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 51 - 100 of 243
Name Deceased Description Datesort descending Inquest Location Death Method Inquest Finding
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.

Jim slave July 15, 1831 Union County, SC

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

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]...

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 King May 1, 1833 at plantation of the deceased John King, Anderson County, SC sharp pocket 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 knifes edge to his arm

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

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

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...

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.

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

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.

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...

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 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

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.

Elizabeth Brown May 2, 1839 at Daniel Browns House, Laurens County, SC strychnine
Charles slave June 8, 1840 at Mrs Margaret Beatys, Union County, SC small cord

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

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

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

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 rope

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 rope

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

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 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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

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

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 manilla rope

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

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 pocket 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

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

Cubiner slave October 27, 1844 at the residence of B. Haile, Kershaw County, SC shotgun

upon their oaths do say that the said negro slave named Cubiner, the property of Capt. B. Hail, came to his death by shooting himself through the head with a double barrelled gun

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

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

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...

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

Elizer female slave February 26, 1845 at John Forbise's, Union County, SC rope

upon their oaths do say that the said Eliza did voluntarily and feloniously herself Kill by means of tying a Rope around the Neck and hanging herself to a Joice[?] in an out house

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...

Dick slave May 25, 1845 at the plantation of Margaret Montgomery's near Sedar [sic] Shoal Creek, Spartanburg County, SC small rope

do say upon their oaths that the above named Dick not having the fear of God before his eyes but being moved and seduced by the instigation fo the Devil did voluntarily hang himself with a small rope on a limb of a walnut tree

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...

Joel Roper Sr. August 30, 1845 at the house of Joel Roper Sr, Edgefield County, SC rope

upon their oaths do say the said Joel Roper Sr came to his death by hanging himself by a rope to the cotton beams of his own gin house on his own plantation . . .in a fit of patrial derangement

Joseph Page March 18, 1846 at James Page's, Spartanburg County, SC rope

upon their oaths do say that the said Joseph Page did hang himself by the neck with a rope in the blacksmith shop of James Page

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

William negro January 13, 1847 at Robert Smiths, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say that . . .the said negro bill did by tying a small Rope a Round his neck and to the Rafter of the house by Standing on the wall plate, and then steping off hang and choak him self to death

James Miller March 29, 1847 at the house of James Miller, Edgefield County, SC rope

upon their oaths do say the said James Miller came to his death by hanging himself by the neck with a rope in his gin house while he was in a state of mental derangement

Ephraim Mayfield April 1, 1847 at the plantation of Ephraim Mayfield, Anderson County, SC knife

do say upon their oaths that the body of Ephraim Mayfield was found laying about two hundred and fifty yards from his dwelling within about seven feet of where a quantity of blood was discovered with his shirt collar unbuttoned and neatly rolled down. both hands very bloody with a wound across his throat some eight inches in length and two + half in depth having the appearance of four strokes. A small double bladed knife with the big blade open and was bloody....Our verdit is...that he purpetrated the dead himself.

Robert slave, boy April 8, 1847 at Edward Hampton's, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Robert came to his death by some means to the Jurors unknown

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