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 151 - 158 of 158
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Method Inquest Finding
William Davis June 11, 1881 at Mr. Jeb Davis's residence, Anderson County, SC gunshot

do say that the deceased came to his death by a pistol shot fired by his own hands.

William Ewbanks October 30, 1841 at the house of Elizerbeth Ewbankses, Union County, SC hanging

upon their oaths do say that the said William Eubanks did commit suicide by hanging himself to a line[?] by the neck

William Johnson November 28, 1840 at the House of Wm. Johnson, Union County, SC alcohol

upon their oathes do say … Wm Johnson came to his death by misfortune through intoxication

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

William Mahan single man November 20, 1810 Union County, SC hanging

upon the oaths … do say that the Sd Wm Mahan for want of the Grace of God & the instagation of the Divel Came to his Death by forcing a small hemp rope Round his neck to a Beam of the house in his own BeadRoom where with he hangd himd Self Dead

William Malone June 6, 1844 at the residence of Wm. Malone, Union County, SC 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

William McMahan November 20, 1810 in his own home, Union County, SC hanging

do say on their oaths that for want of the Grace of God and the instatigation of the Divel did William McMahan hang himSelf with a hemp Rope fixt[?] [?] his own BedSide

William Milhous May 27, 1807 Union County, SC pen knife

do say on their oaths the Said William Milowan[?] Came to his Death By the temptation of the Devil and for want of the Grace of God diloniously homicideed himSelf Cuting his throat with a Small Pen Knife

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