According to the official statistics for 1905 (PDF), there were 101 deaths in the city of Santa Rosa — exactly one percent of the population — and the single leading cause was TB, killing 9. Santa Rosa was lucky; that was half the national rate for tuberculosis. A comparison of suicide rates, however, would probably not have shown Sonoma County so fortunate.
Why was suicide such a common occurrence in bucolic 1905 Sonoma County? Turning the microfilmed pages of the old Press Democrat, grandpa (rarely grandma) was killing himself with shocking regularity; sometimes every week another is found swinging in their barn, prone on the floor from swallowing carbolic acid, or his brains splashed six-ways-from-Sunday by the old family shotgun.
March of 1905 was a particularly grueling month, with Coroner Frank Blackburn holding four suicide inquests. A woman in Guerneville took poison; an 18 year-old boy fired a bullet into his forehead with his revolver at a Sonoma party, allegedly because his girlfriend was dancing with other guys; a lumberjack and father of five in Occidental chopped his head open with an axe then disemboweled himself (yet still lived for two days); and finally, at the aforementioned fellow’s wake, another lumberjack and despondent “close companion” tucked a shotgun under his chin and blew his head completely off. If all of these incidents appeared in a Steven King novel, critics would accuse the author of overreaching for the sake of gratuitous shock value.
Today suicides are hushed-up and rarely mentioned by the media, even in obituaries, out of an evolved journalistic sensitivity for the family and community at large. But the sensationalist turn-of-the-century press loved these tragedies even more than gruesome accidents and usually reported about them at length, and with melodramatic flair. Read enough of them and a editorial formula even becomes apparent, with most articles beginning with the soon-to-be departed announcing intent: “I’ve only five minutes to live,” the Sonoma boy told others at the party; “Just say good-bye to Mother,” a man asked a bartender before downing strychnine. Usually the death is next described in gory detail, followed by the horrified reaction of witnesses and their frantic efforts to bring a doctor to the scene.
There are no scholarly writings specifically on reasons for suicide in that period (at least, no analysis that I can find), but as today, depression was probably a significant factor, its debilitating effects magnified by the sense of isolation in rural Sonoma County’s horse-and-buggy days. Chronic pain was a cause often hinted at by the coroner, and also understandable given the primitive and often dangerous state of medical treatment at the time. Alcoholism, drug abuse… the list of usual suspects goes on. I believe it’s likely that there was also an ongoing “Werther Effect” caused by the frequent and prominent reporting of suicides in the newspapers. Modern studies show that a suicide often inspires a rash of copycat suicides; if media reports on suicide appear regularly, it would make some sense that the act of killing oneself would appear to be part of normal societal behavior.
An article in a 1908 issue of McClure’s Magazine, “The Problems of Suicide,” debunked the popular assumptions about suicide that are still widespread today. More people actually killed themselves in spring and summer than in colder months, and usually in the day, and not after dark; suicides went down during disasters and wars — San Francisco suicides following the 1906 earthquake fell from 12 a week to 3 in two months (at least, that’s what was reported). Another study described in a medical journal the following year also noted suicides were steadily increasing and the greatest per capita increase centered in the Western U.S. with nearby Oakland being ground zero, reporting a one-third jump. (Note to other researchers: for buckets of data on early 20th century suicides, search for the name of Dr. Frederick L. Hoffman, statistician for the Prudential Life Insurance Company.)
CALMLY SAYS HIS DEATH IS NEAR
W. I. Martin Drinks Poison While Riding With Officer, Smokes and Dies
“Say, you had better drive fast. I have only about nine or ten minutes to live. I have drank some strychnine.”
William Martin was the speaker, Sunday afternoon, and the man he addressed was Constable O’Brien of Occidental. O’Brien had arrested Martin on a charge of having defrauded Mrs. M. Nerton, an apartment house keeper, out of a board bill, and was bringing the man to Santa Rosa to turn him over to Constable Gillam, at whose request the arrest had been made. As he spoke, Martin threw a bottle to the roadside.
The man drank the poison near the cannery building on West Third street. Constable O’Brien drove rapidly to McGregor & Hockin’s stables on Third street, where the rig in which they were driving had been hired on the previous night by Martin, who gave an assumed name and told another story as to why he wanted the horse and vehicle.
When the stable was reached Martin jumped lightly from the buggy and walked into the office. There he greeted Constable Sam Gilliam, Constable Boswell and Deputy Constable Frank Day and commenced to talk to them. Hardly before Constable O’Brien had the opportunity to state why he had driven so rapidly the last three quarters of a mile — because Martin had told him he had taken poison — Martin asked Constable Sam Gilliam to roll him a cigarette. The Constable did as he was asked and Martin lit it and commenced to smoke. Directly O’Brien mentioned that Martin had told him that he had taken poison, and despite the fact that the man’s actions did not seem to bear out his assertion, the telephone was kept hot trying to get a physician. At least half a dozen doctors offices and homes were rung up but the physicians were away from home. Finally Dr. J.W. Jesse was intercepted as he was speeding along in his automobile and he came at once to the stables.
In the meantime Martin had stated that he would have to get the money to pay for the hire of the horse and buggy from a house on Second street and had also given the officers some other information they desired. Dr. Jesse did what he could to save the man but before he arrived Martin was past all human aid.
The tragic circumstances of the suicide spread through the city and soon a morbid crowd of spectators had crowded outside the stables on Main street and came again Sunday night to the H. H. Moke Undertaking Parlor where the inquest was held by Coroner Frank Blackburn.
From the evidence adduced at the inquest and from other sources it was probably not the fact that he was arrested that led to Martin to drink the poison. It may have been the “last straw” as the old saying has it. Putting aside, for some three or four months the deceased, who had been employed in the tanneries here, and his wife had separated and since then he had attempted to get his little son. It was within a mile of where the mother and child are living at Camp Meeker that Martin was arrested on Sunday morning by Constable O’Brien. It was stated here on Sunday night that Martin had been heard to say that his wife would either come back to live with him or else he would kill her and himself. Possibly the arrest on Sunday night was the intercepting of what might have been a double tragedy.
The deceased has a sister, Mrs. Weber, residing at Sebastopol, and there the deceased called on his way to Occidental on Saturday night. He told her that he was hungry and she fed him. Then he continued his journey to Occidental. His wife has several brothers and a mother residing in this city. In a note read at the inquest on Sunday night, where the deceased had written on last Friday, and had headed it, “On the Steamer Gold” (the vessel that plies between Petaluma and San Francisco), he stated briefly to all whom it might concern, that his wife had driven him away and that she would not let him have his little son and that she was abetted in the stand she had taken by her mother. He also mentioned that his wife was acting as housekeeper in another household. This letter indicates that he had contemplated suicide, possibly from the deck of the steamer Gold with the sea for his tomb.
Martin was twenty-eight years of age. It is understood that the officers wanted him for other reasons besides defrauding of the boarding house keeper. But let the veil fall over any other reference to this. From all accounts the man was not all that he should have been.
The jury at the inquest Sunday night was composed of […]
– Press Democrat, January 30, 1906