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, an enslaved woman 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 ascending Inquest Finding
Bessie Gambrell Anderson County, SC

we the jury find that Bessie Gambrell came to her death by swallowing Cartridge Hull No. 32 causing her death.

Daniel slave, boy April 28, 1859 at L. Halls Tisery[?], Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that. . .Daniel came to his death by drownding whether axidental or intentional unknown

Rhoda Beam March 19, 1861 at Fishdown[?], Fairfield County, SC

upon our oaths do say, that the said Mrs. Bean voluntarily and feloniously knowing[?] did Kil[?] by Jumping out of the flat at [?] fery into [?] and drounding hirself

Columbus Baskins December 20, 1912 at B R Rivers Doer, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: Columbus Baskins came to his death by gun shots inflicted wound by his own hand

Reuben Ligon June 23, 1814 at Reuben Ligons, Laurens County, SC

Do say upon there oaths that we believe from the Evidence of William Wright the person who found the Body of the said Rubin Ligon hanging on a Branch of a Dogwood near the mouth of the said Ligons Lane on the twenty third Day of June 1814 and the circumstances appeared to us that the said Ruben Ligon was in a state of stupidity and insane and Did on the Day above mentioned between the ours [sic[ of then & twelve Oclock neer [sic] the mouth of his own lane then and there with a Rope the value of 6 1/2 Cents did tie one end about his own neck and the Other End to a Branch of a Dogwood and there Perpetrated his Own Death...

Andrew Craig December 1, 1813 at Cyrus Seay's, Spartanburg County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the said Andrew Craig did murder himself with a loded [sic] shot Gun

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

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

Solomon Ellenberg February 18, 1859 near the Residence of G.M. Ouzts[?], Edgefield County, SC

unanimously determin and conclude that the said Solomon Ellenberg in maner and form afore said then and there volunterly and feloniously himself did kill by hanging himself by the neck

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

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

Cephas Palmer March 31, 1879 at W. G. Austell's Mill Pond, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Cephas Palmer came to his death by drowning being his own act

George October 9, 1822 at John Williams, Laurens County, SC

do say upon their oaths, and so the Jurors aforesaid upon their oaths aforesaid, say that the aforesaid infant Child the aforesaid Susannah Finny, then and there feloniously Did kill and murder, against the peace of this State.

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

William Cockerham December 16, 1813 at the Widow Bea[?]'s, Spartanburg County, SC

say upon their oaths that the said William Cockerham [did] kill & murder himself against the peace of this state

Fan Negro Woman October 1, 1833 at James [?] Land[?], Union County, SC

do say upon there oaths that she came to her death by voluntarily hanging herself

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

A. E. Powell at A.E. Powell's residence, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that deceased A.E. Powell came to his death by a Pistol Shot in his own hands in his parlor of his residence[.]

Susannah Nuton May 28, 1828 at the premises of Robert[?] Watkins, Union County, SC

do say upon there Oathes . . .that the aforesaid Susannah Suton Came to her Deth by hanging with a cord round her neck to the Value of Six & a fourth cents on a Sowerwood Sapling Supposed to have been commited by Same person

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.

Mat April 13, 1815 on Hugh Mahoffeys Plantation, Laurens County, SC

do say upon their Oaths, that on the night of the 11th of this Instant he hanged himself with a piece of hickory bark

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.

David Weatherspoon April 5, 1827 at the dwelling house of Thomas Davis, Spartanburg County, SC

[do] say that they think according to the evidence given by Sally and Ly[?] Chandler that the s'd David Weatherspoon was accessory to his own Death

Earnestine Rewie April 19, 1944 at Cheraw, S.C., Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Earnestine Rewie received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Burns . . . She came to her death by burns - probably accidental

Elisa Wilson October 14, 1841 at Edward Wilson's, Laurens County, SC

We the above named Jurors do say on our oaths, that Eliza Wilson now here lying dead came to her death by her own act, by hanging herself with her apron and petty coat by the neck on a dogwood tree, in the forrest near her Father Edward Wilson's House on the 12th October 1841.

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

J. J. Jennings November 16, 1860 at J J Jennings, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that. . .on his own premises Murdered himself by fireing his Gin house and was found with in the same

R. W. Foster September 26, 1859 at the mill pond near Holly Spring, Spartanburg County, SC

find that the deceased came to his death by voluntary drowning

Patrick Bell at Middlesex, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Patrick Bell came to his death by Felony of his own hands. That he killed himself in the same place he is now lying , Middlesex Plantation that he came to his death by a gun shot wound fired from a 38 calibre Wesson & Harrington pistolin his ownhand the ball entering the body between the third and fourth ribs to the right of the sternum.

A. M. Hill March 19, 1879 at John P. Sathens, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do Say That the Said AM Hill in manner and form aforesaid then and there voluntarily him Self did kill againce the peace and dignity of the Same State afoesaid by drowning him Self in a well on the 19th day of March AD 1879

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

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.

Earnest Hammond October 15, 1945 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Earnest Hammond received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Shot gun in the hands of Person or Persons Unknown

Samuel Kennedy June 8, 1842 at or near Laurens Court House, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say. That the deceased came to his death in the woods near his mothers residence in said District by discharging the contents of a rifle Gun in to his chest in a fit of mental deragement, by resting the Gun on a rock and Tying a String to the trigger and then... pulling the Gun Towards him day and date above mentioned.

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

upon their oaths do say that he hung himself

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

Tom December 12, 1813 at Col. Starling Tucker's, Laurens County, SC

do say upon their Oaths that on their Opinion that not having God before his Eyes but being Seduced and moved by the instigation of the Devil did Voluntarily and feloniously and of his malice afore though hanged and Suffocated himself against the peace and Dignity of the S. State.

Goodall September 15, 1823 at the boatyard near Camden on the Wateree, Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the said Goodall not having the fear of God before his eyes, but being moved and seduced by the instigation of the Devil at the boat yard near Camden . . . then and there himself voluntarily and feloniously downed [himself]

Henry Powell May 15, 1881 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the deceased came to his death from wounds mad by a Knife in his throat, by whom inflicted to the Jury unknown

S. B. Layton March 11, 1885 at S. B. Layton's Store near S. S. Johnson's residence, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said S. B. Layton came to his death by a gun shot wound ... and that the said S. B. Layton ... voluntarily and feloniously himself did kill against the pease and dignity of the state

Phil July 29, 1821 at Laurens Court House, Laurens County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the said Phil not having God before his eyes, but being seduced and moved by the instigation of the Devil in the gaol of Laurens District aforesaid, being then & there alone with a certain piece of blanket which he then & their had one end of which was tied round his neck, and the other end thereof tied to the grate of the door of the dungeon, and himself then & there with the piece of blanket aforesaid volunarily & feloniously and of his malice aforethought, hanged & suffocated: And so the jurors aforesaid, upon their oaths aforesaid, say that as a felon of himself, feloniously, voluntarily & of his malice aforethought himself killed, strangled & murdered against the peace of the said State.

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

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

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.

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