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 101 - 150 of 243
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Method Inquest Finding
Jame N. Coleman May 17, 1879 at the house of James N. Coleman, Spartanburg County, SC rope

upon their oaths do say that the said Jas. N. Coleman in a small house near the residence of said deceased ... hanged himself by the neck with a small rope

James Comer November 28, 1817 Union County, SC rifle

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

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

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...

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

James Moore September 8, 1881 at Greenville, Greenville County, SC anodynes

upon their oaths do say that the said James P. Moore came to his death from the effect of anodynes administered by himself; but whether with the intention of taking his life or not the jury are unable to say.

James S. Aiton June 19, 1893 at J.S. Aiton deceased, Edgefield County, SC pistol

upon their oaths do say that deceased. . .died. . .from the effects of two pistol shot wounds. . . inflicted by his own hand and with Suicidal intent on his part

Jane Crowder July 10, 1848 at the jail of Kershaw District, town of Camden, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he deceased came to her death by suicide from hanging herself from the bar of her prison

Jane Soseby January 2, 1859 at or near John Soseby's residence, Spartanburg County, SC rope

do say that Jane Soseby in manner and form aforesaid then and there voluntarily and feloniously herself did kill against the peace and dignifty of the same state aforesaid by hanging herself by the neck with a rope

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

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

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

Joel W. Miller February 2, 1874 at Gen'l J.W. Miller's, Spartanburg County, SC pistol

upon their oaths they do say from the evidence and circumstances connected that said Gen'l J.W. Miller came to his death from a pistol ball discharged from a pistol held in his one hand

John November 28, 1850 at Yancy Hellams, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths Do Say they have examined the Dead Body of the above Decd and find that he came to his death by hanging him self by the neck with a cotton cord about ren foot long to a ash tree about eight foot high we find no mark of violence about his body nor Person... Some Slight marks of a switch or cowskin upon his Shoulders...

John Autery March 26, 1858 in the district aforesaid, Greenville County, SC rifle

upon their oaths do say that the deceased came to his death by shooting himself with a rifle gun, the ball sticking in the forehead and penetrating into the skull which caused instant death, his big toe placed on the trigger, the gun lying lengthwise on the body

John Crawford June 25, 1853 at the house of John Crawford, Edgefield County, SC pocket knife

upon their oaths do say, that he came to his death. . .by cutting his throat with a pocket knife

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

John Hayne May 16, 1861 At the house of Capt. John Hayne, Anderson County, SC rifle

do say that he came to his death by an leaden bullet from a rifle gun of the value of five dollars which from all appearances was fired by 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...

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

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

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 Rifle Gun the Ball Entered into his head a Small Distance above his Right Ey Reanging[?] into his Brain

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

John M. Kenner December 2, 1821 in a certain wood at Winnsborough, Fairfield County, SC

do say upon their oaths that said John M. Kenner Not having the fear of God before his Eyes but being moved & Seduced by the [?] of the Devil near Winnsborough in a certain wood there alone with a certain Bandana Handkerchief of the value of twenty five cents handkerchief end put [?] about his neck and the other end tied about a limb of a dead oak.

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

upon their oaths do say that he hung himself

John Meador January 18, 1828 at the house of Mrs Nancy Parks, Laurens County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the said John Meador not having God before his eyes but being moved and seduced by the instigation of the devil at the North West end of Mrs Nancy Parks about two hundred yards from the dwelling house of the Nancy Parks, did voluntarily and feloniously and of his malice aforethought shoot himself with a rifle Gun, carrying aboutone hundred and fifty balls to the pound, the Gun worth fifteen dollars and that the said John Meadow placed himself on his back on the ground, and laid the said Rifle Gun with the muzzle near to and under his chin, and with a hickory stick about three feet long pushed back the trigger and shot him self under the chin giving himself a mortal wound...

John P. Sloan August 26, 1884 at Geo Y Youngs place in Laurens County - Known as the Brick house place, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said John P Sloan came to his death on the 26th day of August AD 1884 about 11 oclock AM - and in Laurens County by two pistol shots in the neck the said pistol shots having been fired by the hands of the said John P Sloan and so the jurors aforesaid do say that the said John P Sloan in manner and form aforesaid then and there voluntarily and feloniously himself did Kill and slay against the peace and dignity of the same State aforesaid.

John Randall October 19, 1857 at the dwelling house of John Randall, Edgefield County, SC razor

upon their oaths do say that the said John Randall came to his death. . .from wounds inflicted upon his neck and throat. . .by a Razor in his own hand

John Southern February 29, 1880 at Greenville, Greenville County, SC pistol

upon their oaths do say that the said John L Southern came to his death by willfully shooting himself with a Pistol fired by his own hand

John Stokes May 25, 1856 at [?] Stokes, Greenville County, SC cotton cord

upon their oaths do say, by hanging himself with a cotton cord [?] a plow line tied to the fork of a dogwood tree.

John Sulivan December 17, 1859 at B. D. Garison's residence, Anderson County, SC laudanum

do say upon their oaths that the aforesaid John Sulivan not having the fear of God before his eyes, but being moved and secluded by the instigation of the Devil at and in the dwelling house of B. D. Garrison in his bead the said John Sulivan being then and there alone died by the excessive use of ardent spirits and laudunum voluntarily and felonisouly and of his nature afore though did drink and use the said ardent spirits and laudunum until he died.

John Webster November 21, 1885 at Gaffney City, Spartanburg County, SC pistol

upon their oaths do say by a pistol shot in the alley between L. G. Byars lumber house and Dr. W. A. Forte's stables ... caused by the hands of the deceased John H. Webster

John Williams at Strother, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said John Williams came to his death "by his own hands for his own free will by jumping from the train while moving."

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.

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

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

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

Joshua Miller December 22, 1851 at Joshua Millers, Edgefield County, SC shotgun

Upon their Oaths do say, that he came to his death . . .by a discharge of a Shot Gun loaded with powder and lead, carried by himself and that the said Joshua Miller . . .voluntarily and feloniously himself did Kill

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.

Judy Cook August 9, 1861 at or near the residence of Mary Ann Cook, Spartanburg County, SC hank of yarn

upon their oaths do say that the said Miss Judy Cook came to her death by hanging herself with a hank of yarn tied around the neck

Larkin Swearengen April 1, 1852 at the hous of Larkin Swearengen, Edgefield County, SC razor

Upon their Oaths do say that the said Larkin Swearengen came to his death, by a wound in the throat inflicted with a razor, by his own hand

Lewis slave May 21, 1861 at S. H. Roggers, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that Lewis came to his death by his own hands. . .then and there voluntarily and feloniously did hang and him self did kill

Lizzie Carson January 29, 1892 at John J Carson Coleman Township, Edgefield County, SC pistol

upon their oaths do say that the Said Mrs Lizzie Carson Came to her death. . .by a pistol ball wound in her own hands

Lonnie Jordan February 4, 1934 about 5 miles east of Jefferson, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their Oaths, do say, that Lon Jordan came to his death by gun shot wound in the head, by his own hand.

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

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

M. Emmitt Bryant June 25, 1891 at the Residence of Mrs Caterim[?] Bryants, Edgefield County, SC rope

upon their oaths do say the said M E Bryant came to his death . . .by hanging himself With a rope around his neck

M. F. Anderson February 22, 1883 at the residence of JR Anderson, Laurens County, SC strychnine

upon their oaths do say that the said M F Anderson came to her death by taking an overdose of Strychnine and that the said M F Anderson in manner and form then and there voluntarily and feloniously herself did kill against the peace and dignity of the same State aforesaid.

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

Mary Gee June 12, 1848 at Peterson Gee, Union County, SC rope

do say upon the oaths . . .that we believe Mary E Gee . . .did commit Fellony on herself by hanging herself by the neck with a rope

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