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, an enslaved woman 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
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

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

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

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.

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

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...

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

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 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

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.

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

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.

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.

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

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

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

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...

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

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

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

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

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.

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

Billie Laney December 15, 1940 at Pageland, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Billie Laney received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Pistol Shot in the hands of Insufficient Evidence

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

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

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

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...

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

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

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

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

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

Clarissa Couch September 17, 1887 near Hobbysville, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say: that the said Clarisa Couch came to her death by hanging on the premises of the Miles Bros.

Nathanial T. Hildreth October 21, 1941 at Chesterfield, S. C., Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Nathanial T. Hildreth received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Pistol in the hands of Nathanial T. Hildreth

Robert slave, boy April 8, 1847 at Edward Hampton's, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Robert came to his death by some means to the Jurors unknown

Micajah Crumpton August 15, 1837 at the House of Micajah Crumpton, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say, That the said deceased came to his death by his own act, in the following manner (to wit) That by this morning, he the said Micajah Crumpton went into a shed room of his own house, he then and there being along hung, or suffocated himself with the Reins of a Bridle which he tied around his neck, and made fast to the top... of the bed post. That he had been in a melancholy or deranged state of mind for about two weeks previous.

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

Biggers R. Mobley December 31, 1860 at Biggers[?] R. Mobley's, Fairfield County, SC

upon our oaths do say that the said Biggers R. Mobly [?] [?] said then and there voluntarily and felonously himself did kill by hanging himself with a rope

Jane Crowder July 10, 1848 at the jail of Kershaw District, town of Camden, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he deceased came to her death by suicide from hanging herself from the bar of her prison

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

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

George C. Mitchell September 19, 1874 at residence of Marion Mtchell, Anderson County, SC

do say that George C. Mitchell came to his death by his own act..either falling or by jumping from the house top into the yard while laboring under derangeme

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