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Is suicide ‘cowardly desertion’?

"Is suicide ‘cowardly desertion’?" Continued...

New York newspapers not known for sensationalism were vivid in their treatment of those who leaped from buildings or in front of trains. The New-York Tribune reported that one jumper’s “brains were scattered over the flagstones” and that another “fell three stories and struck her head foremost, almost smashing her entire skull. She lay there for about ten minutes before she was seen. … By that time an immense quantity of blood had flowed from the body and trickled into the gutter.” The New York Times wrote, concerning a man who jumped in front of a subway train, “[H]is head was knocked clean off.” Another man had (according to the headline) “His Body Cut to Pieces.”

Those who slit their throats prompted particularly grotesque word portraits, such as this one from The New York Times: “His throat was cut, there was a foam on his lips, and his eyes stared wildly.” Other newspapers went in for “pools of blood,” typically, a man found dead in his room “lying on his face, under the bed, in a pool of blood.”

Newspapers also tended to report the physical remains of suicides: A “mangled body,” a “crushed and bleeding form,” and so on. Sometimes, only part of the form was there: Fish had eaten the face of a man who committed suicide in a lake; the corpse of a man who hanged himself in a wooded area was not found for several weeks, by which time “the lower part of the body had evidently been eaten away by animals.”

Reasons given for suicide

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Specific reasons for the suicide were offered in most of the stories read. After a while, a typology became evident: According to the newspapers, suicides often were committed by those who had sinned, yet were unwilling to admit the irresponsibility and ask for forgiveness. Suicide was an irreligious act, a wrong on top of a previous wrong. Essentially, newspaper coverage of suicide causes ran through the entire second tablet of the Ten Commandments: Honor your parents, do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not bear false witness, do not covet.

For instance, The Washington Post told of a man committing suicide in a county jail, thus receiving from his own hand the punishment he was said to deserve for brutally kicking his aged mother to death three months previously. The New-York Tribune explained that one person committed suicide because he had hit his mother in the face. Murderers were also likely suicides in the press. The New-York Tribune explained how a convicted wife-murderer hanged himself in jail with a handkerchief. The Los Angeles Times also had a front-page story about a murderer hanging himself.

Newspapers of the era liked to dwell on the Seventh Commandment: Adultery was a particularly frequent cause of suicide. The Chicago Tribune reported how 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 woman taking poison and dying in the yard of a man’s residence, not her husband’s. Illicit sexual relationships of all kinds were seen to have terrible consequences, including suicide: The New York Journal had many headlines such as, “HER LOVE FATAL. Frederika Was Disappointed and Killed Herself.”

Theft was probably the leading single cause of suicide, a reader of late 19th century newspapers might conclude. Stories such as this 1877 version were typical: “SUICIDE OF A DEFAULTING CASHIER. J.P. Hassler, late cashier of the Carlisle Deposit Bank, hanged himself his afternoon in the garret of his dwelling, which was attached to the back. Mr. Hassler was elected cashier in 1863, and held that position until last October, when he was found to be a defaulter. Today the bank officers instituted criminal proceedings against him. …”

Similarly, 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.

The physical end of suicidal thieves often was described 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 grand larceny. A bank defrauder was found “with half of his head blown off.”

Bearing false witness could also lead to suicide, as stories in the Los Angeles Times and other newspapers indicated. Covetousness of various kinds, particularly greed, ranked just behind its close cousin, theft, as a newspaper explanation of suicide. The San Francisco Examiner explained that one suicide had gone through several high-paying positions but was “extravagant” and spent all that he earned. Another woman was said to have jumped off a bridge after her husband had squandered a fortune.

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