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 Datesort descending Inquest Location Death Method Inquest Finding
Patrick Bell at Middlesex, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Patrick Bell came to his death by Felony of his own hands. That he killed himself in the same place he is now lying , Middlesex Plantation that he came to his death by a gun shot wound fired from a 38 calibre Wesson & Harrington pistolin his ownhand the ball entering the body between the third and fourth ribs to the right of the sternum.

Thomas Hoffman at Blythewood, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that T.P.[?] Hoffman came to his death from a Pistol Shot fird by his own Hands believe to be intentinial about 5 oclock in the Telegraphic office at Blythewood[.]

John Williams at Strother, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said John Williams came to his death "by his own hands for his own free will by jumping from the train while moving."

Rena McFarlow [no location given], Chesterfield County, SC

We the under signed Find that Rena McFarlow Came to Her deth By a pistol Shot By Her own Hands

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.

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[.]

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

slave slave June 5, 1805 in woods near Camden, Kershaw County, SC check string

do say upon their oaths that in a certain wood near Camden with a certain check string which he then & there voluntarily hanged and suffocated [himself]

William Milhous May 27, 1807 Union County, SC small pen knife

do say on their oaths the Said William Milowan[?] Came to his Death By the temptation of the Devil and for want of the Grace of God diloniously homicideed himSelf Cuting his throat with a Small Pen Knife

Negro Man Negro Man June 20, 1808 Near Laurens Court house, Laurens County, SC

Do say, upon their Oaths, that sd. Negro, not having God before his Eyes, but being. . .moved by the instigation of the Devil, in Laurens District aforesaid, in a certain wood near to Little River, the said negro being then and there alone with a pair of hauling lines, valued at twelve and a half cents, which he there and then had, and held in his hands, and... the sd. hauling lines in a slip noose about his neck, and hid the two ends over two certain boughs, separately, of a certain tree, and himself then and there with the hauling lines aforesaid, voluntarily, and feloniously, and of his motive afore though hanged and suffocated.

Jack April 6, 1810 at Thomas McCreary's, Laurens County, SC

say upon there oaths aforesaid that he Jack in manner and form aforesaid then and there with cord made of cotton usually termed a plough line of the value of eleven pence then and there in his cabin with said Rope Round his neck, double in the form of a Noose, and the other part tied round one of the ribs of the cabin aforesaid by which means he was Strangled to death then and there Voluntarily and Feloniously, as a felon of himself, did kill and murder and hang, feloniously against the peace of this State.

John Jackson July 17, 1810 at own Dweling, Union County, SC rifle

say on there Oaths that we Belive the Said John Jackson for [?] and of the [?] of [?] and the instagation of the Divel homicideed him Self Shooting him Self with a Rifle Gun the Ball Entered into his head a Small Distance above his Right Ey Reanging[?] into his Brain

William Mahan single man November 20, 1810 Union County, SC hemp rope

upon the oaths . . .do say that the Sd Wm Mahan for want of the Grace of God & the instagation of the Divel Came to his Death by forcing a small hemp rope Round his neck to a Beam of the house in his own BeadRoom where with he hangd himd Self Dead

William McMahan November 20, 1810 in his own home, Union County, SC hemp rope

do say on their oaths that for want of the Grace of God and the instatigation of the Divel did William McMahan hang himSelf with a hemp Rope fixt[?] [?] his own BedSide

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

William Washington August 11, 1813 at William Washingtons, Laurens County, SC

Do say upon their Oaths that they have carefully Examined the body; which they believe to be the Body of Wm Washington Deceasd. And have also Examined Seven witnesses on the occasion [sic] and from the greatest Discovery which they are capable of making, Do believe that Wm Washington on Sunday the 8th of this inst left his family in the morning and at sometime of that day; after putting fourteen sttones in His... pockets; which would weigh About 20 weight; and tying of a plow hoe about His neck; threw himself into ready river and their by Drowning of himself - near to a place known By the name of the Flat Shoal.

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

Tom December 12, 1813 at Col. Starling Tucker's, Laurens County, SC

do say upon their Oaths that on their Opinion that not having God before his Eyes but being Seduced and moved by the instigation of the Devil did Voluntarily and feloniously and of his malice afore though hanged and Suffocated himself against the peace and Dignity of the S. State.

William Cockerham December 16, 1813 at the Widow Bea[?]'s, Spartanburg County, SC

say upon their oaths that the said William Cockerham [did] kill & murder himself against the peace of this state

Reuben Ligon June 23, 1814 at Reuben Ligons, Laurens County, SC

Do say upon there oaths that we believe from the Evidence of William Wright the person who found the Body of the said Rubin Ligon hanging on a Branch of a Dogwood near the mouth of the said Ligons Lane on the twenty third Day of June 1814 and the circumstances appeared to us that the said Ruben Ligon was in a state of stupidity and insane and Did on the Day above mentioned between the ours [sic[ of then & twelve Oclock neer [sic] the mouth of his own lane then and there with a Rope the value of 6 1/2 Cents did tie one end about his own neck and the Other End to a Branch of a Dogwood and there Perpetrated his Own Death...

Nathaniel Shilton November 26, 1814 at the Dweling house of William Sims[?], Union County, SC

Do Say on their oaths that the Said Nathaniel Shilton through the want of the Grace of God and the intigation of the Divel Did with a [?] tyd to the Jaw[?] of a barn and one Round his Neck Did filoniously hang him Self

Mat April 13, 1815 on Hugh Mahoffeys Plantation, Laurens County, SC

do say upon their Oaths, that on the night of the 11th of this Instant he hanged himself with a piece of hickory bark

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

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

James Comer November 28, 1817 Union County, SC rifle

do say upon their oaths that the Said James Comer for Wont[?] of the Grace of God and the instation[?] of the Devil was a [?] of himSelf By Shooting of him Self with a Rifle gun in the forehead

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

Joseph Howard April 21, 1821 at the house of Johnnathon Hawkens, Union County, SC
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.

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...

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.

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.

George October 9, 1822 at John Williams, Laurens County, SC

do say upon their oaths, and so the Jurors aforesaid upon their oaths aforesaid, say that the aforesaid infant Child the aforesaid Susannah Finny, then and there feloniously Did kill and murder, against the peace of this State.

Goodall September 15, 1823 at the boatyard near Camden on the Wateree, Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the said Goodall not having the fear of God before his eyes, but being moved and seduced by the instigation of the Devil at the boat yard near Camden . . . then and there himself voluntarily and feloniously downed [himself]

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

Ralph R. Deming April 16, 1825 Laurens County, SC

upon their oath do say that we believe he killed himself with a dirk supposed to be his own, or by a stab in the throat and breast, on Thirsday [sic] night last on the plantation of Wm More near the road leading from Laurens Court house to Newberry court house.

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

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

Patt slave October 10, 1825 at the residence of Mrs. Mary Mathis in Camden, Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the said negro slave Pat came to her death by voluntarity & feloniously hanging herself by the neck

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

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

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

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

Henry Reece November 9, 1827 at Peter G.?, Laurens County, SC

upon our oaths aforesaid do say. That the said Henry Reece did. . . hang and Kill himself in the Manner aforesaid

John Meador January 18, 1828 at the house of Mrs Nancy Parks, Laurens County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the said John Meador not having God before his eyes but being moved and seduced by the instigation of the devil at the North West end of Mrs Nancy Parks about two hundred yards from the dwelling house of the Nancy Parks, did voluntarily and feloniously and of his malice aforethought shoot himself with a rifle Gun, carrying aboutone hundred and fifty balls to the pound, the Gun worth fifteen dollars and that the said John Meadow placed himself on his back on the ground, and laid the said Rifle Gun with the muzzle near to and under his chin, and with a hickory stick about three feet long pushed back the trigger and shot him self under the chin giving himself a mortal wound...

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.

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

Robert Blair March 25, 1828 at the mill of James Cunningham ... on a branch of Shingeton's[?] Creek, Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oaths. . . that the s'd Robert Blair came to his death by drownding himelf in the Mill pond of James Cunningham's

Susannah Nuton May 28, 1828 at the premises of Robert[?] Watkins, Union County, SC

do say upon there Oathes . . .that the aforesaid Susannah Suton Came to her Deth by hanging with a cord round her neck to the Value of Six & a fourth cents on a Sowerwood Sapling Supposed to have been commited by Same person

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

Josiah Parker August 24, 1829 at the plantation of Josiah Parker, Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oaths . . . that on the night of the 23rd of August 1829 . . .the said Josiah Parker. . . did wllfully throw himself in a well and then and there did drown himself against the peace of this state.

Phillip McDonough December 13, 1829 at the house of Thomas Nelson in the town of Winnsborough, Fairfield County, SC razor

do say upon their oaths that said deceased died of his own voluntary act put an end to his life by cutting with a razor through his windpipe & also through the veins and arteries of his left arm.

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

Get in touch

  • Department of History
    220 LeConte Hall, Baldwin Street
    University of Georgia
    Athens, GA 30602-1602
  • 706-542-2053
  • admin@ehistory.org

eHistory was founded at the University of Georgia in 2011 by historians Claudio Saunt and Stephen Berry

Learn More about eHistory

Supporters

+ American Council of Learned Societies
+ DigiLab, Willson Center for Humanities and Arts, University of Georgia