Suicide and Self-Mutilation

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Suicide and Self-Mutilation

Slave suicides certainly did not make headlines. In fact, the limited press coverage they received usually could be found nestled in small, unfeatured newspaper paragraphs. In those stories, drowning seemed the most common method of suicide. In one typical story, a female slave, after escaping from her owner, attempted to drown herself, stating "she would 'sooner be dead than go back [to her owner] to be beaten as she had been'" ("Attempted Suicide by a Female Slave," The Liberator, July 10, 1846). In recounting the story, The Liberator, a Boston daily, referred to the woman as a "'contented and happy' chattel personal." As personal property, or "chattel," slaves were a commodity subject to the will and discipline of their masters. Oftentimes, slaves' living conditions were so abhorrent that death was preferable to continued confinement. Another runaway slave, after being discovered onboard a mail boat by the captain, hurled himself overboard, "declaring that he would die sooner than return to his master" ("Suicide of a Slave," Cleveland Herald, June 21, 1850).


The belief that suicide would result in their imminent return to Africa was so prevalent among enslaved people of African descent that slaveholders made concerted efforts to counteract such thinking. Some owners resorted to deliberately mutilating the corpses of former slaves in an attempt to convince those remaining on local plantations that their bodies would not be usable in Africa if they chose to commit suicide. For example, Colonel Walrond, a slaveholder in Barbados during the seventeenth century, put the head of a slave who had successfully committed suicide on a pole and had the other slaves walk around it to persuade them that the slave had not returned to his own country. There is some indication that Walrond's plan worked. Though four individuals committed suicide prior to these actions, none were recorded as having committed suicide afterward. However, for many enslaved people, suicide continued to serve as a last resort to escape enslavement and unfair treatment.

SOURCE: Kneeland, Linda Kay. "African American Suffering and Suicide Under Slavery." Master's thesis. Montana State University, 2006.

Considering the slave's status as "chattels personal," slave suicide was perceived as destruction of property, so all reasonable rescue efforts were exhausted to thwart the success of any attempted suicide. Escape attempts were similarly obstructed, and suspected runaway slaves were detained until their owners could be located. The public had a tacit obligation to retrieve and return escaped slaves. Considering the likely repercussions of a failed escape, it is not surprising that slaves sometimes preferred death before return to confinement. A news story from the Bangor Whig and Courier describes how a merchant onboard a train destined for Chattanooga observed "a yellow man and a black man personat[ing] master and servant;" the merchant, recognizing the man posing as the master to be a slave himself, "collared him and intimated that he was a prisoner," whereupon the captured the man removed a pistol from his breast, "turn[ed] the muzzle upon his abdomen fired and fell on his seat …… [then] dr[ew] a bowie knife and cut his throat, and was a corpse" ("Attempted Escape and Suicide of a Slave," April 1, 1857). Not only had the slave fled his owner and conspired with another to foil discovery, but he also blasphemously impersonated a master possessing a slave himself.

The value of a slave's life was thought to be insignificant in comparison not only to that of free men, but also relative to other personal property. "The life of the poor slave he had undertaken to abduct was not considered as valuable as the watch, money and clothing upon him, and to obtain these, it appears, he killed him!" ("Murder and Suicide by a Slave Abductor," Daily Chronicle and Sentinel, October 17, 1855). Such callous disregard for life is evidence of the barbarism perpetuated by slavery, which made many slaves perceive suicide as a favorable alternative to their confinement.

Similarly, free men also resorted to tremendous extremes to avoid being drafted into military service: "Coward hordes" escaped to Canada; some cut off extremities; still others procured the skill of a surgeon to have their teeth extracted, which prompted the provost marshal's suggestion that they "be sent into the army, if for no other reason than to become the laughing stock and butt of the soldiers" ("Self-Mutilation to Escape the Draft," Chattanooga Daily Gazette, August 9, 1864). The commencement of the Civil War in 1861 brought numerous accounts of self-inflicted disfigurements that rendered men incapable of service. Apparently reconsidering his decision to enlist in the army, a Cleveland man returned to the recruiting office and attempted to bribe the recruiter to release him from his obligation. When the officer refused, the man cut several toes off his foot. The Daily Cleveland Herald lamented, "[h]e has secured what he desired—release from military service, but at what cost of manhood and physical suffering and inconvenience?" ("Self-Mutilation," October 10, 1862). Patriotism was revered, and attempts to avoid service were considered particularly dishonorable. "Any man guilty of the act should be forever expelled from the society of men" ("Self-Mutilation," October 10, 1862).

In the midst of these stories of self-mutilation and disfigurement were tales of devotion. When Leonard Johnson's two eldest sons enlisted in the military, his younger son, John, aged seventeen, tried to enlist too, but was deemed too young and told that it was his duty to remain with his father. Unequivocally demonstrating his objection, John hanged himself. His motivations were perhaps questionable—"[he plead] as an excuse that he would be lonesome with his brothers all away"—but, contrasting his personal dedication with the acts of disloyal masses fleeing the country to avoid service, the Morning Oregonian noted that John Johnson's suicide would become "memorable in the future" ("Self-Mutilation to Escape the Draft," September 24, 1862).


"Attempted Suicide by a Female Slave." Liberator, Boston, July 10, 1846.

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of Frederick Douglass, Written by Himself, [1845]. Boston: St. Martin's Press, 2003.

Franklin, John Hope. From Slavery to Freedom. 8th ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2000.

Gutman, Herbert. The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom. New York: Vintage, 1977.

Joyner, Charles. Down by the Riverside. 2nd ed. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984.

Morgan, Philip. Slave Counterpoint. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1998.

"Murder and Suicide by a Slave Abductor." Daily Chronicle and Sentinel, Augusta, GA, October 17, 1855.

"Self-Mutilation." Daily Cleveland Herald, Cleveland, OH, October 10, 1862.

"Self-Mutilation to Escape the Draft." Chattanooga Daily Gazette, Chattanooga, TN, August 9, 1864.

"Self-Mutilation to Escape the Draft." Morning Oregonian, Portland, OR, September 24, 1862.

"Suicide of a Slave." Cleveland Herald, Cleveland, OH, June 21, 1850.

"Suicide of a Slave." Milwaukee Daily Sentinel and Gazette, Milwaukee, WI, June 25, 1850.

"Suicide of a Slave." Liberator, Boston, July 19, 1850.

                                   Aileen E. McTiernan

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Suicide and Self-Mutilation

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