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Is suicide ‘cowardly desertion’?

Culture | Late 19th century newspaper editors thought so

Should newspapers criticize persons who commit suicide? Should they report gory details? Since the suicide of Robin Williams hit front pages on Tuesday, whirled views on those questions and others have roamed the internet. But just as it’s good to read old books to gain a perspective that differs from what is socially correct now, so it’s useful to read old newspapers to compare past and present coverage.

Weve posted below a paper—presented at an academic gathering in 1986—that I dug up in light of this week’s debate. I’d write some things differently now, and we’ve left off the footnotes, but I think the quotations from late 19th century newspapers will interest today’s readers. For example, an 1883 editorial in the New-York Tribune, then one of the nation’s most influential newspapers, proclaimed that the person who commits suicide “is an ass, a very distinct and unmistakable ass. Is this too harsh? … [O]ur self-killing friends themselves must confess that they can make no serious claim for charitable consideration. … There is no dignity, and seldom any decency in suicide. … It is at best cowardly desertion … the insanity of personal vanity, of overwhelming egotism.”

In 2014 we’re not as wise as we generally think we are, but we probably understand more about mental illness than our 19th century predecessors did. Telling a person who’s clinically depressed to “buck up” is rarely helpful, so I’m not defending all the hard lines you’ll read below. But it’s worthwhile to ponder the theological considerations underlying the Tribune’s toughness: “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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Editors in those days were also more likely to consult ancient than modern wisdom in figuring out how to discourage suicides—and Plutarch, in his tale of the maidens of Miletos, had suggested a way to stop copycat suicides that today would be considered incredibly insensitive. I report that, and I also want to warn readers about another insensitive element: Despite what you’ve heard about purported Victorian Age niceties, big city newspaper stories 125 or so years ago often contained lots of gore, blood, and guts. In this paper presented before scholarly adults I quoted sentences about the post-suicide appearance of brains and bodies that would not make it past most newspaper editors today.

Was 19th century practice good? Was it bad? I have mixed feelings about such coverage, but it is part of our history and worth considering—although not by children or those with queasy stomachs.

Maidens of Miletos and newspaper coverage of suicide: Examining late 19th and late 20th century practice

Suicide stories are hard for reporters to write. They usually do not involve homicides or violent accidents that could be called “public” in nature, spectacular fodder for the evening news. Nor are they inevitable events like the death of an elderly person, which we can view sadly but sedately. For the individual who commits suicide, the end may be explosive; for journalists, suicide is neither bang nor whimper.

Yet, journalists have an imperative to cover suicide, or at least some suicides. The shock of suicide makes it news, private torment or insanity going public. Like homicide stories, properly written suicide stories give us valuable information about the nature of man’s heart of darkness. How, then, should today’s reporters reconcile pursuit of a story with the need to say a sermon over the dead? Can we learn anything from the way American journalists at other times carried out similar assignments?

This paper developed out of an immersion in suicide stories of the 1870–1900 era published in 12 newspapers from across the United States: The Atlanta Constitution, Arkansas Gazette, Chicago Tribune, Dallas Herald, The Dallas Morning News, Los Angeles Times, New York Journal, The New York Times, New-York Tribune, San Antonio Express, The San Francisco Examiner, and The Washington Post.

The study included an average of three months’ worth of coverage per newspaper—1,010 suicide stories in all. The style of coverage was so different that examination of a typical recent suicide story in the light of late 19th century practice raises significant questions, as we shall see.

Bloody detail a century ago

The most surprising finding was the explicitness of many suicide stories. Although the late 19th century may have been a “Victorian Age” in which “legs” became “limbs” and “breasts” were tucked away as “bosoms,” blood and guts reporting dominated suicide coverage. For instance, The Dallas Morning News described relatives finding a “lifeless body still warm seated in a chair with the top of his head blown off, with blood and brains scattered around the room.” The Atlanta Constitution described “blood oozing from the gaping wound” after another shooting.

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