Monday, March 11, 2019

Elmira’s Suicide Epidemic of 1920

by Erin Doane, Curator

**In this post, I will be writing about cases of attempted and successful suicide. Suicide is a serious issue and has been throughout history. If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for help.**

In the past, I have had a blog post or two that have unexpectedly veered off into dark territory (like the A Tragic History of Tiny Stoves, for example). I went into researching this post, however, knowing very well that it was a dark topic. While searching for information on something else entirely, I randomly came across a headline from December 14, 1920 that read: “Another woman takes mercury tablet; she refuses to state reason for act.” I was instantly intrigued. I was also quite aware that I was diving headfirst into a story on potential suicide. Just an hour into research, I found articles about seven possible cases of suicide by mercury bichloride poisoning over the course of six weeks in Elmira.

Star-Gazette, December 14, 1920
Mercury bichloride is a deadly poison. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was used as a wood preservative and in photographic processing. In the home, it was used as a disinfectant, insecticide, and fungicide, and as a rat poison. Medically, it was used as a topical treatment for syphilis. While tablets were widely available in pharmacies without a prescription, by the late 1910s, bottles were clearly labeled poison and the tablets were made in the shape of little coffins to drive home that point.

The first report in this series of seven poisonings appeared in the Elmira Star-Gazette on November 23, 1920. Leona was taken to Arnot-Ogden hospital after mistakenly taking a mercury bichloride tablet. When ingested, mercury bichloride is absorbed into the bloodstream and organs where it damages kidneys and the intestinal tract, causing internal bleeding. It can take five days or more before doctors can tell if a victim will survive the poisoning. On November 26, it was reported that Leona’s condition had worsened but by December 2, she was finally recovering. The newspaper continued to report that her poisoning was accidental.

On November 30, it was reported that 22-year-old Anna was taken to St. Joseph’s hospital after swallowing a mercury bichloride tablet. At first, she claimed that it was a mistake, but later she declared that she did not know why she had taken the poison. She had recently moved to Elmira from Niagara Falls after having divorced her husband. The owner of the hotel at which the young woman worked said that she had been despondent recently and that may have been why she took the poison. Anna died in the hospital two weeks later.

Star-Gazette, December 10, 1920
Harry, a World War I veteran suffering from shellshock, wrote a letter to his estranged wife on December 2 and then swallowed a mercury bichloride tablet. In the letter, he wrote that he was so lonesome without her and could not stand it any longer. There was no mistaking his intention. After a relatively short stay at Arnot-Ogden hospital, Harry recovered and was discharged.

On December 6, Rena was in St. Joseph’s hospital “in serious condition as the result of her attempt to suicide,” according to the Star-Gazette. The 19-year-old mother of a 9-month-old baby had been acting in an unnatural manner, according to her husband. After they had a disagreement about Christmas plans, she swallowed a mercury bichloride tablet. She was the fourth to do so in Elmira in two weeks. She did recover and was discharged from the hospital on December 11.

Just a day after Rena returned home, on December 12, 17-year-old Mary took the same poison and refused to give her reason why. It is interesting to note that Mary lived on the same street as Rena, just eight houses down. She was expected to recover.

Star-Gazette, January 3, 1921
The report of a seventh victim of self-ingested poisoning was reported on January 3, 1921. (I never did find the sixth case. Whether it was not officially reported or the newspaper simply got their count wrong, I do not know.) Katherine spent a cheerful New Year’s Eve chatting with her boardinghouse landlady, Minnie. She wished Minnie a happy New Year just after midnight and went to her room. Around 1am, the landlady heard groaning from Katherine’s room. She had taken one mercury bichloride tablet. After divorcing her husband, the 27-year-old had to place her two children, aged 5 and 7, into other homes. It was believed that was why she had taken the tablet. Katherine was in the hospital for a week before recovering enough to be discharged.

There is the idea that suicide is contagious; that a person already on the edge reads or hears about someone taking their life and then takes action themselves. It feels like that may have been what was happening between November 22, 1920 and January 1, 1921. The deadliness of mercury bichloride had been public knowledge for years. In September 1920, just a couple months before the incidents in Elmira, 25-year-old silent film actress Olive Thomas died in Paris after ingesting mercury bichloride. Her husband had been using it as a topical treatment for syphilis. It was never determined if her swallowing the poison was an accident, suicide, or even murder, but the case became a major Hollywood scandal and appeared in local newspapers. Could her very public death have inspired others who wished to kill themselves?

We will never know why so many people in Elmira poisoned themselves over such a short period of time at the end of 1920. One can speculate on the reasons in hindsight, but I’m sure even those at the time were shocked by the news. Suicide is one of those fundamentally human things that connects us to everyone else around the world and throughout time. My hope is that by exploring this bit of local history, as difficult as it may be, perhaps someone out there may realize that we are all part of a larger community with shared experiences and know that they are not alone.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255

3 comments:

  1. While going through old local newspapers as part of some genealogical research, I was surprised at how suicides were reported, with great detail and little regard for the privacy of the family of the victim. As surprising was the number of suicides via poisoning that occurred in that era. In addition to the mercury bichloride, there were a number of news items from the 1920's concerning suicides caused by ingesting carbolic acid. Pretty disturbing accounts. Thanks for the post.

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  2. This sounds horribly similar to the recent spate of suicides in Bridgend, south Wales. Suicide really is contagious, at least in certain times and places.

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  3. Excellent and informative article - did you find the articles by rolling through microfilms, or is the local newspaper available online?

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