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 151 - 200 of 243
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Methodsort descending Inquest Finding
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.

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.

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

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.

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

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

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

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

William Mahan single man November 20, 1810 Union County, SC hemp rope

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 McMahan November 20, 1810 in his own home, Union County, SC hemp rope

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

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

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

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.

Belfast slave January 18, 1813 on the plantation of John Damson Esqr, Kershaw County, SC knife

do say upon their oaths that the said Belfast [did] voluntarily & feloniously ... kill and murder himself with a knife by stabbing himself in the neck

Richard Airington October 26, 1942 [no location given], Chesterfield County, SC knife

[No official declaration]

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

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

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

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.

Doctor James Glenn June 8, 1831 on the high way, Fairfield County, SC laudanum

do say upon their oaths that he came to his death by the affects of Laudnum. Given under own hand

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

J. H. McPherson January 3, 1877 at Gaffney City, Spartanburg County, SC pistol

upon their oaths do say that he, the deceased, came to his death from the effects of a pistol shot wound in the head, inflicted by his own hand

Darling Willis March 4, 1859 at Wade Holeston warter, Edgefield County, SC pistol

upon there oaths do say that the said Darling Willis came to his death by the shot of a pistol in his own hands in his house

J. Mand Elford September 25, 1877 at Spartanburg Court House, Spartanburg County, SC pistol

upon their oaths do say that the said J. Mand Elford came to his death from a pistol shot wound entering the mouth and ranging upward in his head, penetrating the brain, said sistol shot being fired from a pistol in his own hand

G. Heath December 14, 1877 at S. G. Chapman's, Greenville County, SC pistol

upon their oaths do say by a pistol shot from his own hands on the west side of Reedy River below fork Shoals Factory

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

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

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

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

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

William Davis June 11, 1881 at Mr. Jeb Davis's residence, Anderson County, SC pistol

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

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

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

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.

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 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

Alexander Rogers July 15, 1818 lying in the home of F. Blair, Kershaw County, SC razor

after said examination and due deliberation are of opinion that the said Alexander Rogers caused his death by cutting his throat with a razor, he being in a state of mental derangement at the time caused by fever

Andrew Thompson December 19, 1859 at Andrew Thompson's house, Fairfield County, SC razor

upon their oaths do say, that Andrew Thompson here lying dead came to his death then and there, voluntarily and feloneausly, himself did kill, by cutting his throat with a rasor

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

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

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

Phillip McDonough December 13, 1829 at the house of Thomas Nelson in the town of Winnsborough, Fairfield County, SC razor

do say upon their oaths that said deceased died of his own voluntary act put an end to his life by cutting with a razor through his windpipe & also through the veins and arteries of his left arm.

R.Y. Hayne Bell March 31, 1893 at R.Y.H. Bell's house, Laurens County, SC razor

ipon their oathes do say that he came to his death from a Razor wound on his neck, inflicted By his own hand.

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

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

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

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

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

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