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 Datesort ascending Inquest Location Death Method Inquest Finding
Wesley Weaver[?] June 15, 1858 at Mrs Lydia Nevus[?], Edgefield County, SC shotgun

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

Spencer May 9, 1858 in the woods on Mr R S Hendersons plantation, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Spencer, in manner & form aforesaid, then & there, voluntarily & felloniously himself did kill by hanging

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

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

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

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

Celia King September 8, 1857 at Peter King's residence, Anderson County, SC hank of cotton thread

do say the said Celia King. . .came to her death by hanging herself with a hank of cotton thread and suspended to a bush.

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.

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...

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.

Amos slave March 15, 1856 at the plantation of John McRae on the banks of the Wateree, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said negro Amos came to his death by jumping into the Wateree River where he was drowned

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

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

Basil M. Boone November 4, 1855 at the residence of Daniel Boone, Edgefield County, SC rifle

upon their oaths aforesaid do say that. . .they did then and there find the body of Basil M Boone of said District, prostrate upon the ground with his face upwards with a mortal wound in his forehead, which we believe was inflicted by a Rifle ball, finding a rifle gun there lying, with the muzzle, under the left leg of the deceased ... we believe that the said Basil M Boone ... himself did shoot and Kill

William Abernathy July 12, 1855 Spartanburg County, SC rope

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

Samuel Hudgens November 9, 1854 at Samuel Hudgens, Laurens County, SC laudanum

upon their Oaths do say it appearing from the examination of the body, & Testimony that the said Samuel Hudgins came to his death at his own residence on the 9th of November 1854 from an accessive [sic] uses [sic] of Laddnum taken at his own will & from his own hands.

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

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.

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

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

upon their oaths do say that he hung himself

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

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

Cuffy April 19, 1853 at Dorroughs Mill, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say we believe that said Slave did voluntarily feloniously himself kill by drowning against the peace and dignity of Said State afforesaid

Hancock Porter May 29, 1852 at Hancock Porters, Union County, SC musket

uppon their oaths doo say that . . .the deceast Hancock Porter took his musket went to his Blacksmith shop and took the barrel out of the stock made a fire in his forge put the brick in the fire held the muzel to his throat and the gun went off then and therefore voluntarily and feloniously him self did kill

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellick negro man April 26, 1851 at the house of W. F Prescott, Edgefield County, SC rope

upon their oaths do say, that the said Ellick, . . .voluntarily, and feloniously, himself did Kill. By hanging himself by the neck, suspended by a rope form the joist

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

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...

Bob slave November 19, 1850 at the residence of Capt. R. Smith, Spartanburg County, SC rope

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid boy came to his death by hanging himself with a rope attached to a small white oak sapling

Eli Givings July 15, 1850 at the late residence of Eli Givings, Spartanburg County, SC rope

upon the evidence submitted on oath before us that Eli Givings came to his death by his own hand by hanging himself with a rope not worth more that 12 cts.

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

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

William L. Russell September 6, 1849 in the Hotel of H Jordon, Edgefield County, SC razor

upon their oaths do say the said William L Russell came to his death . . .by cutting his own throat with a Razor while in a temporary state of insanity

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

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.

Jacob Long Jr. December 19, 1848 at Jacob Longs, Edgefield County, SC razor

upon their Oaths do say that the Decd came to his death by committing Suicide . . .in his own Gin house by cutting the arteries of neck with his own razor, and bled to death

Ann negro woman December 8, 1848 at the house of Benja F Landrum, Edgefield County, SC rope

upon their oaths do say the said Decd came to her death in the Shop of B F Landrum by hanging herself with a rope around her neck

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

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

Aleck slave July 18, 1848 at Major J. Whitaker's plantation, Kershaw County, SC

that he came to his death by drowning in attempting to escape from Capt. Hale & Col. J. Chesnut's hands on the 10th inst

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

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

Bill slave May 14, 1848 at John H. Wofford's, Spartanburg County, SC hickory bark

upon their oaths do say that the said Negro man slave Bill did with a piece of Hickory bark by his own hand feloniously hang himself by the neck against the peace and dignity of the state

Blassingame Wise April 27, 1848 at or near the Negro quarter of Mrs Wiley Glover, on Savannah River, Edgefield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say, that . . .the decd Blassingame Wise, . . .came to his death by voluntarily drowing himself in Savannah River

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

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

Angeyline Hainey May 16, 1847 at the dwelling house of Henry Iveys, Union County, SC razor

upon oath do say . . .the said deceased did kill and distroy her own life by means of cutting her own throat with the Raisor of Henry Ivey which was found lying with her dead body

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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