Irish-American Suicides, 1865-1912
By: Kelly Schmitz
Imagine walking down the street on a cool, fall day in downtown Cincinnati. The year is 1893, right in the heart of the Gilded Age and the beginning of the Progressive Era. You pass a 55-year-old Irish man on the street name Mat. Kinsley and don’t even give him a second glance. Little do you know, this laborer is going through a troubled time. His thoughts are unsettled, his mind is wild, and later that day he puts a bullet through his tired body, bringing his life to an abrupt and sudden end. It’s very near impossible to know just what drove him and various other suicidal Irish-Americans over the edge in the mid-1800s to early 1900s, but what is for certain is that each of these individuals has a unique piece in a much larger narrative.
Mat. Kinsley’s death gives a good overall picture of the average Cincinnati Irish-American suicide of that time period. Searching the digitized Cincinnati birth and death records, 63 deaths related to both suicide and Irish ancestry between 1865 and 1912 are propagated. An overwhelming majority of those suicides were of men (78%) as opposed to women (22%), and over half (62%) of those suicides were by a married person. The most common age range was 50-59 (30%), followed by 60-69 (19%) and 17% for both 30-39 and 40-49. Only 30 of the records listed the person’s occupation (one of them being listed as retired), but the only occupation that had a significant number was the laborers (12). Thirty-one per cent died of some form of poison or overdose, arsenic and Paris Green being the most common, but shooting (18%), hanging (18%), and drowning (15%) also had sizable numbers. Paris Green is a toxic inorganic compound that in addition to being used as a paint pigment and in fireworks, was also commonly used as rat poison and insecticide in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Finally, the locations of these deaths show a significant cluster downtown, with smaller but equal scattering on the east and west sides, and even a few outside the city limits. It’s tempting to draw conclusions and assume that these statistics are unique to the Irish, but a quick glance through the birth and death records of immigrants with German ancestry shows similar results. However, while it is true that the suicides occurring within these two groups were similar, the Germans had far more suicides, revealing 710 results when searching the same database. This figure is probably due to the greater number of Germans in Cincinnati’s population at the time.
According to a book published in 1906 entitled Modern Social Conditions, author William B. Bailey compared the suicide rates per 100,000 people from 1887-93 of 20 different groups. Germany was placed at number five with 206, and Ireland was second to last with 25 (301). The reason he offered for this comes from a quote by General Frances A. Walker, who writes, “He (the Irish) dies by every form of injury except suicide. With indomitable gaiety and hopefulness, he refuses to look upon this world as wholly bad, or to quit it until the time has come. The Germans, on the other hand, are the great suiciding people among us” (302). As it would appear, the Irish values and outlook on life deter them from committing suicide in all but the most extreme of cases.
Even though their rate of suicide was less than most other immigrant groups, the Irish were not immune. Fifty to 59-year-old male laborerss were still the most likely to commit suicides across all immigrant ethnic groups. Bailey offers an explanation for this as well, stating that “The temperament of woman seems to enable her to bear misfortune better than man. He leads a more active life, is usually more ambitious, and the failure to gain some desired end seems to affect him more seriously. The life of woman is more centered in her home, where she is shielded from the stress and storm of life” (304). In this early 20th century interpretation of reasons for suicide, this means that men like Mat. Kinsley could feel discouraged by their lack of success as a laborer and as they aged, the pressure keeps weighing on them until they can bear it no longer. We will never know the true reason some felt compelled to end their lives so tragically, but not even the Irish, stereotyped or not in addition to gender stereotypes of the age, were invulnerable to suicide’s powerful grasp.
Bailey, William B. Modern Social Conditions. New York: Century, 1906.
Cincinnati Birth and Death Records, 1865-1912. University of Cincinnati Digital Resource Commons, http://digital.libraries.uc.edu/collections/birthdeath/.