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
Namesort ascending Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Method Inquest Finding
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.

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]...

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

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

William Malone June 6, 1844 at the residence of Wm. Malone, Union County, SC pocket knife

upon their oaths do say that the said Wm Malone came to his death by cutting his own throat with a pocket knife in a state of mortal derangement near his own house

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 L. Russell September 6, 1849 in the Hotel of H Jordon, Edgefield County, SC razor

upon their oaths do say the said William L Russell came to his death . . .by cutting his own throat with a Razor while in a temporary state of insanity

William Johnson November 28, 1840 at the House of Wm. Johnson, Union County, SC

upon their oathes do say . . .Wm Johnson came to his death by misfortune through intoxication

William Ewbanks October 30, 1841 at the house of Elizerbeth Ewbankses, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said William Eubanks did commit suicide by hanging himself to a line[?] by the neck

William Davis June 11, 1881 at Mr. Jeb Davis's residence, Anderson County, SC pistol

do say that the deceased came to his death by a pistol shot fired by his own hands.

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

William Belcher December 2, 1888 at or near Duncans, Spartanburg County, SC

uppon the oaths do say we the jurors do say that Mr. Wm. Belcher ... came to his death by taking poison of some kind unknown to the jurors

William Barrett March 15, 1884 at Telephone Exchange in the City of Greenville, Greenville County, SC morphine

by their oaths do say that . . . the said William T Barrett came to his death from the effects of an over dose of morphine administered by himself

William Abernathy July 12, 1855 Spartanburg County, SC rope

from the examination of witnesses and other circumstances we the jury return a verdict of death by his own hands produced from mental deragement. . .which he did by hanging himself with a rope

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

Wesley Weaver[?] June 15, 1858 at Mrs Lydia Nevus[?], Edgefield County, SC shotgun

upon their oaths do say that Wesley Weaver by the discharge of a double barreled gun, held in his own hands,. . .then and there voluntarily and feloniously himself did Kill

Wesley McCombs July 11, 1858 at Martin M. Comb's, Spartanburg County, SC rifle

upon their oaths do say from the evidences & appearances that they think he must have killedhimself by shooting himself with a rifle gun in the forehead near his father's house about sunrise

Wesley Barksdale April 29, 1884 on the Premises of A W Teague, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Wesley Barksdale came to his death by a gun shot wound by his own hands against the peace and dignity of State aforesaid.

Warren Richards August 18, 1894 Laurens County, SC train
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

W. A. McConnell January 30, 1867 at Belton, Anderson County, SC pocket knife

do say that the said W. A. McConnell came to his death by cutting his own throat with a small pocket knife on the cars. . . .in a manner and form afore said then and there voluntarily and feloneously himself did kill.

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...

Violet negro woman (slave) March 25, 1844 at John Dinkinses, Edgefield County, SC

upon their Oaths aforesaid do say, that the aforesaid Violet in manner and form aforesaid, then and there, voluntarily and feloniously herself did kill

Unknown Negro Woman near Swansey's Ferry Unknown Negro Woman near Swansey's Ferry May 25, 1845 near Swanseys Ferry, Laurens County, SC

do say upon there oaths that the said negro woman not having god before her Eyes, but being seduced & moved by the instigation of the devil at the place aforesd then and there being alone, in a common river called Saluda voluntarily & feloniously drowned herself...

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.

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[.]

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

Thomas Gaskin February 26, 1842 at an old field in the district of Kershaw, Kershaw County, SC rifle

upon their oaths [do say] Thomas M. Gaskin came [to his] death by shooting himself [with] a rifle

T. N. Owens April 1, 1887 near Reidville, Spartanburg County, SC pistol

upon their oaths do say taht the said T. W. Owens ... voluntarily and feloniously himself did kill by shooting himself through the head with a pistol

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

Stepney negro man September 29, 1848 at the Swamp Platation of Wiley Glover, decd on Savannah River, Edgefield County, SC

Upon their Oaths do say, that the said negro man Stepney came to his death by cruel treatment inflicted upon him by the hands of his master, Russel Harden

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

Solomon Ellenberg February 18, 1859 near the Residence of G.M. Ouzts[?], Edgefield County, SC

unanimously determin and conclude that the said Solomon Ellenberg in maner and form afore said then and there volunterly and feloniously himself did kill by hanging himself by the neck

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]

Silas McKinney July 8, 1871 at the Parrish, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the sd. Silas McKinney did voluntarily hang himself by the neck and took his own life against the peace and dignity fo the same state aforesaid

Sarah Shacleford September 3, 1849 at the house of Richard Shacleford, Spartanburg County, SC handkerchief

upon there [sic] oaths do say that she did hang herself voluntarily with a small silk handkerchief suspended from the limb of a post oak on this day about 9 o'clock A.M.

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

Sarah Ray May 3, 1850 at William P. Ray's, Spartanburg County, SC case knife

do say it appeareth that she died fo self-murder ... with a case knife there foundlying near her

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.

Sarah Jowls[?] November 16, 1858 at Mrs Mary Ann Keys, Edgefield County, SC rope

upon their Oaths do say that the said Sarah Jowls[?] died of her own hands by hanging with a Rope.

Sarah slave December 31, 1855 at or near Thomas Fowlers House, Union County, SC rope

upon there oaths do say that the sd sarah did with her own hands tie a Rope around her own neck & to a chesnut Lim standing on a stum & then stepped off & did her self hang

Samuel M. Dowel July 25, 1844 at James Murrels, Edgefield County, SC knife

upon their oaths do say, that the deceased came to his death ... by cuting his own Jugular veins with a knife

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.

Samuel Hudgens November 9, 1854 at Samuel Hudgens, Laurens County, SC laudanum

upon their Oaths do say it appearing from the examination of the body, & Testimony that the said Samuel Hudgins came to his death at his own residence on the 9th of November 1854 from an accessive [sic] uses [sic] of Laddnum taken at his own will & from his own hands.

Samuel Bates July 9, 1851 at McBride's Hotel, Greenville County, SC laudanum

upon their oaths do say that the said Samuel W. Bates cause to his death from drinking and taking into his stomach on yesterday morning a quantity of laudanum

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...

Sam September 15, 1861 at Joseph Hurts'[?], Fairfield County, SC

upon our oaths do sa, that the slave boy Sam, in manner and form aforesaid, then and there, voluntarily and felonously himself did kill, by hanging himself with arope around the kneck on Sunday Evening the 15

Sam slave October 5, 1854 at the plantation of James W. Harrison, Anderson County, SC

do say that the deceased boy Sam the slave of J. W. Harrison came to his death. . .by voluntarily drowning himself in a pit or well of water near the track of the Blue Ridge Rail Road?in and through a diseased state or aberration of mind.

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

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

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