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 101 - 150 of 158
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Method Inquest Finding
Mary M. Williams March 20, 1860 at William William's residence, Anderson County, SC drowning

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.

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

Michael Long October 11, 1877 near the Residence of E.N. Youngblood, Edgefield County, SC knife

upon their oaths do say that the said Michael Long Came to his death from a wound in the right Side of the neck inflicted by a knife in his own hand

Mint slave May 22, 1859 at Sims McDaniels, Union County, SC hanging

upon their oath do say that Mint a slave the property of Sims McDaniel did hang herself by the neck with a hemp rope

Mose negro man August 28, 1851 near Joseph McCullough's, Greenville County, SC hanging

do say upon their oaths that Mose, not having God before his Eyes, but being moved and seduced by the instigation of the Devil … in a certain wood … with a certain hempen Cord … as a felon of himself, feloniously, voluntarily and of his malice aforethought himself killed, strangled and homicideed

Nancy Slave June 19, 1847 at the house of Mrs G. Rily's, Edgefield County, SC drowning/mental illness

do say upon their oaths that the said Nancy, Slave, came to her death by drowning herself in Little Saluda River

Nancy Drake August 21, 1872 at Mrs. Elizabeth's Anne Keaton's, Anderson County, SC drowning

say that the deceased came to her death by her own act…by drowning herself in the well of Mrs. Elizabeth Ann Keaton…in a fit of derangement

Nancy Hawkins March 13, 1864 near the residence of Wm. Hawking, Spartanburg County, SC hanging

upon their oaths do say that the said Nancy Jawking came to her death … in the woods near the residence fo Wm. Hawkings near the North Carolina line by hanging herself with a hank of cotton thread

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

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.

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

P. W. Morris April 27, 1872 at Anderson Court House, Anderson County, SC drowning

do say that the deceased came to his death by his own act to wit by drowning himself in the well in the Hotel yard at the Wavesly House…after first having made several attempts to destroy his life by stabbing himself upopn the neck, and left-side, under temporary insanity.

Patsy Cleary December 30, 1857 at the house of Lewis [?], Spartanburg County, SC hanging

having examined the corpse do decide that the deceased came to her death by the voluntary act of hanging herself with a hank of cotton

Patsy Wilson colored free woman June 17, 1857 at the residence of Robert Wilson, Anderson County, SC hanging

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.

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

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

Pleasant T. Gossett November 18, 1870 Spartanburg County, SC hanging

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

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

R. W. Foster September 26, 1859 at the mill pond near Holly Spring, Spartanburg County, SC drowning

find that the deceased came to his death by voluntary drowning

Reason Collins November 26, 1879 at Greenville CH, Greenville County, SC gun

upon their oaths do say that … came to his death from the effects of a pistol shot wound in the right temple the ball passing into the brain … himself did kill

Robert slave, boy April 8, 1847 at Edward Hampton's, Edgefield County, SC hanging/mental illness

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

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

S. B. Layton March 11, 1885 at S. B. Layton's Store near S. S. Johnson's residence, Spartanburg County, SC gun

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

Sam slave October 5, 1854 at the plantation of James W. Harrison, Anderson County, SC drowning

do say that the deceased boy Sam the slave of J. W. Harrison came to his death…by voluntarily drowning himself in a pit or well of water near the track of the Blue Ridge Rail Road…in and through a diseased state or aberration of mind.

Samuel Bates July 9, 1851 at McBride's Hotel, Greenville County, SC alcohol, drugs

upon their oaths do say that the said Samuel W. Bates cause to his death from drinking and taking into his stomach on yesterday morning a quantity of laudanum

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 slave December 31, 1855 at or near Thomas Fowlers House, Union County, SC hanging

upon there oaths do say that the sd sarah did with her own hands tie a Rope around her own neck & to a chesnut Lim standing on a stum & then stepped off & did her self hang

Sarah Jowls[?] November 16, 1858 at Mrs Mary Ann Keys, Edgefield County, SC hanging

upon their Oaths do say that the said Sarah Jowls[?] died of her own hands by hanging with a Rope.

Sarah Ray May 3, 1850 at William P. Ray's, Spartanburg County, SC knife

do say it appeareth that she died fo self-murder … with a case knife there foundlying near her

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

Sarah Shacleford September 3, 1849 at the house of Richard Shacleford, Spartanburg County, SC hanging

upon there [sic] oaths do say that she did hang herself voluntarily with a small silk handkerchief suspended from the limb of a post oak on this day about 9 o'clock A.M.

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

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

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]

Solomon Ellenberg February 18, 1859 near the Residence of G.M. Ouzts[?], Edgefield County, SC hanging

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

Stepney negro man September 29, 1848 at the Swamp Platation of Wiley Glover, decd on Savannah River, Edgefield County, SC hanging

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

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

T. N. Owens April 1, 1887 near Reidville, Spartanburg County, SC pistol

upon their oaths do say taht the said T. W. Owens ... voluntarily and feloniously himself did kill by shooting himself through the head with a pistol

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

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

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

W. A. McConnell January 30, 1867 at Belton , Anderson County, SC pocket knife

do say that the said W. A. McConnell came to his death by cutting his own throat with a small pocket knife on the cars….in a manner and form afore said then and there voluntarily and feloneously himself did kill.

Walter Pegg January 12, 1879 at Greenville, Greenville County, SC alcohol, drugs

upon their oaths do say … the deceased Walter W Pegg came to his death … by misfortune or accident

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

Wesley McCombs July 11, 1858 at Martin M. Comb's, Spartanburg County, SC gun

upon their oaths do say from the evidences & appearances that they think he must have killedhimself by shooting himself with a rifle gun in the forehead near his father's house about sunrise

Wesley Weaver[?] June 15, 1858 at Mrs Lydia Nevus[?], Edgefield County, SC gun

upon their oaths do say that Wesley Weaver by the discharge of a double barreled gun, held in his own hands, … then and there voluntarily and feloniously himself did Kill

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

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

William Abernathy July 12, 1855 Spartanburg County, SC hanging

from the examination of witnesses and other circumstances we the jury return a verdict of death by his own hands produced from mental deragement … which he did by hanging himself with a rope

William Barrett March 15, 1884 at Telephone Exchange in the City of Greenville, Greenville County, SC drugs

by their oaths do say that … the said William T Barrett came to his death from the effects of an over dose of morphine administered by himself

William Belcher December 2, 1888 at or near Duncans, Spartanburg County, SC poison

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

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

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