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.)

Of the 158 suicides in the CSI:D sample, 117 were committed by men, 41 by women, a ratio of almost 3:1. 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.

In the inquests collected here, 31% of men and 7% of 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. Moreover, in the 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 slavery 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 couldn't swim. It is hard to quite call this a suicide. Was Lovina choosing to die or choosing to no longer be a slave?

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: Infanticide

 

Suicide Inquests

Displaying 1 - 50 of 158
Name Deceased Description Datesort descending Inquest Location Death Method Inquest Finding
Washington negro man at Pullok[?], Union County, SC hanging

upon there oaths do say that they believe Decsd Came to his death by misfortune though intoxication & exposure to rain & cold

Bessie Gambrell Anderson County, SC poisoned

we the jury find that Bessie Gambrell came to her death by swallowing Cartridge Hull No. 32 causing her death.

slave slave June 5, 1805 in woods near Camden, Kershaw County, SC hanging

do say upon their oaths that in a certain wood near Camden with a certain check string which he then & there voluntarily hanged and suffocated [himself]

William Milhous May 27, 1807 Union County, SC pen knife

do say on their oaths the Said William Milowan[?] Came to his Death By the temptation of the Devil and for want of the Grace of God diloniously homicideed himSelf Cuting his throat with a Small Pen Knife

John Jackson July 17, 1810 at own Dweling, Union County, SC gun

say on there Oaths that we Belive the Said John Jackson for [?] and of the [?] of [?] and the instagation of the Divel homicideed him Self Shooting him Self with a Rigle Fun the Ball Entered into his head a Small Distance above his Right Ey Reanging[?] into his Brain

William Mahan single man November 20, 1810 Union County, SC hanging

upon the oaths … do say that the Sd Wm Mahan for want of the Grace of God & the instagation of the Divel Came to his Death by forcing a small hemp rope Round his neck to a Beam of the house in his own BeadRoom where with he hangd himd Self Dead

William McMahan November 20, 1810 in his own home, Union County, SC hanging

do say on their oaths that for want of the Grace of God and the instatigation of the Divel did William McMahan hang himSelf with a hemp Rope fixt[?] [?] his own BedSide

Belfast slave January 18, 1813 on the plantation of John Damson Esqr, Kershaw County, SC knife

do say upon their oaths that the said Belfast [did] voluntarily & feloniously ... kill and murder himself with a knife by stabbing himself in the neck

Andrew Craig December 1, 1813 at Cyrus Seay's, Spartanburg County, SC gun

do say upon their oaths that the said Andrew Craig did murder himself with a loded [sic] shot Gun

William Cockerham December 16, 1813 at the Widow Bea[?]'s, Spartanburg County, SC gun

say upon their oaths that the said William Cockerham [did] kill & murder himself against the peace of this state

Nathaniel Shilton November 26, 1814 at the Dweling house of William Sims[?], Union County, SC hanging

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

Flora Negro wench May 14, 1815 at Isaac Pearsons, Union County, SC hanging

do say upon their oaths Not having God before her eyes but being seduced and moved by the instigation of the devil … in a Negro house … with a certain Blind Bridle of the Value of One Dollar which she … put about her neck and the other end thereof she looped around one of the Joist of the said Negro house and herself ... voluntarily and feloniously and of her malice aforethough hanged and suffocated

James Comer November 28, 1817 Union County, SC gun

do say upon their oaths that the Said James Comer for Wont[?] of the Grace of God and the instation[?] of the Devil was a [?] of himSelf By Shooting of him Self with a Rifle gun in the forehead

Alexander Rogers July 15, 1818 lying in the home of F. Blair, Kershaw County, SC razor

after said examination and due deliberation are of opinion that the said Alexander Rogers caused his death by cutting his throat with a razor, he being in a state of mental derangement at the time caused by fever

Joseph Howard April 21, 1821 at the house of Johnnathon Hawkens, Union County, SC hanging
Goodall September 15, 1823 at the boatyard near Camden on the Wateree, Kershaw County, SC drowning

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]

Thomas Hill May 26, 1825 at Thos Hill's, Union County, SC hanging

say upon their oaths that the said Thomas Hill … voluntarily and Feloniously as a felon of himself did Kill and homicide himself

Charlotte negro woman slave June 25, 1825 at the house of Samuel I. Hary[?], Union County, SC gun

do say upon their oaths that … the decd came to her death by the forms[?] of a shot gun loaded with powder and shot. The [?] passing through the right hand and lodging in the right breast a little above the nipple … we believe the deceased was handling and [?] the said shot gun

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

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

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

[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

Giles Summer April 24, 1827 at Palmer A. Higgins', Spartanburg County, SC gun

doth say upon their oaths that the said Palmer A. Higgins … not having God before his eyes but being seduced by the Devil on the 24th day April inst. with force and [?] in his own yard … did with a rifle gun feloniously shoot a ball at the said Giles Summer ehich entered at the upper part of the wind pipe, passing through the easophegus and penetrating the third or fourth cervical vertebrae thereby destroying the spinal marrow

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

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

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

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

Susannah Nuton May 28, 1828 at the premises of Robert[?] Watkins, Union County, SC hanging

do say upon there Oathes … that the aforesaid Susannah Suton Came to her Deth by hanging with a cord round her neck to the Value of Six & a fourth cents on a Sowerwood Sapling Supposed to have been commited by Same person

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

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

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

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.

Jim slave July 15, 1831 Union County, SC hanging

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

Jerry slave July 15, 1832 at Spartanburgh Courthouse, Spartanburg County, SC hanging

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 King May 1, 1833 at plantation of the deceased John King, Anderson County, SC knife

do say upon thare [sic] oaths they do say…Sd John King cut his own [throat/wrist?] with a sharp pocket knife held in his Rite hand as he lay on his face on the ground with the nifes edge to his arm

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

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

Frankey slave May 23, 1835 at the Maj. R. Gibson Plantation on the Wateree, Kershaw County, SC drowning

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

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

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

Charles slave June 8, 1840 at Mrs Margaret Beatys, Union County, SC hanging

upon their oaths do say that the said Charles did tye about his neck and to the Rafter of a ginn house a small cord and by his own contrivence[?] did distroy his own life

Peggy Walden October 31, 1840 at the house of Joseph Walden, Spartanburg County, SC hanging

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

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

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

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

John Flommett March 22, 1841 at John Hammett's, Spartanburg County, SC hanging

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

Nancy Poole March 31, 1841 at Nancy Pool's, Spartanburg County, SC hanging

uppon [sic] their oaths do say by violence at her own house … by hanging herself with a rope by the neck

Anthony slave June 1, 1841 at Camden, Kershaw County, SC hanging

upon their oaths do say hat he came to his death by hanging himself with a rope in Camden on the 1st day of June instant

William Ewbanks October 30, 1841 at the house of Elizerbeth Ewbankses, Union County, SC hanging

upon their oaths do say that the said William Eubanks did commit suicide by hanging himself to a line[?] by the neck

Thomas Gaskin February 26, 1842 at an old field in the district of Kershaw, Kershaw County, SC gun

upon their oaths [do say] Thomas M. Gaskin came [to his] death by shooting himself [with] a rifle

G. Gallman February 26, 1842 at John H Galmons, Union County, SC gun

upon their oaths do say that in the house of the abovesaid John H Gallman the said G W Gallman did Shoot himself in the left temple with a rifle gun

Nancy Steele December 11, 1842 at the Poor House, Anderson County, SC hanging

do say upon oaths that the said Nancy Steele…at the Poor House of said District was found dead that she had no marks of violence upon her except what was caused by the rope around her neck by which she was hanging from a limb of a tree about half a mile from the house & that she evidently came to her death by her own hands.

John J. Cobb July 23, 1843 at William Elkins Mill Pond, Edgefield County, SC drowning

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

Matthew Gambrell August 12, 1843 at James Mattison's, Anderson County, SC hanging

do say upon their oaths…in a certain woods standing and being the said Matthew Gambell being then and there alone with a certain manilla rope of the value of 12 cents 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 bough of a certain tree and himself then and there with the cord aforesaid voluntarily and feloniously and of his malace a forthought hanged and suffocated

Violet negro woman (slave) March 25, 1844 at John Dinkinses, Edgefield County, SC hanging

upon their Oaths aforesaid do say, that the aforesaid Violet in manner and form aforesaid, then and there, voluntarily and feloniously herself did kill

William Malone June 6, 1844 at the residence of Wm. Malone, Union County, SC knife

upon their oaths do say that the said Wm Malone came to his death by cutting his own throat with a pocket knife in a state of mortal derangement near his own house

Samuel M. Dowel July 25, 1844 at James Murrels, Edgefield County, SC knife

upon their oaths do say, that the deceased came to his death … by cuting his own Jugular veins with a knife

Sarah Scurry September 28, 1844 at the House of Sarah Scurry, Edgefield County, SC drowning

upon their oaths do say that she Sarah Scurry came to her death by her own act they say she did voluntarily go down in the Saluda River … and feloniously did drown herself

Prince negro man October 27, 1844 at Mrs Elizabeth Timmermans, Edgefield County, SC drowning

upon their oaths do say that the said negro Prince voluntarily Jumped into a deep hole of water in Sleepy[?] Creek near Mrs Elizabeth Timmermans … by which means he drowned himself

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