Arts and Sciences
The late nineteenth century saw a dramatic increase in the media attention given to suicides in American cities. Papers regularly decried ‘suicide manias,’ ‘suicide clubs,’ and graphic, detailed descriptions of suicides regularly ran across the front page of papers nationwide. By the turn of the century, a stretch of cities running across the Midwest from Pittsburgh to Omaha was referred to in the press as the ‘Suicide Belt,’ cities where suicides were perceived to be on the increase. This sensationalism coincided with immense cultural and social changes brought on by industrialization, e.g., rapid urbanization, the rise of consumerism, wage labor. The sensationalism surrounding 19th-century American suicide saturated broader cultural discourses on social order, gender, and modernity brought on by industrialization. Using the method of cultural history, I reconstruct several narratives of suicide in these cultural arenas. The 1887 suicide of anarchist Louis Lingg was used to express competing concerns over the social order in American cities; the suicide of Chicago women in the 1880s was used in a cultural discourse that sought to curb new spaces for agency that had opened up to American women in the late 19th century; and public debates in 1890s over the connection between suicide and civilization point to concerns about the effect of modernity on American moral and physical health. Overall I argue that suicide, as a powerful public symbol of agency, indicated Americans’ deep anxieties about the direction the nation had taken in the Gilded Age.
Kalin, Anthony, "Life in the Suicide Belt: Intersections of Death and Agency in American Culture, 1870-1910" (2019). Symposium on Undergraduate Research and Creative Expression (SOURCE). 764.