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Is suicide ‘cowardly desertion’?

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

One key contributing factor was added to many of the suicide accounts in these pre-Prohibition days: alcoholism. The Dallas Herald explained that one suicide “had been constantly under the influence of liquor.” The San Antonio Express and The Atlanta Constitution gave prominent play to drunkards killing themselves. So did newspapers in regions that would have no part of Prohibition for as long as possible: New York newspapers noted that “despondency, due to drink, was said to be the cause which led the man to take his life, or that “DRINK HAD DRIVEN HIM FROM HOME IN DISGRACE,” or that a lawyer was “addicted to drink and his downfall was rapid.” The Chicago Tribune had similar stories. Also typical were generalized headlines about “dissipation,” as in “She Ended a Life of Dissipation … Pretty, Though Dissipated. …”

Editorial comment

Newspapers generally reported their linkage of sin and suicide dispassionately, but occasionally newspapers cheered what they saw as self-administered justice. “Good Riddance to a Brute” was the headline on the story of a husband who shot himself after threatening to murder his family. No one was sorry about the suicide, the reporter stated amid descriptions of how the drunken man tore off his wife’s clothes and tried to rape her.

More frequently, editorials remarked on how suicidal individuals ended their worlds with a whimper. One editorial, titled, “Why They Do It,” typified the late 19th century newspaper view:

“The life insurance agent who shot himself on Thursday last, had been an unusually successful man. … The wealth which he acquired he spent freely—it came easily and it went easily, for its fountain seemed inexhaustible. Fine horses were kept; land was purchased at high rates; and habits of profuse expenditure, including a habit of excessive drinking, resulted in embarrassments. … [A]t last, in sheer desperation, worried by his troubles, more worried, perhaps, by his conscious inability to grapple with and conquer them, the unfortunate man found refuge in self-slaughter.”

An emphasis on personal responsibility led to an unwillingness to show sympathy toward the person who committed suicide. This New-York Tribune comment was typical:

“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 have culminated in the tragedy—follies intellectual, moral, and physical … vices which are undeniable tokens of selfishness; passions to which the bridle has been given until it cannot be resumed; with all the waywardness and misemployed persistence of which the race is capable. …”

The Tribune tried particularly hard to strip suicidal individuals of any hope that their actions would be honored. An editorial in 1983 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? … [O]ur self-killing friends themselves must confess that they can make no serious claim for charitable consideration upon those whom, by the very act of suicide, they adjudge incompetent to make the world tolerable. … [T]here is no dignity, nor seldom any decency in suicide, whatever of charitable consideration time and the de mortuis sentiment may impart to it. It is at 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 personal vanity: of overwhelming egotism.”

Deviance and Durkheim

The consistency of suicidal coverage throughout the country during the late 19th century was remarkable. All of the newspapers surveyed, with the occasional exception of the Arkansas Gazette, gave prominent display to suicide stories, and included mention of base motive and/or bloody detail. Newspapers with largely middle-class readerships, such as the New-York Tribune, covered suicide as frequently as those with a generally less-affluent readership, such as the New York Journal. There was little change in coverage over the time period studied.

How is that consistency to be explained? John Stevens observed recently that readers of sensational news are “participating, at least vicariously, in the redefinition of their own values.” Sociologist Kai Erikson noted, “An enormous amount of modern ‘news’ is devoted to reports about deviant behavior and its punishment.” News accounts, Erikson suggested, “constitute our main source of information about the normative contours of society. …”

The information provided by suicide stories in the 1870–1900 era was straightforward: Suicide was wrong, socially and theologically. It was wrong, among other reasons, because it reflected a lack of belief that God has a purpose for individual human lives. The New-York Tribune editorialized in 1877 that:

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