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
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

John M. Kenner December 2, 1821 in a certain wood at Winnsborough, Fairfield County, SC

do say upon their oaths that said John M. Kenner Not having the fear of God before his Eyes but being moved & Seduced by the [?] of the Devil near Winnsborough in a certain wood there alone with a certain Bandana Handkerchief of the value of twenty five cents handkerchief end put [?] about his neck and the other end tied about a limb of a dead oak.

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...

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

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

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

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...

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

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

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

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...

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.

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

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.

Joseph Howard April 21, 1821 at the house of Johnnathon Hawkens, Union County, SC
Mary M. Williams March 20, 1860 at William William's residence, Anderson County, SC

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.

Mary Cole March 4, 1828 at the premises of D A Mitthers[?], Union County, SC

do say upon their oaths that. . .Mary Cole. . . did kill and homicide her self by hanging her self with a Bridel of the value of twentyfive cent on a [?] tree

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

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

Virgil November 17, 1844 in the woods near to George Blakely plantation, Laurens County, SC

upon their Oaths Do say that the said negro Virgil Slave of Georg Blakely came to his Death By hanging himself to a Dogwood tree with a Muscadine Vine Six or Seven feet in length by tying one end round his neck and the other to the limb of the tree and also Confining his hands Behind him - and we also think that he has been hanging some two or three weeks...

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

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.

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

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.

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

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

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

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.

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

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

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

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.

Jim slave July 15, 1831 Union County, SC

do say upon their oaths that . . .being moved and seduced by the instigation of the devil at [?] as aforesaid in a certain Peach Orchard . . .hanged and suffocated . . .voluntarily

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...

Dillard Higgins September 29, 1837 at the house of David Higgins, Laurens County, SC

after taking and hearing the above evidence our opinion is that on the night of the 28th of this Instant the above named Dillard Higgins not having God before his eyes and being instigated by the Devil did voluntarily and of his own accord take a double Barreled Shot Gun and go into the Garden of David Higgins and then and there by the discahrge of one of the barrels shoot and kill himself by inflicting a mortal wound in the lower part of the throat against the peace and Dignity of the State.

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

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.

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

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.

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