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.)

Of the 158 suicides in the CSI:D sample, 117 were committed by men, 41 by women, a ratio of almost 3:1. 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.

In the inquests collected here, 31% of men and 7% of 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. Moreover, in the 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 slavery 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 couldn't swim. It is hard to quite call this a suicide. Was Lovina choosing to die or choosing to no longer be a slave?

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: Infanticide

 

Suicide Inquests

Displaying 1 - 50 of 158
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Methodsort descending Inquest Finding
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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

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.

Frankey slave May 23, 1835 at the Maj. R. Gibson Plantation on the Wateree, Kershaw County, SC drowning

The jury are of an opinion from the evidence before them that the deceased came to her death by drowning whether accidental or intentional they are unable to determine

Daniel Coleman November 21, 1837 at the house of Mrs Citha Rowles, Union County, SC drowning

do say upon there oaths … not having god before his eyes and at the instigation of the Devil Commited Suiside by drounding himself in Broad River

Mary M. Williams March 20, 1860 at William William's residence, Anderson County, SC drowning

do say that from the evidence itself shown that the deceased Mary M. Williams came to her death by an act of her own by drowning cause[ed by] mental estrangement.

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

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.

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

find that the deceased came to his death by voluntary drowning

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

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

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

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]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aleck slave July 18, 1848 at Major J. Whitaker's plantation, Kershaw County, SC drowning

that he came to his death by drowning in attempting to escape from Capt. Hale & Col. J. Chesnut’s hands on the 10th inst

Daniel slave, boy April 28, 1859 at L. Halls Tisery[?], Edgefield County, SC drowning/alcohol

upon there oaths do say that … Daniel came to his death by drownding whether axidental or intentional unknown

Nancy Slave June 19, 1847 at the house of Mrs G. Rily's, Edgefield County, SC drowning/mental illness

do say upon their oaths that the said Nancy, Slave, came to her death by drowning herself in Little Saluda River

James Moore September 8, 1881 at Greenville, Greenville County, SC drugs

upon their oaths do say that the said James P. Moore came to his death from the effect of anodynes administered by himself; but whether with the intention of taking his life or not the jury are unable to say.

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

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

John Sulivan December 17, 1859 at B. D. Garison's residence, Anderson County, SC excessive alcohol and laudunum overdose

do say upon their oaths that the aforesaid John Sulivan not having the fear of God before his eyes, but being moved and secluded by the instigation of the Devil at and in the dwelling house of B. D. Garrison in his bead the said John Sulivan being then and there alone died by the excessive use of ardent spirits and laudunum voluntarily and felonisouly and of his nature afore though did drink and use the said ardent spirits and laudunum until he died.

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

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

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

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

Charlotte negro woman slave June 25, 1825 at the house of Samuel I. Hary[?], Union County, SC gun

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

G. Gallman February 26, 1842 at John H Galmons, Union County, SC gun

upon their oaths do say that in the house of the abovesaid John H Gallman the said G W Gallman did Shoot himself in the left temple with a rifle gun

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

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

Hancock Porter May 29, 1852 at Hancock Porters, Union County, SC gun

uppon their oaths doo say that … the deceast Hancock Porter took his musket went to his Blacksmith shop and took the barrel out of the stock made a fire in his forge put the brick in the fire held the muzel to his throat and the gun went off then and therefore voluntarily and feloniously him self did kill

J. Hancock June 13, 1859 at J. Hancocks, Edgefield County, SC gun

upon there oaths do say that the said J. Hancock came to his death by a shot from a doubble barrell shot gun left hand barrell of said gun shot entering the boddy about the navel and little on the right side killed in his own house … himself did kill

H. C. Rice December 29, 1859 at the house of HC Rice, Union County, SC gun

upon their oaths do say - that the deceased came to his death by the the discharge of a double Barrell shotgun which the deceased contrived to discharge he receiving[?] the contents of one Barrell in the left breast to [?] to the right of the left nipple and that the [?] the decd was committed Having a [?] of mania

Darling Willis March 4, 1859 at Wade Holeston warter, Edgefield County, SC gun

upon there oaths do say that the said Darling Willis came to his death by the shot of a pistol in his own hands in his house

John Southern February 29, 1880 at Greenville, Greenville County, SC gun

upon their oaths do say that the said John L Southern came to his death by willfully shooting himself with a Pistol fired by his own hand

Adam Barker August 10, 1879 at the Residence of Adam Barker Decd, Edgefield County, SC gun

Upon their oaths do say that that the said Adam Barker came to his death … by two pistol Shots from his own hands each ball entering the left brest and penetrating the left lung

Andrew Craig December 1, 1813 at Cyrus Seay's, Spartanburg County, SC gun

do say upon their oaths that the said Andrew Craig did murder himself with a loded [sic] shot Gun

Basil M. Boone November 4, 1855 at the residence of Daniel Boone, Edgefield County, SC gun

upon their oaths aforesaid do say that … they did then and there find the body of Basil M Boone of said District, prostrate upon the ground with his face upwards with a mortal wound in his forehead, which we believe was inflicted by a Rifle ball, finding a rifle gun there lying, with the muzzle, under the left leg of the deceased ... we believe that the said Basil M Boone ... himself did shoot and Kill

Lizzie Carson January 29, 1892 at John J Carson Coleman Township, Edgefield County, SC gun

upon their oaths do say that the Said Mrs Lizzie Carson Came to her death … by a pistol ball wound in her own hands

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

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

Abemolie[?] Gilreath[?] April 20, 1876 at the residence of A. M. Gilreath, Greenville County, SC gun

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

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

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

G. Heath December 14, 1877 at S. G. Chapman's, Greenville County, SC gun

upon their oaths do say by a pistol shot from his own hands on the west side of Reedy River below fork Shoals Factory

James S. Aiton June 19, 1893 at J.S. Aiton deceased, Edgefield County, SC gun

upon their oaths do say that deceased … died … from the effects of two pistol shot wounds … inflicted by his own hand and with Suicidal intent on his part

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

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

James Comer November 28, 1817 Union County, SC gun

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

E. M. Whatley August 31, 1893 at E M Whatley's, Edgefield County, SC gun

upon their oaths do say that the Said E.M. Whatley came to his death from a Gun shot wound inflicted by his own hands with suicidal intentions

Reason Collins November 26, 1879 at Greenville CH, Greenville County, SC gun

upon their oaths do say that … came to his death from the effects of a pistol shot wound in the right temple the ball passing into the brain … himself did kill

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