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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 35/July 1889/A Study of Suicide

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 35‎ | July 1889


AS the love of life is generally acknowledged to be the strongest instinct of the human mind, it is but natural that the subject of voluntary death should have attracted, at all times, a great amount of attention from moralists and sociologists.

Some of the noblest men and women of ancient times advocated and practiced self-destruction, and the frequency of the act in our own day demonstrates that the fear of death is by no means general. Prof. Mayer, of Paris, in a lecture on this subject, declared that every one of his hearers had, at some time, thought favorably of committing the deed. He challenged contradiction, but no one responded.

This longing for "restful death," which comes to nearly all of us sooner or later, can usually be resisted; but often the desire is so great that the will is not strong enough to overcome it, and another name is added to the long list of suicides which statistics show us is increasing with terrible rapidity.

Very exhaustive statistics in regard to this subject have been compiled by Profs. Bertillion and Morselli, and they both arrive at about the same conclusions. Taking each million of inhabitants, the following results were obtained: In Austria the number was increased between 1860 and 1878 by from 70 to 122 annually; in Prussia, between 1820 and 1878, by from 71 to 133; in the smaller German states, between 1835 and 1878, by from 117 to 289; in France, between 1827 and 1877, by from 52 to 149, the greater proportion being in the larger cities. Peasants rarely commit suicide, statistics showing that in Belgium, where laborers can generally find employment, the increase between 1831 and 1876 was only from 39 to 68. In Sweden and Norway about the same result was obtained, viz., an increase from 39 to 80 per year during the same period. Italy, Spain, and Ireland show the lowest number, the increase between 1864 and 1878 being only from 28 to 35 in the former, while in Spain and Ireland it was still less, the latter showing an increase of but from 14 to 18 per year during the same period. This result is probably due to a great extent to the influence of the Catholic priesthood, for it is the Roman Church, above all others, that has firmly "fix'd its canon 'gainst self-slaughter."

On account of the more settled social condition of England the statistics of that country do not show the same alarming increase as those of France, Germany, and Austria, but the regularity of the number for each five years, from 1855 to 1875—viz., from 1855 to 1860, 65; from 1860 to 1865, 66; from 1865 to 1870, 67; and from 1870 to 1875, 66—supports in a remarkable degree the statement made by Buckle that, "when the social conditions do not undergo any marked change, we find year by year the same proportion of persons putting an end to their existence, so that we are able to predict, within a very small limit of error, the number of voluntary deaths for each ensuing period."

Both Profs, Bertillion and Morselli express some doubt as to the reliability of their statistics showing an increase in the United States on account of its rapidly increasing population; but any one who will pay attention to the subject will be convinced, I am sure, that a marked increase is annually taking place; and there are many reasons why it should be so. Our country is young, social changes are rapid, and the struggle for wealth is severe. In brief, we are living in what is justly called a "fast age." The modern youth "consumes in an hour, by useless brilliancy, the oil of the lamp which should burn throughout the night," and soon finds that the infirmities of age have supplanted the vigor of youth; the business man who to-day is at the very height of prosperity, by some rash speculation becomes a bankrupt to-morrow; the professional man, who is ambitious of distinction, does not rest when the sun goes down, but prolongs his work far into the quiet hours of night. In fact, almost every one is madly pursuing either pleasure, wealth, or fame, and, under such circumstances, is it a wonder that often an overpowering sense of ennui and disgust of life occurs, or that the delicate structure of the brain breaks down, impelling the unfortunate victim to seek rest in the suicide's dishonored grave?

Besides dissipation, reverses of fortune and overwork, love, jealousy, and remorse play an important part in the etiology of self-destruction. Marc Antony fell upon his sword and killed himself because he believed that Cleopatra had played him false; and she, overcome by remorse and grief, placed the asp to her breast that it might "the knot intrinsicate of life untie," and thus unite her in the grave with him whose absence filled her life with woe; and the same motives which, thirty years before the birth of Christ, made Antony and Egypt's queen "a-weary of the sun," rule just as powerfully to-day in modern hearts.

Such, causes, though occurring everywhere, are, of course, more frequent in large cities like Paris, London, and New York, the former probably taking precedence, it being no uncommon sight to see upon the marble slabs of the Morgue three or four dead bodies which have been recovered from the Seine. When the history of such cases can be learned, they show, in the majority of instances, the absence of domestic ties, coupled either with misguided love and jealousy or dissipation and remorse. Indeed, so far as men are concerned, we must consider marriage, with its accompanying influences of home and children, a most important prophylactic. In regard to women, however, this statement does not hold good, for with them suicide is more frequent among the married than the single, the proportion being 10 to about 9 or 9*4. This may be explained to some extent by the mental disturbances produced by pregnancy and child-birth, but the strongest reason undoubtedly is that a girl's youthful dreams of happiness are often shattered by the realities of married life.

One of the most interesting tables in this connection is that compiled by Bertillion, and first published in the "Revue Scientifique" for 1879. He found that among a million of inhabitants, taken from all classes, the following numbers committed suicide, viz.:

Married men with children 205 Married women with children 45
Married men without children 470 Married women without children 158
Widowers with children 526 Widows with children 104
Widowers without children 1,004 Widows without children 238

We here learn the interesting facts that, when marriage is childless, the number of suicides is doubled in men and trebled in women; and also that maternal love diminishes the number of suicides among widows with children by one third over those of childless unions.

This table also shows that males exceed females in the frequency of the act in the proportion of four to one. While this is true of suicides in general, it certainly is not the case in those who are insane. My experience leads me to believe that suicidal tendencies in the insane are quite as frequent among women as among men, and I am sure that the former frequently show the more determination and persistence. In the outside world men lead more exciting lives and are subject to greater mental strain than women, and it is therefore natural that they should more frequently resort to suicide. Another probable reason for the comparative infrequency of suicide among women is that they are better endowed with religious fervor and possess a larger share of hope. In India and Japan only does this rule fail to hold good, and there the number of suicides among women is twice as great as among men. This fact bears striking witness to the hardships of woman's lot in countries removed from the influences of civilization.

Statistics show that the months in which the fewest suicides occur are October and November, while the greatest number occur in April, May, and June. July and September also have a goodly share, the latter possessing a peculiar fascination for women. This refutes the old idea that suicides occur most frequently in damp and gloomy weather, for the months just mentioned as being the most prolific are certainly those in which the skies look brightest and the earth is fairest. Another remarkable fact in this connection is that the progressive increase and decrease in the number of suicides coincide with the lengthening and the shortening of the days, and, as M. Guerry has shown, not only the seasons of the year, but the days of the month and of the week, and even the hours of the day exert an influence, the constancy of which can not be mistaken. As a result of his elaborate research he found that the greatest number of suicides among men occurred during the first ten days of the month, and from Monday to Thursday of the week. This is accounted for by remembering that the majority of workingmen receive their wages either on the first of the month or the last of the week, and that "pay-day" is often followed by dissipation, debauchery, and remorse. Oettingen completed this interesting observation by showing that the larger number of suicides among women take place during the last half of the week, when they are most apt to feel the effects of man's prodigality and wrong-doing. In regard to the hours of the day, we know, from Brierre de Boismont's examination of 1,993 cases of suicide in Paris, that the maximum number occurred between 6 a. m. and noon, and thereafter regularly declined, reaching the minimum at the hour before sunrise.

It is also an established fact that the more rugged natures of men impel them to seek coarser means of self-destruction, such as the revolver, the razor, and the rope, the latter being most frequently used by those in whom the vigor of manhood is lost. Women, on the contrary, seldom resort to measures which they think will disfigure them, and therefore most frequently seek death by poisoning, asphyxia, or drowning. This, of course, only refers to cases in which the suicide has opportunity to adopt the method preferred. In hospitals for the insane almost all suicides, both male and female, and of whatever age, are accomplished by suspension, that being generally the most available method.

Epidemics of suicide frequently occur, and he who introduces any unusual method is sure of having numerous followers. In 1793 an epidemic occurred in Versailles, and the population was decreased within a single year by 1,300 self-sought deaths. In the Hôtel des Invalides an inmate hung himself upon a certain cross-bar, and within a fortnight five more did the same thing, although there had not been a single case of suicide in the establishment for two years before, and the threatened epidemic was only averted by the removal of the fatal bar.

Lord Bacon, in his "Essay on Death," says that, "after Otho, the emperor, had slain himself, pity (which is the tenderest of affections) provoked many to die out of mere compassion to their sovereign." Plutarch tells us that the women of the ancient city of Miletus, becoming melancholy over the absence of their husbands and lovers, resolved to hang themselves, and vied with each other in the alacrity with which they did the deed. Various other epidemics have occurred in more recent times—viz., at Rouen, in 1806; at Stuttgart, in 1811, etc.

What might almost be called an epidemic prevailed in the New York State Lunatic Asylum in July, 1850. According to the report for that year, there were at one time twenty-eight persons in the institution bent upon destroying themselves. There were admitted during that month forty-four patients, nineteen of whom were suicidal. The first successful attempt occurred on the 12th, and on the following day two more, who had been in the asylum for a long time and had never shown suicidal tendencies, attempted strangulation, and were so persistent that they were only prevented from carrying out their designs by mechanical restraint. On the 17th, 20th, and 22d other attempts were made by various patients, and before the end of the month, at which time it subsided, there had been fourteen distinct attempts by eight persons, while several others, in whom the propensity was strong, required constant watching to prevent them from accomplishing their object.

These epidemics are, to a great extent, the result of the principle of imitation, and it may be said that suicide is almost as much the subject of fashion as is dress or household decoration, and that each particular method reigns for a time and then gives way to some newer means. For instance, a man destroys himself by plunging from the heights of a tower. The newspapers graphically record the fact, and straightway a dozen more do the same thing, and the practice is only stopped when some one who is tired of life sends a bullet through his brain. This method is then adopted until another takes a dose of carbolic acid, when that in turn becomes the prevailing means.

Another proof that suicide is often due to the faculty of imitation is the fact that many cases are recorded of children committing the deed, without apparent cause, after having heard of a case in which their interest was aroused.

Among the most remarkable attempts at suicide upon record is that of a man in Fressonville, in Picardy, as related by Dr. Winslow, who was actuated by a desire to ring his own death knell. To accomplish this object he hanged himself to the clapper of the church-bell. But, fortunately, he chose an hour at which it was not customary for the bell to ring, and attention was attracted in time to save his life. Another very deliberate attempt, probably the most extraordinary ever known, was that made by an Italian shoemaker, named Matthew Lovat. This case was originally reported by Dr. Bergierre, afterward enlarged upon by Dr. Winslow in his "Anatomy of Suicide," and has since been frequently quoted by various writers. The history of the case in brief is that the man determined to imitate as nearly as possible the crucifixion of our Saviour, and therefore deliberately set about making a cross, and providing himself with all the adjuncts of that scene. "He perceived that it would be difficult to nail himself firmly to the cross, and therefore made a net which he fastened over it, securing it at the bottom of the upright beam and at the ends of the two arms. The whole apparatus was tied by two ropes, one from the net and the other from the place where the beams intersected one another. These ropes were fastened to the bar above the window, and were just sufficiently long to allow the cross to lie horizontally upon the floor of the apartment. Having finished these preparations, he next put on his crown of thorns, some of which entered his forehead; then, having stripped himself naked, he girded his loins with a white handkerchief. He then introduced himself into the net, and, seating himself on the cross, drove a nail through the palm of his right hand by striking its head upon the floor until the point appeared on the other side. He now placed his feet upon a bracket he had prepared for them, and with a mallet drove a nail completely through them both, fastening them to the wood. He next tied himself to the cross by a piece of cord around his waist, and wounded himself in the side with a knife which he used in his trade. The wound was inflicted two inches below the hypochondrium, toward the internal angle of the abdominal cavity, but did not injure any of the parts which the cavity contains. Several scratches were observed upon his breast which appear to have been done by the knife in probing for a place which should present no obstruction. The knife, according to Lovat, represented the spear of the passion. All this he accomplished in the interior of his apartment, but it was necessary to show himself in public. To accomplish this he had placed the foot of the cross upon the window-sill, which was very low, and by pressing his fingers against the floor he gradually drew himself forward until, the foot of the cross overbalancing the head, the whole machine tilted out of the window and hung by the ropes which were fastened to the beam. He then, by way of finishing, nailed his right hand to the arm of the cross, but could not succeed in fixing the left, although the nail by which it was to have been fixed was driven through it, and half of it came out on the other side. This happened at eight o'clock in the morning. Some persons by whom he was perceived ran up-stairs, disengaged him from the cross, and put him to bed. By medical care his wounds ultimately healed, but he was ever afterward morose and singular."

A person bent upon suicide will sometimes await a favorable opportunity for months, or overcome apparently insurmountable difficulties by the exercise of ingenuity which, if it were devoted to the accomplishment of a better object, would be worthy of the highest commendation. Dr. Wynter cites the case of a man who was placed under medical observation because he had attempted to commit suicide. He was watched with the greatest care; during nine months all means—so far as his attendants knew—by which he could injure himself were removed. But one morning he was discovered hanging by his neck from the bedstead, quite dead. How he became possessed of the cord was an enigma which was afterward solved by the discovery that he had carefully preserved every piece of string from the parcels that had been sent to him from time to time. With them he had twisted a rope sufficiently strong to accomplish his purpose. The newspapers a few months ago reported the case of a man named Frederick Helbig, of Zanesville, Ohio, who also showed considerable inventive talent. He was blind and disconsolate, and therefore resolved to die, but as none of the common methods were suited to his purpose he made his way to the cellar, broke off a piece of the gas-pipe, and then covering the end of the pipe and his head with a heavy quilt, quietly suffocated himself with the gas.

Another extraordinary case is that of a man who was quite recently admitted to the Buffalo Insane Asylum. He had attempted suicide the day before while in the station-house, and, owing to his dangerous tendencies, he was placed under the care of a special night-watch, who sat outside his door. For three nights all went well, but on the fourth he jumped from the head of his bed for the transom over his window, the only exposed glass in the room, crashing through the panes and seizing the bars on the outside. Before the attendant could prevent it he had, with a bit of glass, cut into his throat, severing the thyroid cartilage. The patient was in a frenzied condition, and it required the efforts of five attendants to keep him from tearing open the wound. The cartilage was united and the wound sewed and dressed. Foiled in his attempts to tear open the wound, he fixed his lips and jaws tightly and exhaled forcibly. He succeeded literally in blowing himself up, for the air found its way through. the slit in the cartilage into the tissues about the wound, and in a few seconds the emphysema extended as low as the clavicles and so high that his features lost all expression. He refused food and resisted nutritive enemas and shortly died of exhaustion.

The question, "Is suicide an evidence of insanity?" is one which has given rise to much discussion. In olden times it seems always to have been considered a crime, and very severe laws were enacted against it. The Hebrews did not bury the bodies of suicides until after sunset, thus treating them as they did executed criminals. The Armenians cursed and burned the house in which the suicide had lived. At Thebes their bodies were burned and no funeral rites allowed; while the Greeks, on the contrary, among whom it was the custom to burn the bodies of those who died a natural death, buried suicides immediately, as they thought it a wrong to contaminate fire, which they deemed a holy element, by burning in it the bodies of those who had been guilty of self-slaughter. In England it was formerly attended by some of the consequences of felony,[1] hence the term felo de se. All of the personal property which the party had at the time of committing the deed, even including debts to him, was forfeited to the crown, and his remains were interred, without the rites of Christian burial, in the public highway, with a stake driven through the body. In fact, everywhere was the act proscribed and considered a crime, until the present century, when it began to be regarded by many writers as a positive proof of insanity. Esquirol says, "I believe that I have proved that all suicides are mentally diseased"; and Dr. Winslow, one of the greatest authorities on this subject, supports Dr. Rowley's assertion that "suicide should ever be considered an act of insanity." On the other hand, Blandford, Griesinger, Bucknill, Tuke, Gray, and nearly all modern authorities think that suicide is often committed by people in whom no disease of the brain exists. Indeed, Dr. Gray went much further, and in one of his lectures said, "Suicide, though always an unnatural act, is, in the large proportion if not in the majority of cases, committed by persons who are entirely sane." Whether it is or is not the act of insanity can only be determined by a careful inquiry, as there are many cases to support either side of the argument, and each one must be a "law unto itself." For instance to be insane enough to commit suicide does not imply that a man must be a raving lunatic, "cutting strange antics before high Heaven," which make his madness apparent to the most unpracticed observer. Indeed, in many instances the attempt at suicide is the first prominent symptom of insanity, and frequently the intensity of the suicidal tendency subsides with the progress of the disease. All who know anything about the insane will admit that lunatics very frequently possess extraordinary cunning in concealing their lunacy, and that the malady, in many cases, is successfully hidden from friends and acquaintances until some remarkable departure from the ordinary ways of life brings it to light. A case in point is that of Hood Alston, who committed suicide in New Orleans in the early part of 1879, after writing a full explanation of why he wished to die. He had been an able writer for the newspapers in many of the large cities, his habits had been those of a gentleman, and his death, in the absence of the letter which he left, would have been inexplicable. He was in the Interior Department at Washington, and was afterward appointed the secretary of a mining company in California. He was married and had every requisite for domestic happiness. "Last November," he wrote, "I became possessed of an impulse to kill mv friends. I could hardly resist an opportunity. The desire would be but for a moment and then pass away. An infant was born to us two months ago. I loved it, was proud of it. When it first looked upon me the desire seized me to prey upon its young life. My friends were ignorant of my mental condition. I imparted it to no one, not even to my darling wife. I die that others may live." Dr. Winslow relates a singular case of a man who was heard to exclaim: Do, for God's sake, get me confined, for if I am at liberty I shall destroy myself and wife; I shall do it unless all means of destruction are removed, and therefore do have me put under restraint. Something above tells me I shall do it, and I shall." Mr. Chevalier also tells us of a young lady of delicate constitution, although she had never given any symptoms of mental derangement, who suddenly started up from the tea-table and rushed to the window, out of which she endeavored to throw herself. It was with great difficulty that she was prevented from accomplishing her design. She remained insane during the rest of her life, which he adds, "was fortunately not long protracted." Such cases illustrating the frequency and intensity of the suicidal and homicidal propensity abound in every work on mental disease and are found in every asylum. But, on the other hand, there are undoubtedly many cases of suicide in which the hypothesis of insanity is untenable. Cato stabbed himself rather than live under the despotic reign of Caesar; Themistocles poisoned himself rather than lead the Persians against his countrymen; Zeno, when ninety-eight, hung himself because he had put his finger out of joint; and Hannibal and Mithridates poisoned themselves to escape being taken prisoners. When we search Scripture we find that Saul, rather than fall into the hands of the Philistines, commanded his armor-bearer to hold his sword that he might plunge upon it; Samson, for the sake of being revenged upon his enemies, pulled down the house in which they were reveling and "died with them"; and Judas Iscariot, after selling the Saviour for thirty pieces of silver, was overcome by remorse "and went and hanged himself." The examples quoted from ancient history show that the deed was the result of Stoic philosophy, and those from the Bible show motives sufficient for the act, and in all must we discard the theory of insanity.

To come down to our own times, we may take, for example, the case of Benjamin Hunter, the Camden murderer. For four or five days before his execution he made a practice of sitting over the prison register, with his legs covered by a blanket, and, under the pretense that they were cold, kept rubbing them with his hands, leading those who saw him to believe that he did so only for the purpose of increasing their warmth by restoring the circulation through them. Upon the night preceding the execution he managed to secrete a basin in which he placed his feet, and after cutting through the vessels with a piece of sharpened tin he commenced the process of rubbing, and was actually forcing out his life with every movement when his appearance attracted the attention of the keeper. His object had almost been gained, and, under the circumstances, can we say that it was an insane one? He was a proud man, who dreaded the disgrace of a public execution; he also possessed in a marked degree the desire to cheat the law of its deserts, which is a characteristic tendency of the criminal mind; in one constituted and situated as he was there were sufficient reasons to account for the attempt, and, instead of its being the act of a madman it was merely the effort of a determined will to accomplish a desired end. Cases innumerable might be cited, did space permit, where persons of undoubted sanity have committed suicide for the purpose of escaping suffering, punishment, or disgrace. In fact, a great many of the suicides of which we daily read, probably the majority, can not be considered due to cerebral disease, but must be looked upon rather as the result of social laws, combined with false training and education.

"Is suicide ever justifiable?" is another mooted question, and many writers have answered it in the affirmative. Epictetus, Zeno, Pliny, Seneca, and Plutarch were its advocates. Hume, in his "Essay on Suicide," says: "It would be no crime for me to divert the Nile or Danube from its course if I could; where, then, is the crime of turning a few ounces of blood out of its natural channels?" Rousseau taught, "To seek one's own good and avoid one's own harm in that which hurts not another, is the law of Nature." Budgel believed that, "when life becomes uneasy to support, and is overwhelmed with clouds and sorrows, man has a natural right to deprive himself of it, as it is better not to live than to live in pain." Montesquieu, Montaigne, Dr. Donne, and others have advanced similar ideas; but it is needless to say that their arguments can find support only in the minds of those who believe that "death endeth all."

The tendency has always been to palliate the act, and the verdict, "committed suicide while laboring under temporary aberration of mind," has become a stereotyped phrase. This verdict was frequently rendered in earlier times for the purpose of preventing the property of the deceased from reverting to the crown, and it has been kept alive in more recent times by the desire, which is inherent in every human breast, to speak kindly of the dead. It is evident, however, that such a verdict should only be: rendered when the actions of the deceased have been such as to point very strongly to insanity, or where the autopsy shows undoubted lesions of the brain. Under such conditions no other verdict would be just. But when one becomes "a deserter from the army of humanity," and resorts to suicide as a means of escape from the trials of life, the act is merely a confession of weakness, which, while it may awaken feelings of compassion, certainly does not call for palliation. There are conditions of life, I will admit, to which death might seem far preferable; but though our misfortunes may be such as to make us long for the grave, we must, to slightly change the noble words of Burke, "even in despair live on," remembering that—

"Our time is fixed, and all our days are numbered;
How long, how short, we know not; this we know,
Duty requires we calmly wait the summons,
Nor dare to stir till Heaven shall give permission."


  1. The new penal code makes it in this State a felony to attempt to commit suicide. Lawrence Ballard was sentenced to one year's imprisonment under this section, on February 8, 1883. This was the first conviction for the crime in New York under the new code.