Ye Olde Tyme Suicide? Okay, not that old, but...
May 9, 2014 6:53 AM   Subscribe

How did people commit suicide in the US in the 1930s? Does it make a difference if it's a female?

I'm not sure why I'm having such a hard time googling this, but that's what I need to know, for a fiction project. A woman in New York City commits suicide in the early 1930s. How does she accomplish this? It has to be something that leaves her in her home -- so, she doesn't jump off a bridge. What would be historically accurate for that time?
posted by BlahLaLa to Society & Culture (35 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Charlotte Perkins Gilman killed herself in 1935 by taking an overdose of chloroform. I think after some googling that poisoning one's self was a common suicide method at the time.
posted by Area Man at 7:02 AM on May 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum is precisely what you need.
posted by sukeban at 7:02 AM on May 9, 2014 [9 favorites]

She turns on the gas and puts her head in the oven. (Well, you should check to make sure what kind of gas they used in New York in the 30s. But it was certainly a popular method in a lot of places.)
posted by mskyle at 7:04 AM on May 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

"Razors pain you,
Rivers are damp,
Acids stain you,
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren't lawful,
Nooses give,
Gas smells awful.
You might as well live."
-- Dorothy Parker

Darkly humorous as it is, this sounds like a plausible list (from a New York, female perspective) of the most common suicide methods of the early 20th century.
posted by clair-de-lune at 7:15 AM on May 9, 2014 [43 favorites]

It wouldn't help for your specific project, but people certainly did commit suicide by jumping off bridges then.
posted by LionIndex at 7:19 AM on May 9, 2014

I was also going to say gas. I was researching what happened to a local activist and got a copy of her death certificate. It says "asphyxiated by illuminating gas, suicidal intent." That was in 1924 so a bit earlier. You would have to check if they still had illuminating gas where your story is set in the 1930s.
posted by interplanetjanet at 7:20 AM on May 9, 2014

In general, it is well-documented that women are more likely to choose drugs or poisons than men, who more often choose methods involving acute physical trauma, such as guns or hanging (cite). Barbiturates have long been a favored drug for suicide—hard to get your hands on today (though they remain popular among doctors, who presumably have easier access), but I think they would have been pretty easy to get in the 1930s. And gas ovens, of course, as mentioned above.
posted by enn at 7:22 AM on May 9, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Madge Oberholtzer killed herself with mercury chloride in 1925.
posted by Oxydude at 7:22 AM on May 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Drinking lye was awful but not unheard of.
posted by bonobothegreat at 7:23 AM on May 9, 2014

In House of Mirth, which precedes your timeline by only about 25 years, a character kills herself by taking an overdose of "sleeping draught" - barbiturates. This I think is the most ladylike of your options.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 7:26 AM on May 9, 2014

Best answer: It is sort of cliché but warm bath + razor. Water prevents clotting and the warm water is soothing. She could take a lot of aspirin beforehand to numb the pain prior to the act (aspirin was certainly available over the counter during that time period). For that matter, you can overdose on aspirin.
posted by tempestuoso at 7:34 AM on May 9, 2014

Rose Wilder Lane, the daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder, told her magazine readers that she attempted to kill herself by putting a handkerchief soaked in chloroform over her face. (It didn't work, and she woke up with a bad headache.)
posted by Melismata at 7:35 AM on May 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

Another old-timey female suicide stereotype is drowning, which must have been more lethal at the time due to no swim lessons at the Y and heavy layers of modest clothing; and more appealing due to the lack of damage to the corpse (if found immediately). Think Ophelia.

Apparently 1/3 of all female suicides in Ireland are still by drowning. It's allegedly popular among women in India with access to bodies of water. You're on your own beyond that because now I already have the most depressing google search history ever and it's not even noon.
posted by blue suede stockings at 7:41 AM on May 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

Oh, and here's the classic American example. 1941. More public and high drama than poisoning as well.
posted by blue suede stockings at 7:46 AM on May 9, 2014

Coroner's reports 1896-1935 Monroe County, Indiana (new link from an old Metafilter post) is a interesting source of the who/where/why/when of deaths in a "small town"
posted by Captain_Science at 7:49 AM on May 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: They're are also coroners reports from Allegheny County in an archive.

Suicide Cases by Year The notes are on the page, but to the right is the links to years. 1930-1935 should be interesting.

Also google Paris Green Suicides.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:54 AM on May 9, 2014

Virginia Woolf, suicide by drowning, 1941.
posted by mareli at 8:00 AM on May 9, 2014

It would be hard to drown in your home. Unless you have a really deep tub and weight yourself.
posted by interplanetjanet at 8:02 AM on May 9, 2014

My mom (born 1941) has told me that an uncle killed himself in her living room with a gun when she was a kid. I don't believe she was present.
posted by jabes at 8:27 AM on May 9, 2014

Best answer: Y'know that garlicky smell of natural gas? It's a 'marker' added to the gas so humans can detect it, which wasn't done until after the 1937 School Explosion in Texas. So I'd guess more suicides were sticking their heads in the oven before that year.
posted by Rash at 8:34 AM on May 9, 2014

The Wissahickon Memorial Brige in Philly opened in the 30s and saw suicides since its opening. If you click the cite about suicides you'll see an article about a policeman being stationed at the bridge in 1941 and him not allowing women to cross the bridge alone.
posted by daninnj at 8:41 AM on May 9, 2014

Turning the gas on and putting your head in the gas oven was a popular method - "... one psychologist called old fashioned coal gas ovens "the execution chamber in everyone's kitchen."" (they did not switch the type of gas used till after WWII). Some people used a razor to slit their wrists in the bathtub; hanging was also sometimes used. Poisons to kill vermin/rats were pretty readily available (usually containing arsenic), and stuff like sleeping pills, especially if you had access to a doctor to prescribe stuff (i.e. middle/upper class). People also used carbon monoxide - turning on a car in a closed garage (probably won't work for you, especially with garages being separate buildings a lot in those days.) People in cities/apartments jumped out of windows, but that would not leave your victim actually inside the house.

(My mother actually stopped someone from killing herself with gas in the 1940's in an old Philadelphia apartment building when she smelled the gas from the woman's apartment and called the police/ambulance in time to save the woman.)
posted by gudrun at 8:51 AM on May 9, 2014

Best answer: In 1933, the poet Sara Teasdale took an overdose of sleeping pills and lay down in a warm bath. Vachel Lindsay, her lover and colleague, had gone out on a bellyful of Lysol a year before.
posted by Iridic at 8:55 AM on May 9, 2014

Response by poster: These are all super helpful -- thanks.
posted by BlahLaLa at 9:48 AM on May 9, 2014

Best answer: The female protagonist of Dorothy Parker's 1929 short story Big Blonde attempts suicide by an overdose of Veronal (barbital). In the story, it's a plot point that you have to buy it in Jersey, since in New York they won't sell it without a prescription.
posted by Pallas Athena at 9:58 AM on May 9, 2014

I was just researching something similar and note: they changed how gas works- that's why you can't stick your head in the oven anymore.
posted by misspony at 11:05 AM on May 9, 2014

Re gas: Originally gas was coal gas, made by baking coal in an oven and capturing the gas which came off. The reason it was poisonous was that it contained a lot of carbon monoxide.

Modern gas is "natural gas", gotten from wells, and it doesn't contain appreciable amounts of carbon monoxide.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 12:19 PM on May 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have a book all about the calamities that occurred in one rural West Virginia county between the 1830s and 1940s and the main ways of attempted suicide listed are, in no particular order and from memory:

Train (both jumping in front of and out of)
Poison (including overdose of medication)
Jumping off a bridge (with intent to inflict trauma)
Jumping into (including off a bridge into) a body of water (with intent to drown oneself)
Jumping into (including off a bridge into) a body of water (with intent to cause hypothermia)
Setting fire to one's self or one's dwelling while inside
Stripping naked and wandering off into the cold
Defenestration (this didn't seem to work as the tallest buildings there are still only two floors)
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 1:03 PM on May 9, 2014

So I'd guess more suicides were sticking their heads in the oven before that year.

It's not just that, but the gas that came into your house via pipes prior to WWII (and in some places afterward) was, at least on the East Coast, likely to be coal gas / manufactured gas. It's largely carbon monoxide. Trying to kill yourself with modern petroleum / natural gas would be difficult and unpleasant by comparison, but a couple of big breaths of manufactured gas could knock you unconscious and that would be it.
posted by Kadin2048 at 1:30 PM on May 9, 2014

Best answer: Several of Agatha Christie's novels set in the 1920s and 1930s include characters who committed suicide by overdosing on the sleep aid veronal. Two such books are The Murder of Roger Akroyd and, I think, Lord Edgware Dies. Looks like it was a common sleep aid at the time that was easy to build resistance to and accidentally (or perhaps purposefully) overdose on
posted by partly squamous and partly rugose at 2:23 PM on May 9, 2014

It's later than you're asking about (1947), but a woman and not fiction: my maternal grandmother shot herself in the mouth with a shotgun.
posted by Specklet at 4:38 PM on May 9, 2014

I used to get an RSS update from a blog called Black & WTF where they have several photos of women committing suicide by jumping off of buildings (here's one), but that doesn't help you. Then there was this very disturbing one of a woman with her head in the oven. And I looked it up and found that that it was common before the 1950's, including the 1930's. Of course, the linked article is for Britain, but I'm pretty sure it was the same in the US.
posted by patheral at 4:46 PM on May 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: My grandfather's diaries mentioned a relative ingesting Paris Green to commit suicide.

This would have been in the 1940s, I believe.
posted by dweingart at 7:18 PM on May 9, 2014

Best answer: You haven't mentioned in the question whether this is a planned suicide (days/weeks/months?) or impulse. Poisoning/overdosing for instance would probably require some planning ahead, while gassing (with an oven) would not.

Another reason to consider is how/if she wants to be found. One often mentioned possible reason that there are more women than men choosing poison as a method is the belief that the resulting death will be peaceful and won't disfigure the body, and that women are more often inclined to consider this as a factor in their choice of method. For instance, if your character is very vain I would think it would be unlikely she would hang or shoot herself.

As for data: In Suicide in England and Wales 1861–2007: a time-trends analysis (which obviously is specific to England and Wales), there's this chart which shows a mortality rate per 100,000 per year of 1 for hanging, 2 for poisoning, 2 for gassing and 4 for "other".
posted by bjrn at 3:24 AM on May 10, 2014

From what I remember, the stats were mostly drowning then poisoning/ODing with a surprisingly large chunk of "set fire to the structure I'm in". Gun suicides are something that are much more recent, as well its soft correlation to percentage of gun ownership per capita.

I don't know how available Helium was in the '20s-'30s but He can kill you quietly and quickly. Wait, they were flying zeppelins in the 30's He should have been everywhere.

I hate to say it, but great answers in the suicide thread.

interplanetjanet: "It would be hard to drown in your home. Unless you have a really deep tub and weight yourself."

Alternatively, have a normal sized tub and take a handful of pills and chase it with half a bottle of bourbon.
posted by Sphinx at 4:47 PM on May 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

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