house by Standing on the wall plate, and then steping off hang and choak him self to death

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

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

Earnest Hammond October 15, 1945 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Earnest Hammond received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Shot gun in the hands of Person or Persons Unknown

Harry December 3, 1826 at McClures Creek on the plantation of Martha A Dickson, Fairfield County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the said negro man Harry with a knife held in his right hand did strike and give to himself with the knife aforesaid upon his throat aforesaid on mortal wound

Spencer May 9, 1858 in the woods on Mr R S Hendersons plantation, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Spencer, in manner & form aforesaid, then & there, voluntarily & felloniously himself did kill by hanging

Sambo August 1, 1821 at the house of Stephen Garretts, Laurens County, SC

do say upon their oaths dc not having God before his eyes but being seduced and moved by the instigation of the Devil at the place & time aforesaid in a certain house occupied by sd negro being then and there hanging alone by a joint of the house with a plough line around his neck - voluntarily and feloniously and of his malice aforethought hung and suffocated himself...

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

Isabel Atkins August 11, 1834 on the Publick Road Between Rocky mt meeting house & John Williamsons Store, Laurens County, SC

do say upon their oaths, that. Not having God before her eyes, but being moved and seduced by the instigation of the devil Between Rocky Mt. and John Williamsons store, aforesaid in a certain wood standing & being the said Isabel Atkins, being then and there alone with certain cotton hank of the value of six and 1/2 cents, which she then & there held in her hands, & one end of she then & there put about her neck, and the other end thereof she put round the bough, of a certain tree & herself then & there, with the cord aforesaid, voluntarily & feloniously and of her malice aforethough, hanged, & suffocated...

Jacob Pruitt March 15, 1878 at the residence of the late Jacob Pruitts, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that at his own residence . . . said deceased did feloniously shoot him self in the abdomen with a rifle gun inflicting a wound of which he died

Sarah Scurry September 28, 1844 at the House of Sarah Scurry, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that she Sarah Scurry came to her death by her own act they say she did voluntarily go down in the Saluda River . . .and feloniously did drown herself

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

Ras slave December 6, 1850 at D Dennys Mill, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Ras came to his death . . .coluntarily feloniously, himself did Kill

S. B. Layton March 11, 1885 at S. B. Layton's Store near S. S. Johnson's residence, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said S. B. Layton came to his death by a gun shot wound ... and that the said S. B. Layton ... voluntarily and feloniously himself did kill against the pease and dignity of the state

John M. Kenner December 2, 1821 in a certain wood at Winnsborough, Fairfield County, SC

do say upon their oaths that said John M. Kenner Not having the fear of God before his Eyes but being moved & Seduced by the [?] of the Devil near Winnsborough in a certain wood there alone with a certain Bandana Handkerchief of the value of twenty five cents handkerchief end put [?] about his neck and the other end tied about a limb of a dead oak.

John November 28, 1850 at Yancy Hellams, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths Do Say they have examined the Dead Body of the above Decd and find that he came to his death by hanging him self by the neck with a cotton cord about ren foot long to a ash tree about eight foot high we find no mark of violence about his body nor Person... Some Slight marks of a switch or cowskin upon his Shoulders...

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

John Henry Hitch August 28, 1837 at the House of John Hitch, Laurens County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the said John Henry Hitch, not having God before his eyes but being moved and seduced by the instigation of the devil near the house of John Hitch aforesaid, in a certain wood standing and being the said John Henry Hitch being then and there alone with a certain bridle reins which he then and there had and held in his hands, and one end thereof he then and put about his neck, and the other end thereof he tied about a bough of a certain dogwood tree and himself then and there with the bridle reins aforesaid voluntarily and feloniously and of his malice aforethough, hanged and suffocated...

Walter Pegg January 12, 1879 at Greenville, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say . . .the deceased Walter W Pegg came to his death . . . by misfortune or accident

Elisa Wilson October 14, 1841 at Edward Wilson's, Laurens County, SC

We the above named Jurors do say on our oaths, that Eliza Wilson now here lying dead came to her death by her own act, by hanging herself with her apron and petty coat by the neck on a dogwood tree, in the forrest near her Father Edward Wilson's House on the 12th October 1841.

Virgil November 17, 1844 in the woods near to George Blakely plantation, Laurens County, SC

upon their Oaths Do say that the said negro Virgil Slave of Georg Blakely came to his Death By hanging himself to a Dogwood tree with a Muscadine Vine Six or Seven feet in length by tying one end round his neck and the other to the limb of the tree and also Confining his hands Behind him - and we also think that he has been hanging some two or three weeks...

Prince negro man October 27, 1844 at Mrs Elizabeth Timmermans, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said negro Prince voluntarily Jumped into a deep hole of water in Sleepy[?] Creek near Mrs Elizabeth Timmermans . . .by which means he drowned himself

R. W. Foster September 26, 1859 at the mill pond near Holly Spring, Spartanburg County, SC

find that the deceased came to his death by voluntary drowning

Mary Cole March 4, 1828 at the premises of D A Mitthers[?], Union County, SC

do say upon their oaths that. . .Mary Cole. . . did kill and homicide her self by hanging her self with a Bridel of the value of twentyfive cent on a [?] tree

John J. Cobb July 23, 1843 at William Elkins Mill Pond, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that Doct John S. Cobb, here lyind dead, came to his death by then & there being alone, in William Elkins mill Pond aforesaid, himself voluntarily and feloniously drowned . . . then and there himself, voluntarily & feloniously as a felon of himself Killed and murdered

Peter July 7, 1833 at the plantation of Captain Chernal[?] Durham, Fairfield County, SC

do say on their oaths do certify that the above named negro Peter came to his death by a voluntarly act of his own by hanging himself with a hickory with to a limb of an oak

Sarah Owens October 9, 1866 at David Owens's, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say - That we the undersigned Jurors after having investigated by examination of the witnesses thru courses peculiar to her natural Temperament which was "child-like" - that the sd. Sarah came to death by voluntarily hanging her self with her own hands.

Samuel Kennedy June 8, 1842 at or near Laurens Court House, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say. That the deceased came to his death in the woods near his mothers residence in said District by discharging the contents of a rifle Gun in to his chest in a fit of mental deragement, by resting the Gun on a rock and Tying a String to the trigger and then... pulling the Gun Towards him day and date above mentioned.

Edom March 6, 1845 at the house of James D. Thomason, Laurens County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the said Edom, not having God before his Eyes but being moved and seduced by the instigation of the Devil in the aforesaid Dist at and in the kitchen house of James D. Thomason his owner, the said Edom being then and there alone, with a pair of cotton plow lines, of 18 cts value, which he then and there had and held in his hands, and one End Whereof he then and there put about his neck and the other End thereof he tied about a Joist or beam of said Kitchen, and himself then and there with the cords aforesaid voluntarily and feloniously and of malice aforethough, hanged and suffocated...

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