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
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...

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

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

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

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

Peter October 25, 1834 at Robertson Osborns, Laurens County, SC

upon there oaths do say that the said (Slave) Peter came to his death By cutting his throat with his own hand - with his Shoe Knife valued at 10 cts.

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

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 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

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

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

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.

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.

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.

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]...

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...

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

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

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

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.

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

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

David Weatherspoon April 5, 1827 at the dwelling house of Thomas Davis, Spartanburg County, SC

[do] say that they think according to the evidence given by Sally and Ly[?] Chandler that the s'd David Weatherspoon was accessory to his own Death

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

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.

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...

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

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

Reuben Ligon June 23, 1814 at Reuben Ligons, Laurens County, SC

Do say upon there oaths that we believe from the Evidence of William Wright the person who found the Body of the said Rubin Ligon hanging on a Branch of a Dogwood near the mouth of the said Ligons Lane on the twenty third Day of June 1814 and the circumstances appeared to us that the said Ruben Ligon was in a state of stupidity and insane and Did on the Day above mentioned between the ours [sic[ of then & twelve Oclock neer [sic] the mouth of his own lane then and there with a Rope the value of 6 1/2 Cents did tie one end about his own neck and the Other End to a Branch of a Dogwood and there Perpetrated his Own Death...

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

Fan Negro Woman October 1, 1833 at James [?] Land[?], Union County, SC

do say upon there oaths that she came to her death by voluntarily hanging herself

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

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

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[.]

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.

Henry Coil man supposed to be Henry Coil December 25, 1824 at the premises of [??], Union County, SC

do say upon their Oaths that he with Strolling About Perisht with hunger & Coald . . .did kill and homicide himself

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...

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

George October 9, 1822 at John Williams, Laurens County, SC

do say upon their oaths, and so the Jurors aforesaid upon their oaths aforesaid, say that the aforesaid infant Child the aforesaid Susannah Finny, then and there feloniously Did kill and murder, against the peace of this State.

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

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.

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

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.

Joseph Howard April 21, 1821 at the house of Johnnathon Hawkens, Union County, SC
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

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...

Rhoda Beam March 19, 1861 at Fishdown[?], Fairfield County, SC

upon our oaths do say, that the said Mrs. Bean voluntarily and feloniously knowing[?] did Kil[?] by Jumping out of the flat at [?] fery into [?] and drounding hirself

William Johnson November 28, 1840 at the House of Wm. Johnson, Union County, SC

upon their oathes do say . . .Wm Johnson came to his death by misfortune through intoxication

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

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

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