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
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

Daniel April 5, 1854 at a graveyard in Laurens District near Mrs Nancy Parks, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Daniel came death by disease unknown to us

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.

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

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.

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

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

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

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

Patrick Bell at Middlesex, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Patrick Bell came to his death by Felony of his own hands. That he killed himself in the same place he is now lying , Middlesex Plantation that he came to his death by a gun shot wound fired from a 38 calibre Wesson & Harrington pistolin his ownhand the ball entering the body between the third and fourth ribs to the right of the sternum.

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

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]

Henry Powell May 15, 1881 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the deceased came to his death from wounds mad by a Knife in his throat, by whom inflicted to the Jury unknown

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

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.

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

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

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.

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.

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

upon their oaths do say that he hung himself

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

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.

Patt slave October 10, 1825 at the residence of Mrs. Mary Mathis in Camden, Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the said negro slave Pat came to her death by voluntarity & feloniously hanging herself by the neck

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

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...

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

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

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

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...

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[.]

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

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

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 Williams January 3, 1822 at Mrs. Mary Williams, Laurens County, SC

do say upon their oaths in pursuing their Solemn inquiry are of opinion that the said Daniel Williams on the 3rd day of Jany. 1822 died in a fit of insanity then, and there voluntarily cut his own throat with his knife against the peace of this State.

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.

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

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

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...

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

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...

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

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."

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

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

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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.

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

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