By: Lauren Higginbotham
In the eyes of many Americans, Ireland is often known for the massive number of immigrants who fled their country in order to escape starvation, disease, and poverty. Many Irish immigrants settled in places in and around New York, Boston, and Philadelphia looking for a fresh start and a better way of life. When speaking about immigrants, people tend to focus on the success stories rather than highlighting the difficulties many faced upon entering the United States. Irish immigrants during the late 19th century were likely never to return to their homeland and often dealt with oppression, discrimination, and persecution from Americans and other ethnic groups living in America. Life was not easy for all Irish immigrants and some chose to end their own lives in an effort to escape their reality.
One of the many places where Irish immigrants settled after arriving in the United States was Cincinnati, Ohio. The city of Cincinnati, which was established in 1788 on the Ohio River, has a rich history filled with immigrant stories and contributions. In the Queen City, many Irish immigrants took demanding, low-paying jobs digging the Miami and Erie Canal or on railroad construction. The city saw its greatest influx of Irish immigrants from the 1840s until 1910. The digitized Cincinnati birth and death records, which focus on immigrants from 1865 to 1912, are widely available to the public and give information about immigrants’ marital status, place of employment, address, and burial site. These records provide a baseline for discovering what life was like for immigrants in the late 19th century. There are many positive things to be discovered upon studying these records but there are also some that illuminate the hard times many immigrants faced upon adjusting to life in the United States.
According to the Cincinnati birth and death records, approximately 63 Irish immigrants committed suicide from 1865 to 1912. Of these suicides, eleven were by hanging, making this the second most common form of death by suicide, behind poisonings and tied with shootings. Of the eleven who hanged themselves, nine were male, and only two were female. This coincides with V. J. Callanan’s and M.S. Davis’ article, “Gender Differences in Suicide Methods,” which states that men are three to five times more likely to commit suicide than women. Taking a closer look at these records showed that three of the eleven were under fifty years old and eight of the eleven were fifty years or older at their time of death. Furthermore, six of the eleven people who hanged themselves are buried in St. Joseph’s New Cemetery but the other four records do not indicate which St. Joseph’s Cemetery they are buried, either “Old” or “New.”
Considering the Cincinnati birth and death records more broadly, aside from just looking at Irish immigrants, the database turned up 1,892 total suicides. Looking more closely at suicides by hanging, the database returned two hundred and seventy-two incidents. With only eleven Irish immigrants who committed suicide by hanging, Irish immigrants only account for approximately four percent of the total number of people in Cincinnati from 1865 to 1912 who committed suicide by hanging. Further research showed that other ethnic groups such as English, Jewish, French, and Russian each make up less than one percent of the total number of suicides by hanging. The largest number of suicides by hanging, accounting for approximately sixty-six percent of the total number, was one hundred and seventy-nine German residents. Similar to the Irish, Cincinnati saw a huge influx of German immigrants from the 1830s through the 1950s, and by 1840 German immigrants made up 30% of the city’s population.
Outside of just the Irish, life in the United States for immigrants was difficult. Many had trouble adjusting to life in a new place, leaving behind their families and homeland and creating a fresh start. The challenges of being an immigrant certainly weighed heavily on all who chose to travel across the Atlantic Ocean, and for some the burden proved too much. It is unfortunate that eleven Irish immigrants chose to commit suicide between 1865 and 1912, but their stories certainly should not be viewed as failures.
Callanan, V. J., and M. S. Davis. “Gender Differences in Suicide Methods.” Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology. U.S. National Library of Medicine, June 2012. Web. 03 Apr. 2017. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21604180.
Cincinnati: A City of Immigrants. Cincinnati: Hispanic Chamber Cincinnati Foundation, 2015.
Cincinnati Birth and Death Records, 1865-1912. University of Cincinnati Digital Resource Commons. https://drc.libraries.uc.edu/handle/2374.UC/2032