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
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

John November 28, 1850 at Yancy Hellams, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths Do Say they have examined the Dead Body of the above Decd and find that he came to his death by hanging him self by the neck with a cotton cord about ren foot long to a ash tree about eight foot high we find no mark of violence about his body nor Person... Some Slight marks of a switch or cowskin upon his Shoulders...

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

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.

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

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

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.

Edom March 6, 1845 at the house of James D. Thomason, Laurens County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the said Edom, not having God before his Eyes but being moved and seduced by the instigation of the Devil in the aforesaid Dist at and in the kitchen house of James D. Thomason his owner, the said Edom being then and there alone, with a pair of cotton plow lines, of 18 cts value, which he then and there had and held in his hands, and one End Whereof he then and there put about his neck and the other End thereof he tied about a Joist or beam of said Kitchen, and himself then and there with the cords aforesaid voluntarily and feloniously and of malice aforethough, hanged and suffocated...

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.

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

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.

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

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

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.

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

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

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.

Lucy Gray December 27, 1867 in the house of John Brown, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Lucy Gray came to her death [by] voluntarily & feloniously hanging herself by the neck in the house of John Brown aftoresaid to one of the joist of said 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

Isham December 7, 1846 at Mrs Martha Mitchells, Laurens County, SC

uppon their oaths do say that the Said boy Isham came to his death willfully by hnaging himself to the limb of a white oak tree with a trace chain on the night of the Sixth

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

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

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

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

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

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

N. J. Hancock December 4, 1891 at R. F. M. Hancock, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: that the Said N J Hancock came to her death form a Pistol Shot wound by her owne hands

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.

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

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[.]

Earnestine Rewie April 19, 1944 at Cheraw, S.C., Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Earnestine Rewie received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Burns . . . She came to her death by burns - probably accidental

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

James G. Brice October 20, 1864 at the house of James G. Brice, Fairfield County, SC

upon their Oaths do Say. That James G. Brice, in manner and form afforesaid, then and there, voluntarily, and feloniously, himself did Kill

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

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

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

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.

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

Howard Birdsong August 4, 1863 at Greenville, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death by his own hands by "Hanging"

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

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.

John Williams at Strother, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said John Williams came to his death "by his own hands for his own free will by jumping from the train while moving."

Earnest Hammond October 15, 1945 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Earnest Hammond received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Shot gun in the hands of Person or Persons Unknown

A. E. Powell at A.E. Powell's residence, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that deceased A.E. Powell came to his death by a Pistol Shot in his own hands in his parlor of his residence[.]

A. M. Hill March 19, 1879 at John P. Sathens, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do Say That the Said AM Hill in manner and form aforesaid then and there voluntarily him Self did kill againce the peace and dignity of the Same State afoesaid by drowning him Self in a well on the 19th day of March AD 1879

Jack April 6, 1810 at Thomas McCreary's, Laurens County, SC

say upon there oaths aforesaid that he Jack in manner and form aforesaid then and there with cord made of cotton usually termed a plough line of the value of eleven pence then and there in his cabin with said Rope Round his neck, double in the form of a Noose, and the other part tied round one of the ribs of the cabin aforesaid by which means he was Strangled to death then and there Voluntarily and Feloniously, as a felon of himself, did kill and murder and hang, feloniously against the peace of this 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

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 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

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

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