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, an enslaved woman 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
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.

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

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

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

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

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...

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

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

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.

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

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

upon their oaths do say that he hung 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.

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

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]

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

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

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...

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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.

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

Earnestine Rewie April 19, 1944 at Cheraw, S.C., Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Earnestine Rewie received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Burns . . . She came to her death by burns - probably accidental

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

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

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

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[.]

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.

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.

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

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

Howard Birdsong August 4, 1863 at Greenville, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death by his own hands by "Hanging"

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.

Silas McKinney July 8, 1871 at the Parrish, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the sd. Silas McKinney did voluntarily hang himself by the neck and took his own life against the peace and dignity fo the same state aforesaid

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