He who hesitates is saved

"He who hesitates is saved" Continued...

Issue: "Northern light," Sept. 20, 2008

Statistics-keeping a century ago was not what it is today so we don't know whether such articles saved any lives, but the use of shame to fight suicide has a distinguished lineage. Two millennia ago the Greek historian Plutarch, writing about young women on the island of Miletus, noted that at one point they were hanging themselves in abundance. The perverse craze continued until "on the advice of a man of sense, an ordinance was proposed that the women who hanged themselves should be carried naked through the marketplace to their burial."

The ordinance, Plutarch wrote, "stopped completely the young women from killing themselves. Women who had no deterrent sense of shame when facing the most terrible of all things in the world, death and pain, yet could not abide nor bear the thought of disgrace which would come after death." Journalists a century ago vividly described the physical results of suicide and also connected that act with other disgraceful actions. The Washington Post told of a man committing suicide after kicking his aged mother to death. The New York Tribune explained how a convicted wife murderer hanged himself in jail with a handkerchief.

Reporters connected adultery and suicide. The Chicago Tribune reported that one man took arsenic after learning of his wife's adultery. The New York Times had a man killing himself after his wife found love letters another woman had sent him. The New York Journal wrote of a married woman taking poison and dying in the yard of a lover's residence, and of another who found "HER LOVE FATAL. Frederika was Disappointed and Killed Herself."

Theft also led to suicide: The Dallas Herald noted the cyanide-taking of a bookkeeper arrested for theft, and the Los Angeles Times noted that a man shot himself after stealing $100. "SUICIDE OF A DEFAULTING CASHIER" was a typical headline: "J.P. Hassler, late cashier for the Carlisle Deposit Bank, hanged himself this afternoon. Mr. Hassler was elected cashier in 1863, and held that position until last October, when he was found to be a defaulter. Today, February 28, 1877, the bank officers instituted criminal proceedings against him."

Reporters described the demise of suicidal thieves with particular vividness. One front-page story, "A Thief & A Suicide," showed how a bank robber shot himself and was found with "his face shattered and covered with blood." Another man, who also had a record of wife beating, slit his throat in the courtroom after being convicted of grant larceny. Associates found a bank defrauder "with half of his head blown off."

When some readers said newspapers were being mean, the New York Tribune responded, "It is dangerous, it is inequitable, it is demoralizing for us to regard merely the ruin, appealing as it naturally does to our charity and our pity. It is necessary that we should also take into account the long concatenation of causes which culminated in the tragedy-follies intellectual, moral, and physical." The Tribune noted "vices which are undeniable tokens of selfishness; passions to which the bridle has been given until it cannot be resumed."

The Tribune tried particularly hard to strip suicidal individuals of any hope that their actions would be honored. An editorial in 1883 summed up the era's coverage: "The Tribune would like to say something about the suicide business which, to persons contemplating that manner of egress, may seem harsh and unfeeling. [The suicide] is an ass, a very distinct and unmistakable ass. Is this too harsh? . . . There is no dignity, nor seldom any decency in suicide. It is the best cowardly desertion of the ranks in the presence of the enemy. It is insanity, of course, always. But always, it must be observed, the insanity of the personal vanity: of overwhelming egotism."

That editorial is part of a long literary tradition. Dante, in his Inferno, poetically placed suicides in a dark, pathless wood, where their souls took the shape of thorns in stunted trees. The harpies, with their great wings and feathered bellies, human faces and clawed feet, nested in those stunted trees and tore at the leaves, endlessly repeating the violence the soul had inflicted on itself.

Editorials a century or more ago argued that suicide was wrong theologically because it reflected a lack of belief that God has a purpose for individual human lives. The New York Tribune editorialized in 1877 that "the highest wisdom, therefore, even for a wretch whose life is saturated with sorrow, and for whom apparently there is no future, is to wait. Surely, considering how much we need them, faith and persistence should not be lightly abandoned. The very fact that we are not yet called from the scene of wearisome struggle and disaster, seemingly consummate, should prove to us that Providence has some design in continuing our existence."


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