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
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.

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

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

Patsy Wilson colored free woman June 17, 1857 at the residence of Robert Wilson, Anderson County, SC

we do find that she came to her death, by hanging herself that the said Patsy Wilson in manner made from aforesaid, then and there voluntarily and feloniously herself did hang and kill, against the peace and dignity of the same State aforesaid.

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

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...

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.

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

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.

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.

Jacob L. Reep August 16, 1908 [at] E. J. Graves residence, Chesterfield County, SC

Do say that he killed himself at the place found near E. J. Graves residence on the night of Aug. 15th 1908 with a pistol shot in the head

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

Joseph Hancock June 22, 1876 at Mr. Joseph Hancocks, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That the Said Joseph Hancock came to his death haning by the neck by a small rope believe that the said Joseph Hancock came to his death by his own hands the said Joseph Hancock manner and form aforesaid

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

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

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

Jerry slave July 15, 1832 at Spartanburgh Courthouse, Spartanburg County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the said Negro slave Jerry ... a prisoner ... under sentense [sic] of death ... within the walls of the said jail, not having the fear of God before his eyes, but being moved and instigated by the Devil, with a certain handkerchief or handkerchiefs. . .kill'd, strangled and murdered himself against the peace of this state

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.

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]

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

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

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

Pleasant T. Gossett November 18, 1870 Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said P.T. Gossett came to his death by hanging himself by the neck between the cribs at home

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

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

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.

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.

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]...

G. W. Knight May 27, 1910 at Residence of G. W. Knight, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That G.W. Knight, deceased, came to his death by a gunshot wound by his own hand

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

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

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

P. W. Morris April 27, 1872 at Anderson Court House, Anderson County, SC

do say that the deceased came to his death by his own act to wit by drowning himself in the well in the Hotel yard at the Wavesly House?after first having made several attempts to destroy his life by stabbing himself upopn the neck, and left-side, under temporary insanity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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...

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...

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

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.

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

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

Nancy Drake August 21, 1872 at Mrs. Elizabeth's Anne Keaton's, Anderson County, SC

say that the deceased came to her death by her own act. . .by drowning herself in the well of Mrs. Elizabeth Ann Keaton. . .in a fit of derangement

John McDavid April 18, 1854 at the late residence of John McDavid, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he hung himself

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.

Isaac Montgomery March 23, 1886 at Spartanburg C.H., Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths aforesaid do say that aforesaid Isaac Montgomery ... came to his death by strangulation at his own hands

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...

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.

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

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

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