Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Suicide or Murder? What Do You Think?

I have been just dying (well, that may be a poor choice of words) to tell you about what was at first merely a footnote, but rapidly turned into a mystery. According to the official accounts, in the wee hours of October 1, 1875, John Harrigan (brother-in-law of my gg-grandfather) committed suicide by slitting his throat. His fifteen-year-old son found him at about six in the morning lying in a pool of blood, face down on the floor. The razor was on a bureau. John's three-year-old son, splattered with blood, was peacefully sleeping in the bed a few feet away from his lifeless father.

Within hours, a coroner's jury was assembled, statements given and the verdict rendered: suicide by cause of temporary insanity. John's wife was left alone to support five children ranging from eighteen down to three years of age.

This was the story. I had no occasion to doubt it until my mother recited the tale to a friend of hers who had worked as a social worker for decades. She didn't buy it. And thus began a quest, for that is indeed what it has become, to try to determine if poor John Harrigan truly did take his life or if someone else helped him to a premature end.

What was it my mom's social worker friend found so unbelievable? Her major objection was that it is difficult to commit suicide by slitting one's throat. It takes both a strong arm as well as a strong will. In John's case, both carotid arteries, one of the jugular veins and the trachea were completely sliced through. With three major blood vessels severed, along with the windpipe, he likely bled out or suffocated within minutes.

It turns out that suicide by cutting (all forms, including slitting throat and slitting wrists) is uncommon today, accounting for about 1-2% of suicides between 1985-2004 [1]. While it is difficult to obtain statistics from the mid to late 1800s, it appears that slitting one's throat was more common then, but still trailed the more popular methods such as hanging, poison, shooting and drowning. Of the 899 suicides in Michigan between 1875-1886, only 20 (2.2%) were from slitting the throat. [2] For the entire US 1882-1886, suicides as reported in local newspapers were analyzed. Of 6283 suicides recorded, 534 (8.5%) had cut their throats. [3]

Another tidbit that I found indicates that if a firearm is in the house or readily available the risk of suicide increases almost six-fold, nine-fold if the gun is kept loaded. [4] Given the choice of using a gun or slitting one's throat (which is often unsuccessful, and requires minutes to bleed out) I can't imagine choosing the option that requires more time (and hence pain) and has an uncertain outcome. Not only did John possess a gun, but he kept it in a trunk in the room where he died. I know that suicide is a selfish act, but I'm puzzled that John would have chosen to use his razor over going outside where he would be unlikely to be readily observed due to the darkness and lack of street lighting (not introduced until the 1880s).

From the various accounts of him it seems that John Harrigan was known around Kalamazoo from driving his dray. He kept his affairs to himself and appears to have been an introspective person and probably was difficult to get-to-know. If we believe a statement in John's obituary he was “unfortunately dispositioned,” but as we don't know whose opinion that was (we don't know who wrote the obit or who provided information -- John's son, Henry, perhaps?) I don't want to put too much store in it. I think to understand John's disposition better it would be useful to take a brief look at his background.

Of the four Harrigan children I have found, John was the oldest. We know that John came to the US during or very shortly after the great Irish potato famine (1845-1850). He worked in Ann Arbor for several years, probably sending money home, eventually bringing over his younger brother, Daniel. By the time Daniel arrived their parents were dead, likely from consequences of the famine. Presumably, the Harrigans were farmers in Ireland, but were very unlikely to have actually owned land (most Catholics had not been allowed to own land for several generations due to the restrictive anti-Catholic laws). While John was approaching manhood he would have seen the potato crop fail repeatedly and watched his loved ones and neighbors starve (at least one third of the Irish population was completely dependent upon the potato for sustenance), die of disease and maybe even be thrown out of their cottages or huts to live in ditches. I could go on, but there isn't room here. Suffice it to say that I think these scenes would have deeply impressed John Harrigan with the importance of working hard to take care of his family. Land was literally the life's blood of the Irish people, without which they had no means of feeding themselves. I believe that John Harrigan would have felt it imperative to purchase land in America (something I think it is safe to say he never could have done in Ireland) to secure a future for himself and his family. If his life before he reached American shores didn't sober him I don't know what further misfortunes could have done so.

The information we have as to John's state of mind before his death comes primarily from the statements in the coroner's inquest. For those who wish to read all of these statements, they were published in the Kalamazoo Telegraph (10-1-1875, page 4, column 3, accessible through the Kalamazoo Public Library website). These indicated that he had been troubled or at least preoccupied for at least a week or perhaps a month or two prior to his death. We can only speculate as to the cause as there were no obvious traumatic events in his life at the time (no deaths in his immediate or extended family, though his only surviving daughter was apparently ill). Also from the inquest statements we are told that John had no money problems. He owned “considerable property” [5] as well as his dray and horses. Though he was a native Irishman, several people said they had never seen John intoxicated. The notice that appeared in the Kalamazoo Gazette a week after John's death presents an interesting picture. It states: “The deceased was an unfortunately dispositioned man and had more or less difficulty with all whom he dealt and was a person given to despondency at times.” [6] John's son Henry stated before the coroner's jury that John had actually said at the dinner table they would all have to take care of themselves soon. Again, we don't know who told the Gazette John was “unfortunately dispositioned” and John's statement about taking care of “themselves” could have been directed solely at Henry. John was probably tired of working hard so that Henry could remain idle. John had no will drawn up at the time of his death.

So, what could have been troubling John? While I will never know for certain, I will speculate that John and his seventeen-year-old son, Henry, did not see eye-to-eye. While John was apparently industrious, Henry appears to have been the opposite. I haven't found anything to indicate that Henry ever did an honest days work in his life. A few months before John's death Henry began (as far as I can tell) playing base ball for the Kalamazoo Monitors team, and continued playing the game at least into the very early 1880s when he took up gambling schemes for his “occupation.” Baseball was a different kind of game then. While it may have been regaining popularity, I don't think most parents would have been exactly thrilled to have a son involved in the game. At least some base ball players cheated and it also appears that gambling and whoring (and presumably drinking) were not exactly unknown in base ball circles.

For a man like John, having a son who played base ball and apparently had no interest in working hard and becoming a productive member of society was probably quite a blow. John had survived the famine, watched who knows how many people die before his eyes, had come to the US and worked hard to make a better life for himself and his family. Had he worked so hard to watch his eldest son grow into a cocky baseball player who probably thought himself above the dreary life of a laborer? I think this could have contributed to whatever was troubling John, though I would be surprised if John would have taken his life because of it.

So, now we come to the question. Did John commit suicide or not? Considering that this event occurred nearly 150 years ago we will never know the truth and no amount of speculating can change that. Is there a case for suicide? Sure: troubled man, pacing in the yard, having his son drive the dray the day before his death because he was too preoccupied, behaving a bit out of character, but I just wonder if a man like John would have worked so hard only to give up without an obvious trigger. While John certainly would have been physically strong enough to slit his own throat (he was a drayman after all), I just wonder if he would have chosen to kill himself where he couldn't help but watch his young son sleeping. If he did want to end his life, why not take his gun, go outside and end it quickly and relatively painlessly.

With a wound like he had, John Harrigan's death was no accident. I am not convinced that John killed himself. I will never know for certain, but if John didn't commit suicide then he must have been murdered.

For the next installment of this story see: John Harrigan, Who Done It?
You can also see John Harrigan's gravestone and attempt to decipher it.
Or you can learn more about Henry Harrigan and his run-ins with the law.

  1. Harvard Injury Control Research Center and Suicide Prevention Resource Center (SPRC). Trends in rates and methods of suicide: United States, 1985-2004. Published 2007 by Suicide Prevention Resource Center.
  2. Twentieth Annual report relating to the Registry and Return of Births, Marriages & deaths in Michigan for the year 1886 by the Secretary of State of the State of Michigan. 1888. Thorp & Godfrey, State Printers and Binders. Lansing.
  3. The Chronicle February 11, 1886. Vol. 37 (6):246-250. New York.
  4. Kellerman AL, Rivara FP, Somes G et al. Suicide in the home in relation to gun ownership. New England Journal of Medicine. 1992. Vol. 327:467-72.
  5. Kalamazoo Telegraph, 10-1-1875. P4, Column 3.
  6. Kalamazoo Gazette, 10-8-1875.

1 comment:

  1. These are the types of mysteries that I love finding out about. Sounds like there is a clearer case for murder. Interesting.