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 201 - 243 of 243
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Methodsort descending Inquest Finding
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

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

Allen negro man September 4, 1858 at Mrs. Moor's, Greenville County, SC rifle

upon their oaths do say that the deceased came to his death by ball shot from a rifle gun into his forehead causing instant death, the gun lying by his side, the ram rod drawn out and lying on the ground, a long forked stick lying lengthwise on the body

Thomas Gaskin February 26, 1842 at an old field in the district of Kershaw, Kershaw County, SC rifle

upon their oaths [do say] Thomas M. Gaskin came [to his] death by shooting himself [with] a rifle

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 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

G. Gallman February 26, 1842 at John H Galmons, Union County, SC rifle

upon their oaths do say that in the house of the abovesaid John H Gallman the said G W Gallman did Shoot himself in the left temple with a rifle gun

Nancy Steele December 11, 1842 at the Poor House, Anderson County, SC rope

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nancy Poole March 31, 1841 at Nancy Pool's, Spartanburg County, SC rope

uppon [sic] their oaths do say by violence at her own house. . .by hanging herself with a rope by the neck

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.

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

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

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

Eliza Jane Huckaby April 24, 1874 at the house of Jane Littlefield in Cross Anchor township, Spartanburg County, SC rope

upon their oaths do say that. . .the said Eliza Jane Juckaby came to her death by her own hands by hanging herself with a rope in a rather mysterious way

Anthony slave June 1, 1841 at Camden, Kershaw County, SC rope

upon their oaths do say hat he came to his death by hanging himself with a rope in Camden on the 1st day of June instant

Elizer female slave February 26, 1845 at John Forbise's, Union County, SC rope

upon their oaths do say that the said Eliza did voluntarily and feloniously herself Kill by means of tying a Rope around the Neck and hanging herself to a Joice[?] in an out house

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

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

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

Hutson B. Sulivan August 13, 1866 at Kely Sulivan's [?] residence, Anderson County, SC rope or cord

upon oaths say that the deceased came to his death by self murder by hanging himself with a rope, or cord supsended to a rafter of the house where he was found

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

R. Boyd Eubank September 21, 1942 at Jefferson, S.C., Chesterfield County, SC shotgun

upon their oaths do say that R. Boyd Eubank received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by 12 gauge Shot Gun in the hands of R. Boyd Eubank - Intentionally

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

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

J. Hancock June 13, 1859 at J. Hancocks, Edgefield County, SC shotgun

upon there oaths do say that the said J. Hancock came to his death by a shot from a doubble barrell shot gun left hand barrell of said gun shot entering the boddy about the navel and little on the right side killed in his own house. . .himself did kill

Cubiner slave October 27, 1844 at the residence of B. Haile, Kershaw County, SC shotgun

upon their oaths do say that the said negro slave named Cubiner, the property of Capt. B. Hail, came to his death by shooting himself through the head with a double barrelled gun

H. C. Rice December 29, 1859 at the house of HC Rice, Union County, SC shotgun

upon their oaths do say - that the deceased came to his death by the the discharge of a double Barrell shotgun which the deceased contrived to discharge he receiving[?] the contents of one Barrell in the left breast to [?] to the right of the left nipple and that the [?] the decd was committed Having a [?] of mania

Charlotte negro woman slave June 25, 1825 at the house of Samuel I. Hary[?], Union County, SC shotgun

do say upon their oaths that. . .the decd came to her death by the forms[?] of a shot gun loaded with powder and shot. The [?] passing through the right hand and lodging in the right breast a little above the nipple. . . we believe the deceased was handling and [?] the said shot gun

Charles slave June 8, 1840 at Mrs Margaret Beatys, Union County, SC small cord

upon their oaths do say that the said Charles did tye about his neck and to the Rafter of a ginn house a small cord and by his own contrivence[?] did distroy his own life

William Milhous May 27, 1807 Union County, SC small 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

Dick slave May 25, 1845 at the plantation of Margaret Montgomery's near Sedar [sic] Shoal Creek, Spartanburg County, SC small rope

do say upon their oaths that the above named Dick not having the fear of God before his eyes but being moved and seduced by the instigation fo the Devil did voluntarily hang himself with a small rope on a limb of a walnut tree

Elizabeth Brown May 2, 1839 at Daniel Browns House, Laurens County, SC strychnine
Elizabeth Brown May 3, 1859 at Daniel Browns House, Laurens County, SC strychnine

upon their oaths do say that she came to her death by voluntarily administering poison with her own hands, at her Fathers House in the District afforesaid

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.

Warren Richards August 18, 1894 Laurens County, SC train
Aron slave, boy June 15, 1862 near the White house, Edgefield County, SC vine

upon there oaths do say that the boy came to his death by commiting suicide by hanging himself with a vine to a dogwood tree

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