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
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

Amos slave March 15, 1856 at the plantation of John McRae on the banks of the Wateree, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said negro Amos came to his death by jumping into the Wateree River where he was drowned

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

Cephas Palmer March 31, 1879 at W. G. Austell's Mill Pond, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Cephas Palmer came to his death by drowning being his own act

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

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

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

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

Lovina negroe girl, a slave September 4, 1860 at Doct H M Folks[Faulk?], Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say the said Lovina a negro Girl a slave. . .then and there voluntarily and feloniously here self did drown

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

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

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

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.

Massie Robeson June 18, 1919 Chesterfield County, South Carolina, Chesterfield County, SC

we the Jurors find that she came to her death by her own hand by gun shot wound

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...

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

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

J. J. Jennings November 16, 1860 at J J Jennings, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that. . .on his own premises Murdered himself by fireing his Gin house and was found with in the same

Peter October 25, 1834 at Robertson Osborns, Laurens County, SC

upon there oaths do say that the said (Slave) Peter came to his death By cutting his throat with his own hand - with his Shoe Knife valued at 10 cts.

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

James Hitt April 1, 1857 at Mary Hays, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do Say, they find a severe cut on the inside of the right Thigh and a cut on the head appears to have been inflicted by a knife but where done, or by whom done is to them unknown but upon their oaths do say that the Deceased came to his death from wounds inflicted upon his person as above stated by some person & means unknown to them...

J. T. Hanna Sr. February 2, 1934 at Teal's Mill, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: We the Jury find that J.T. Hanna Sr. came to his death by a gunshot wound in his own hand

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.

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.

Lewis slave May 21, 1861 at S. H. Roggers, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that Lewis came to his death by his own hands. . .then and there voluntarily and feloniously did hang and him self did kill

Ann July 26, 1861 at Barrington Avery, Esq's Gin Pond, Laurens County, SC

upon their Oaths do say That having examined the body of Ann they are satisfied she came to her death by drowning herself in B. Avery's Gin Pond by her own act

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

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

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.

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 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

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.

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.

Captain D. Harrison October 31, 1838 at the residence of Capt. D. Harrison, Fairfield County, SC

say that the Sd deceased being [?] and took from his pocket a knife, with which he with his own hand did cut his own throat which was the cause of his death.

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

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

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.

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

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

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.

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]...

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

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

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

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.

J. M. Scott free man of Coller June 12, 1861 at Tho Bishops hous, Union County, SC

uppon there oaths do say that Decsd came to his death by coluntarily jumping into Mr Thomas Bishops well which was beyond Douby from the Testimony of the witness Caused by Insanity which it appears Decsd was subject to at times

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

upon their oaths do say that he hung himself

Emma Campbell March 30, 1893 at Frank Williams residence, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that She came to her death By Drowning, by her own acts.

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

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

upon their Oaths do say, that . . .the decd Blassingame Wise, . . .came to his death by voluntarily drowing himself in Savannah River

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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