Is suicide ‘cowardly desertion’?

Culture | Late 19th century newspaper editors thought so
by Marvin Olasky
Posted 8/16/14, 08:55 am

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.”

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.

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

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.

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:

“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 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. …”

Newspapers during the 1870–1900 era, by linking suicide with other unethical or illegal behavior, by playing up the bloody physical results of the action, and by affirming a Providential plan for individual lives, were declaring that suicide was definitely out of bounds.

Today, greater concern for invasion of privacy, and awareness of potential lawsuits, sometimes keeps journalists from being explicit in their judgment of suicide’s rightness or wrongness, even if they would want to be. But a more fundamental change has occurred also: Suicide is now seen as an act of social estrangement rather than one of religious despair.

The book that helped to create that changed perception, Émile Durkheim’s Suicide, was published in 1897. Durkheim argued that patterns of social relationship, rather than theological beliefs, should be weighed most heavily in examining the causes of suicide. An individual’s personal relationship with God was not a factor for Durkheim, because he believed that religion was only a mechanism for social cohesion. Other sociologists with atheistic presuppositions had similar views of suicide: Since religious faith was an ideological rationalization—part of the superstructure erected by individuals on a material base—it could not have a primary impact on that base.

Durkheim, often called the father of sociology, had an enormous impact on several generations of sociologists and popularizing psychologists. His way of looking at suicide has spread throughout Western culture. Recent literature on suicide stresses societal and environmental causes, rather than personal failings. Some recent books are even of a “pro-choice” variety, indicating that suicide can be a proper existential decision for individuals. It appears that societal and journalistic attitudes concerning suicide no longer include the absolute condemnation prevalent a century ago.

Current suicide reporting paradigm

The current format—evident from reading recent newspaper suicide stories and journalism textbook discussions of how to cover suicide—suggests that reporters should clean up the blood and avoid criticism of the dead. For instance, one standard textbook noted, “Gory details are nearly always omitted in suicide stories.” Editorial Research Reports warned that the motives of suicidal young people in particular should not be criticized, because “this merely adds to their belief that no one understands them.”

Comments by editors reflect a hesitancy even to deal with suicide. One survey showed that only 23 percent of editors polled had a policy of always printing the cause of death in suicide accounts. A typical editor responded, “Individual suicides are not worth the pain to report unless it is something spectacular or a well-known individual.” Another editor, discussing coverage of suicide, replied, “We don’t feel that kind of information is so important to readers that it is worth violating the privacy of the individual.”

Such statements may reflect advice of legal counsel. Yet, when the decision is made to cover suicide (at least of young people), the typical approach reflects not late 19th century American newspaper practice, but a romanticism reminiscent of some early 19th century European literature. One of the heroes of a German suicide-prone generation at that time was Goethe’s character Young Werther, whose ideal was “to cease upon the midnight with no pain” while still young and full of promise.

For instance, when The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Ky., covered the 1983 suicide of Kent Green, age 16, the newspaper’s Sunday magazine put his smiling picture on its front cover, with the caption, “Star athlete, solid student, popular leader—in every way he seemed to be a youth with every reason to live. …”

The story inside quoted Green’s suicide note—“I just didn’t have a future”—and noted simply that, “One night he put a rifle to his head and pulled the trigger.” Readers were not shown brains and blood all over the floor. Readers were told of Green’s burial in his favorite clothes, and of how he was deeply missed by parents, friends, and teachers who often think about him. The story’s final sentence concerned Green’s mother: “She also still keeps the door to Kent’s room closed, and for the most part she stays out. But sometimes, when she’s home during the day, she will open the door and just look in.” The romanticized story had a tragic aftermath. Terry Ray Cahill, a friend and classmate of Kent Green, read the article five times, according to one of Cahill’s friends, and said “that it wouldn’t be a bad way to die.” Two days after its publication, Cahill shot himself in the head, just like Green had, and died. The local school superintendent noted the next day, “I’m very concerned about the fact—whether it’s irony or whatever—that this kind of tragedy falls right on the footsteps of this Courier-Journal article.”

No one can reasonably state that The Courier-Journal’s printing of the article caused the Cahill suicide. Studies show that suicide attempts are generally long in coming, may be touched off in many different ways, and may not be related to newspaper stories. But Courier-Journal editor David Hawpe, to his credit, was still pondering the matter two years afterward. Interviewed in July 1985, he noted that the article exploring it was not written or edited quickly or cavalierly. Hawpe and his associates, he said, spent “a long time” discussing whether to print the story and what to include in it. In the end, though, they followed the regular format: bloodlessness and sympathy.

Questions to raise

One reason The Courier-Journal editors acted as they did is that late 19th century–style journalistic harshness concerning suicide offends our sensibilities. Furthermore, that style goes against the Durkheimian stress on environmental causes and individual helplessness. But journalists, when they approach their next suicide story, might want to keep in mind a new critique of Durkheim currently appearing in social science literature, and several penetrating comments by Dostoevsky, Dante, and Plutarch.

The critique of Durkheim is a reaction to his assumption that religious faith does not have any real effect on suicide. In 1983, Rodney Stark of the University of Washington argued that it does make “a difference if, on the one hand, one thinks one’s problems are overwhelming and unshareable, or, on the other, if one thinks that Jesus also knows and cares.” Steven Stack of Pennsylvania State University similarly emphasized the importance of believing that God watches and cares about human suffering. Stack noted that Bible readers have role models such as Job who suffer but do not give up.

Those observations were based on several recent sociological studies that suggest that religion is the central explanatory factor in suicide-rate changes. Stark and his associates, after controlling for a series of variables (including rate of population growth, poverty, and unemployment), found a sharp correlation between suicide and lack of religious involvement in the United States’ 214 Standard Metropolitan Statistical Areas. William Martin, in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, studied suicide rates during the 1970s and also concluded that religious belief deters suicide. A Sociological Quarterly article reported similar results after its authors studied data from 42 countries.

These findings would come as no surprise to great writers who have looked deeply into the human soul. Fyodor Dostoevsky had his character Kirilov explain that people who might otherwise commit suicide do not kill themselves for two reasons: fear of pain and fear of the next world. We might ask, following Dostoevsky’s thought: What happens if newspapers do not report pain and do not discuss the religious questions involved in suicide? Might journalistic compassion for those contemplating suicide actually require some harshness in coverage of those who have?

Dante, in his Inferno, poetically placed suicides in a dark, pathless wood, where their souls took the shape of thorn-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. Reporters are hardly likely to wax poetic or become neophyte theologians, but if suicides are portrayed as gentle good nights, does that not represent a certain (non-traditional) theology in its own right?

Plutarch, in his tale of the maidens of Miletos, noted that at one point they were hanging themselves in abundance. The perverse craze continued until one of the city elders suggested shaming the suicides’ bodies by carrying them through the marketplace—whereupon vanity, if not sanity, prevailed. In Plutarch’s estimation, suicidal young people could be brought back to their senses when they realized that shame rather than a perverse kind of fame would be the result of their suicidal action.

A reading of new sociological research and old literature makes it appear that today’s journalists have a lot to learn from late 19th century suicide coverage. Harsh, yes. Religion-oriented, yes, and some will object to that. But also: A deeper sense of the reasons for suicide than today’s social cause–stressing coverage. Less romanticism. And, if Plutarch was right, more likelihood of making a potentially suicidal individual think twice.

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. His latest book is Reforming Journalism. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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