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Where Ends Meet: Suicide and Eugenics in America


Photo by Thomas Hummel

Kathleen M. Brian received her Ph.D. in American Studies from George Washington University. She is currently a Lecturer in the Liberal Studies Department of Western Washington University and a Research Associate in the Division of Medicine and Science of the National Museum of American History. She is revising her dissertation “Morbid Propensities: Suicide, Sympathy, and the Making of American Eugenics” into a book manuscript titled Let Their Weakness Take Them: Suicide and Eugenics in America.

What drew your attention to this topic?

Suicide is everywhere once you start looking for it. The act itself, as well as the discourses surrounding it, regularly appears in the public realm as social critique, as a sign that something is not quite right. We see this today: suicide among veterans, suicide among teenagers, suicide among the LGBTQ community—in each of these instances, suicide underscores the atrocious costs of war, or the life-threatening potential of intersubjectivity in a normalizing society. Historians encounter similar phenomena in the archive. For temperance advocates and labor reformers, for example, suicide was a dramatic consequence of drunkenness or capitalism, respectively—or both. Suicide can mean whatever one wants it to mean, given the right political context and the right powers of storytelling.

I was captivated by this flexible signifying power—and the dissertation began. The project begins in the 1840s, when developing mortality surveillance combined with a newly democratized print culture to render suicide visible. It moves forward to the first decades of the twentieth century by way of several case studies: debates over the institutional confinement and treatment of individuals marked as suicidal; Civil War–era and postbellum debates over the suicide clause in life insurance policies; the emergence of “suicide clubs” during the 1880s, in which Germanic clubmen ostensibly met annually to select one among them to die by his own hand; growing popular and scientific fascination with mothers who murdered their children before killing themselves; and medico-legal arguments in favor of eugenic suicide, or self-inflicted death that removed the “unfit” from the national gene pool.

The story of suicide that I tell works against a dominant thread in the secondary literature that I found less than compelling. Perhaps most powerfully articulated by Michael MacDonald and Terence R. Murphy, it suggests that suicide was increasingly decriminalized and medicalized in the early modern era, and that this in turn led to more sympathetic and tolerant social responses. Prior to the 1600s, western Europeans largely conceptualized suicide as both a religious and secular crime. As transgressors against God, the corpse of suicide was not only refused Christian burial rites, but also was subject to posthumous acts of desecration and ignominious burial. Suicide was also a legal felony, and agents of suicide’s personal property was determined to be “felons unto themselves” (felo de se), vulnerable to confiscation by the state. Such property forfeiture, however, fell out of favor during the seventeenth and eighteenth century. Contemporaries noted that it did nothing to punish the dead; rather, it simply left surviving family members destitute. To shield the latter from the pecuniary difficulties attendant upon forfeiture, coroner’s juries drew on a newly developed medical model of suicide. In England, for example, jurymen increasingly returned verdicts of non compos mentis (“not in sound mind”) rather than felo de se. Although this privilege of legal irresponsibility was experienced unevenly across social classes, historians have suggested that the medical model’s ascendance led to more tolerant societies in which suicides and their families were treated with increasing compassion.

1883.PUCK.Suicides get the Best of the Penal Code (color)

This cover image from an 1883 edition of Puck magazine responded to the recriminalization of suicide brought about with New York’s 1882 penal code.

Yet suicide remained a crime according to British common law, the legal custom that ruled the colonies and the new United States. Traditional forms of punishment mapped unevenly onto the North American colonies; so, too, the traditional protective strategy of coroners and their juries. Burial rights were often governed separately from property forfeiture, which reflected the distinction between punishment for suicide as a religious crime and punishment for suicide as a secular crime. The colonies that would become Massachusetts, for example, abolished property forfeiture in 1641 and 1701, respectively, though Massachusetts also instituted a 1661 statute requiring ignominious burial for those who committed suicide while in sound mind.

During the Revolutionary era, lenience toward suicide became one way for colonial governments to distinguish themselves from their British counterparts. By 1792, seven states had prohibited forfeiture, though they remained silent on the question of ignominious burial and posthumous desecration. The trend toward decriminalization accelerated across the first decades of the Republic’s existence as the act and its agents were increasingly explained as the province of allopathic physicians specializing in mental disease.[1] Thus it was that temporary insanity—or partial mental derangement, or a momentary aberration of mind—came to serve as a crucial interpretive framework for suicide during the antebellum period, particularly among publics in the northeast.

The decriminalization-medicalization paradigm, however, did not fit for the period I study because it relied on a dichotomy between the state and the human sciences that contradicted my reading of the primary sources. I wanted to emphasize moments of collaboration between these two, to show how these led to creatively punitive responses across the nineteenth century, and to point out that moments of “leniency” continued to have more to do with protecting survivors than with evincing compassion for agents of suicide.

By examining how medico-legal theories of personhood, capitalist formations, and a variety of cultural performances used suicide to structure debates about an ideal “American race,” I argue that the early modern distinction between suicide as a crime and suicide as an outcome of mental disease was, by the Progressive Era, reconciled in the notion that certain individuals harbored an instinctive love of death. For a certain class of eugenic reformers, the concept of the death instinct explained the worst of humanity: criminal and anarchist, idiot and psychopath, cripple and queer. The project thus morphed into a reconceptualization of the origins, agendas, and legacies of American eugenics by tracing the significant mutual determination of scientific, popular, and governmental responses to suicide.

The project works from the fundamental proposition that it is time for scholars to rethink the history of eugenics by reframing it as a disturbing field of humanitarianism that was as invested in the relief of suffering as it was in the genetic improvement of populations. A surprising array of actors appears in the project: agents of suicide and their families, coroners and asylum physicians, abolitionists and newspaper editors, insurance underwriters and federal jurists. These persons created a secure, enduring foundation for eugenic humanitarianism by debating how best to define and respond to suicide.

The complex negotiations between insurance companies, policy beneficiaries, legal professionals, and state and federal justices regarding the suicide clause in life insurance policies, for example, contributed directly to the emergence of eugenic humanitarianism in at least two ways. First, medical examiners and insurance underwriters developed a biological model of suicide that materialized in contradistinction to the dominant medical model. They suggested that the relationship between suicide and insanity was correlative rather than causal: no longer a simple accident of insanity, the propensity to suicide became a discrete heritable trait. To inherit policy payouts, families also had to inherit a morbid propensity to self-destruction. Second, the companies’ myth of corporate woundedness, in which suicide by policyholders became an unlawful act that threatened corporate and national bodies, allowed the federal judiciary to develop a position toward corporate personhood that relied upon the exclusion and repudiation of agents of suicide and their families. Taken together, these developments reframed suicide as not only a natural death for some, but also an act of aggression toward the nation-state and its economic development.

How did you develop an archive for your project?

Though individually accomplished suicide was, by the middle of the nineteenth century, largely decriminalized under statute law, I wanted to keep an eye toward moments when scientific epistemologies and medical institutions contributed to, or incorporated, ostensibly humane responses to suicide that nevertheless operated in a punitive fashion. I wanted to highlight creative mechanisms for punishment. Particularly important for my argument was the criminalization of assisted suicide that began in earnest in the 1840s, life insurance companies’ attempts to refuse payment in cases of death by suicide, and civil commitment laws that allowed for suicidal individuals to be institutionalized against their will.

I quickly found, however, that the suicide archive is characterized by an unsettling tension between dearth and abundance, silence and noise. On the one hand, a surprising array of historical actors had something to say about suicide; on the other, the stigma surrounding suicide raises important questions of cover-ups, the reliability of statistical evidence, and, most importantly for my own project, patient confidentiality. In the case of statistics, I decided to take their unreliability as a point of departure. Rather than using the numbers or eschewing them altogether, I tried to piece together how censuses and other statistical inquiries into suicide were made. By researching the staff at the New York State Lunatic Asylum at Utica, for example, I discovered that Amariah Brigham and his assistants used dozens of popular newspapers as their primary source base for statistical studies of suicide in the 1840s. This seemed to be a clear example of the power that families, friends, neighbors, and news reporters wielded over scientific knowledge. Though Brigham and his cohort were galvanized to the study of suicide in part by the work of European mental disease specialists, local networks profoundly impacted what they could “know” about suicide. More broadly, this allows me to argue that understanding the scientific epistemology of suicide—particularly in the realm of what “counts” as evidence—requires us to take seriously the narrative strategies of local communities.

The question of confidentiality has been more complicated. Because I was interested in medical records, I had to contend with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA) and other privacy regulation laws, as well as with the reticence of still existing insurance companies. The legal restrictions vary from state to state, and from state to federal levels. Some laws impose a statute of limitations. Because I work with records on patients who have been dead for more than fifty years, for example, I had unconstrained access to the records of St. Elizabeths Hospital, the federal institution in Washington, D.C. My work in the state asylum records of Indiana, New York, and Pennsylvania, however, required that I undergo a process of application, review, and approval regardless of my focus on the nineteenth century. I was approved as a “qualified researcher” in each case; nevertheless, neither the names of patients nor identifying biographical details can be reprinted. The Indiana State Archives also refused my request to view specific case files, which limited my capacity to track patients beyond the asylum.

One consequence of this has been that the research process takes a bit longer. More importantly, though, it has required me to wrestle with how best to discuss the institutionalized. Given my own critical position toward statistics, I wanted to avoid what I see as the violence of aggregation: the personal stories of the institutionalized, as well as agents of suicide, have been reified or ignored for far too long. On the one hand, they have been useful for social reformers seeking to make a political point; on the other, they have been objectified and squeezed into predetermined categories based on gender, race, ethnicity, age, ability, and instrumentality of death. Given the extent to which these individuals have been silenced over the last two centuries, I have no desire to repeat this pattern. One solution has been to discuss individuals without naming them. This allows me to highlight their voices; it also has the added benefit of allowing me to explicitly address the legal restrictions that have too often kept these voices from the historical record. In the case of the asylum at Utica, I also have been able to triangulate restricted sources with the published narratives of former patients to develop a more personalized account of the institution.

HIPPA has also been the guise under which some extant companies, including the New York Life Insurance Company, have refused access altogether. Luckily, I have been able to circumvent these challenges in two ways. Certain archives, including Harvard’s Baker Library and the Hagley Museum & Library, have rich holdings in this area. Industry journals have also proved invaluable. Even more importantly, though, court records became a crucial source base. I looked at a series of county, state, and federal cases that came to be known as the “suicide contest,” in which companies fought beneficiaries over payout in cases of death by suicide. The legal strategies used by both sides contributed a great deal to the project and offered tantalizing insights about what may be hidden in the NYLIC archives. I discovered, for example, that the company participated in an intercompany registry that contained the names of every person who had applied to participating companies for a policy of life insurance. It contained “especial reference to those persons who are found to be unfit subjects.”

For me, and for other scholars pursuing a similar archival base, this raises interesting questions about privacy and the historical record. It is still unclear why “privacy” is invoked in the case of patients but not in the case of the thousands of other diaries, life insurance policies, coroner’s inquests, personal letters, and so forth that historians read on a daily basis without permission from the authors. There is much more at stake here than protecting an individual’s right to privacy, and I am inclined to see it as a remnant of the same paternalism that justified involuntary commitment in the first place.

What would someone outside of your field take from your dissertation?

By considering suicide both as an act and as a rhetorical strategy in public life, the project makes a case for death as an analytical category—not just a biological given. Discourses of death—and of suicide more specifically—have profoundly impacted social organization. My own project moves systematically between discursive and material spaces to show the intricate interrelatedness of these realms. My indebtedness to Joan Scott should be obvious here; I also draw on Thomas Laqueur’s distinction between biological life/death and cultural life/death. The meaning attached to certain corpses—and not to others—worked powerfully to structure emergent technologies of biopower, particularly the development of mortality statistics and the reconfiguration of the asylum as a dominant site of suicide prevention. The project is also attuned to moments when discourses of suicide are used to marginalize certain populations, or to justify systemic violences. By aligning the “unfit” with death, eugenic reformers legitimized their efforts to eliminate those they deemed unworthy.

There is still a great deal of work to be done on the topic of suicide, particularly as it relates to regions beyond Western Europe. This is great news for grad students pursuing in the topic, but the utility of studying suicide goes well beyond topical interest. It has the power to expand our understanding of epistemology, relations of power, patterns of social exclusion, and the formation of individual, regional, and national identities. Suicide has a history, and one that matters.


[1] On decriminalization and medicalization in the United States, see Richard Bell, We Shall Be No More: Suicide and Self-Government in the Newly United States  (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2012), 18–24; Thomas J. Marzen, Mary K. O’Dowd, Daniel Crone, and Thomas J. Balch, “Suicide: A Constitutional Right?” Duquesne Law Review 24.1 (Fall 1985): 1–242; Howard I. Kushner, American Suicide: A Psychocultural Exploration (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1991 [1989]), 13–34; Wilbur Larremore, “Suicide and the Law,” 17 Harvard Law Review 331 (1903–04): 331–41.