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

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

Frank Little May 16, 1886 at G. J. Malloy's Residence, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say: That the said Frank Little, being of unsound mind, did upon the 16th day of May A D 1886 in his house, with a gun, did then and there himself voluntarily and feloniously 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

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

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

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

Ralph R. Deming April 16, 1825 Laurens County, SC

upon their oath do say that we believe he killed himself with a dirk supposed to be his own, or by a stab in the throat and breast, on Thirsday [sic] night last on the plantation of Wm More near the road leading from Laurens Court house to Newberry court house.

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...

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.

Harry December 3, 1826 at McClures Creek on the plantation of Martha A Dickson, Fairfield County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the said negro man Harry with a knife held in his right hand did strike and give to himself with the knife aforesaid upon his throat aforesaid on mortal wound

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

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

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...

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

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

Adam slave August 22, 1828 at Camden, Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the said negro man Adam the property of Solomon Legare died by his own act, having hung himself

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

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

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

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.

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

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.

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...

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.

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

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

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

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.

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

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

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

William Belcher December 2, 1888 at or near Duncans, Spartanburg County, SC

uppon the oaths do say we the jurors do say that Mr. Wm. Belcher ... came to his death by taking poison of some kind unknown to the jurors

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

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.

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.

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

Elisa Wilson October 14, 1841 at Edward Wilson's, Laurens County, SC

We the above named Jurors do say on our oaths, that Eliza Wilson now here lying dead came to her death by her own act, by hanging herself with her apron and petty coat by the neck on a dogwood tree, in the forrest near her Father Edward Wilson's House on the 12th October 1841.

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

upon their oaths do say that he hung himself

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

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

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

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

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