Did Socrates commit suicide? Philosopher R.G. Frey argues that he did. Socrates’ final conversations with Phaedo and his friends show that he intended to drink the hemlock, and he drank it intentionally, knowing its effect and without being forced. It’s true that he had been sentenced to die, but still he chose to accept the cup rather than compel another to take his life.
“The fact that Socrates died a noble and dignified death does not show that he did not commit suicide,” writes Frey, “but rather that suicide need not be ignoble and undignified.”
(R.G. Frey, “Did Socrates Commit Suicide?”, Philosophy 53:203 [January 1978], 106-108.)
“Foolish man, what do you bemoan, and what do you fear? Wherever you look there is an end of evils. You see that yawning precipice? It leads to liberty. You see that flood, that river, that well? Liberty houses within them. You see that stunted, parched, and sorry tree? From each branch liberty hangs. Your neck, your throat, your heart are all so many ways of escape from slavery … Do you enquire the road to freedom? You shall find it in every vein in your body.” — Seneca
In the West Indies, according to the Spanish historian Girolamo Benzoni, four thousand men and countless women and children died by jumping from cliffs or by killing each other. He adds that, out of the two million original inhabitants of Haiti, fewer than 150 survived as a result of the suicides and slaughter. In the end the Spaniards, faced with an embarrassing labor shortage, put a stop to the epidemic of suicides by persuading the Indians that they, too, would kill themselves in order to pursue them in the next world with even harsher cruelties.
— Alfred Alvarez, The Savage God: A Study of Suicide, 1971
Excerpt from the 1791 will of an English gentleman who had been sent unwillingly to live in Tipperary:
I give and bequeath the annual sum of ten pounds, to be paid in perpetuity out of my estate, to the following purpose. It is my will and pleasure that this sum shall be spent in the purchase of a certain quantity of the liquor vulgarly called whisky, and it shall be publicly given out that a certain number of persons, Irish only, not to exceed twenty, who may choose to assemble in the cemetery in which I shall be interred, on the anniversary of my death, shall have the same distributed to them. Further, it is my desire that each shall receive it by half-a-pint at a time till the whole is consumed, each being likewise provided with a stout oaken stick and a knife, and that they shall drink it all on the spot. Knowing what I know of the Irish character, my conviction is, that with these materials given, they will not fail to destroy each other, and when in the course of time the race comes to be exterminated, this neighbourhood at least may, perhaps, be colonized by civilized and respectable Englishmen.
From Virgil McClure Harris, Ancient, Curious and Famous Wills, 1911.
A man was hanged who had cut his throat, but who had been brought back to life. They hanged him for suicide. The doctor had warned them that it was impossible to hang him as the throat would burst open and he would breathe through the aperture. They did not listen to his advice and hanged their man. The wound in the neck immediately opened and the man came back to life again although he was hanged. It took time to convoke the aldermen to decide the question of what was to be done. At length the aldermen assembled and bound up the neck below the wound until he died. O my Mary, what a crazy society and what a stupid civilization.
— Russian exile Nicholas Ogarev, writing to his English mistress Mary Sutherland, 1860, quoted in Alfred Alvarez, The Savage God: A Study of Suicide, 1971
In 1554 Sir James Hales drowned himself. The coroner returned a verdict of felo de se, meaning that Sir James was guilty of the felony of self-murder. His estate was forfeited to the crown, which planned to award it to one Cyriac Petit. Sir James’ widow, Margaret, contested this. So the case turned on the question whether the grounds for forfeiture had occurred during Sir James’ lifetime: Had his suicide occurred during his life, or after his death?
Margaret Hales’ counsel argued that one can’t be guilty of suicide while one is still living, practically by definition, so self-murder shouldn’t be classed as a felony: “He cannot be felo de se till the death is fully consummate, and the death precedes the felony and the forfeiture.”
But Petit’s counsel argued that part of the act of suicide lies in planning to do it, which certainly occurs during life: “The act consists of three parts: the first is the imagination, which is a reflection or meditation of the mind, whether or not it is convenient for him to destroy himself, and what way it can be done; the second is the resolution, which is a determination of the mind to destroy himself; the third is the perfection, which is the execution of what the mind had resolved to do. And of all the parts, the doing of the act is the greatest in the judgment of our law, and it is in effect the whole.”
The court ruled for Petit, finding that Sir James had killed himself during his lifetime: “The forfeiture shall have relation to the time the original offence began which caused the death, and that was the throwing himself into the water, which was done in his lifetime and this act was felony. That which caused the death may be said to be feloniously done. The felony is attributed to the act, which act is always done by a living man; for, Brown said, Sir James Hales was dead, and how came he by his death? It may be answered by drowning; and who drowned him? Sir James Hales; and when did he this? It can be answered, in his lifetime. So that Sir James Hales being alive caused Sir James Hales to be dead, and the act of the living man caused the death of the dead man.”
The case is remembered, and not charitably, in the churchyard scene in Hamlet:
First Clown: Give me leave. Here lies the water; good: here stands the man; good; if the man go to this water, and drown himself, it is, will he, nill he, he goes,–mark you that; but if the water come to him and drown him, he drowns not himself: argal, he that is not guilty of his own death shortens not his own life.
Second Clown: But is this law?
First Clown: Ay, marry, is’t; crowner’s quest law.
When Arizona copper prospector James Kidd disappeared in 1949, he left behind a curious will:
this is my first and only will and is dated the second day in January 1946. I have no heirs have not married in my life, after all my funeral expenses have been paid and #100, one hundred dollars to some preacher of the gospital to say fare well at my grave sell all my property which is all in cash and stocks with E F Hutton Co Phoenix some in safety deposit box, and have this balance money go into a reserach or some scientific proof of a soul of the human body which leaves at death I think in time their can be a Photograph of soul leaving the human at death, James Kidd
He left it in a safe deposit box, so it didn’t come to light until 1963, by which time Kidd’s estate had appreciated to nearly $200,000. This attracted more than 100 claimants, each of which argued it was best qualified to find the human soul. The Neurological Sciences Foundation of Phoenix, for example, said that it was working with hallucinogenic agents, biochemical controls of the brain, and the nervous system. “To the extent that the ‘soul’ is a function of the human body,” it insisted, “to this extent our work … is relevant to the intent of the will.”
Arizona superior court judge Robert L. Myers finally awarded the legacy to a local neurological institute, but after an additional six years of litigation it went to the American Society for Psychical Research. “The Kidd legacy was not only a windfall,” wrote Nicholas Wade in Science, “but proved the parapsychologists could at least convince a court of the seriousness of their intentions.”
An American, named Sanborn, living at Medford, Mass., in his will, dated 1871, bequeathed his body to Harvard University, and ‘especially to the manipulation of Oliver Wendell Holmes and Louis Agassiz.’ He requested that his skin be made into two drumheads, to become the property of his life-long friend, Warren Simpson, leader of a drum corps, of Cohasset, on condition that on Bunker Hill at sunrise, June 17th, each year, he should beat on the said drum the tune of ‘Yankee Doodle.’ On one drum-head was to be inscribed Pope’s ‘Universal Prayer,’ and on the other the ‘Declaration of Independence.’
‘The remainder of my body,’ he continues, ‘unless for anatomical purposes, to be composted for a fertilizer to contribute to the growth of an American elm, to be planted in some rural thoroughfare, that the weary wayfarer may rest, and innocent children play beneath its umbrageous branches rendered luxuriant by my remains.’
— Current Opinion, 1902
Before his death in 1923, Curtis Lloyd erected an enormous granite monument to himself in the Kentucky woods. One side reads:
CURTIS G. LLOYD BORN 1859 — DIED 60 OR MORE YEARS AFTERWARDS. THE EXACT NUMBER OF YEARS, MONTHS AND DAYS THAT HE LIVED NOBODY KNOWS AND NOBODY CARES.
The other side reads:
CURTIS G. LLOYD MONUMENT ERECTED IN 1922 BY HIMSELF FOR HIMSELF DURING HIS LIFE TO GRATIFY HIS OWN VANITY. WHAT FOOLS THESE MORTALS BE!
World War I ended at 11 a.m. on Nov. 11, 1918. Each year at that moment, sunlight shining through the window of the Canadian War Museum illuminates the headstone of Canada’s Unknown Soldier.
In Gray, Maine, is a tombstone reading:
STRANGER — A SOLDIER OF THE LATE WAR. DIED 1862. ERECTED BY THE LADIES OF GRAY.
Lt. Charles Colley of the 10th Maine Volunteers had died that September at Alexandria, Va., and his parents had paid to have his remains embalmed and transported home. When they opened the casket, they found the body of a uniformed Confederate soldier. After some consternation the town interred him, and it commemorates the unknown soldier each Memorial Day. (Colley’s body arrived a week later and is buried 100 feet away.)
An epitaph in Keesville, N.Y., quoted in John R. Kippax, Churchyard Literature, 1876:
HERE LIES A MAN OF GOOD REPUTE,
WHO WORE A NO. 16 BOOT.
‘TIS NOT RECORDED HOW HE DIED,
BUT SURE IT IS, THAT OPEN WIDE,
THE GATES OF HEAVEN MUST HAVE BEEN
TO LET SUCH MONSTROUS FEET WITHIN.
Charles Wallis’ Stories on Stone records the epitaph of Dr. Fred Roberts in Pine Log Cemetery, Brookland, Ark.:
OFFICE UP STAIRS.
An epitaph on a trout, near a pond in Blockley, England:
UNDER THE SOIL
THE OLD FISH DO LIE
20 YEARS HE LIVED
AND THEN DID DIE.
HE WAS SO TAME
HE WOULD COME AND
EAT OUT OF OUR HAND.
DIED APRIL 20, 1855.
AGED 20 YEARS.
Below: The German word for cobblestone translates literally as “headstone” — so artist Timm Ulrichs offered this “cobblestone” pavement:
PARISEAU, N. De, born in 1753; a celebrated victim of the ‘mistakes’ of the guillotine. Pariseau was director of the opera ballets at Paris, and ardently espoused the cause of the revolution in ‘La Feuille du Jour.’ He was arrested by the Revolutionary Tribunal in 1793, and beheaded by mistake, instead of Parisot, a captain of the king’s guard.
— The Biographical Treasury, 1847
When Charlie Parker’s 2-year-old daughter Pree died of pneumonia on March 6, 1954, he was in Los Angeles fulfilling a week-long engagement at the Tiffany Club. His wife, Chan, sent a wire from New York to let him know that they had lost her, and received four telegrams in reply:
MY DARLING MY DAUGHTER’S DEATH SURPRISED ME MORE THAN IT DID YOU DON’T FULFILL FUNERAL PROCEEDINGS UNTIL I GET THERE I SHALL BE THE FIRST ONE TO WALK INTO OUR CHAPEL FORGIVE ME FOR NOT BEING THERE WITH YOU WHILE YOU ARE AT THE HOSPITAL YOURS MOST SINCERELY YOUR HUSBAND CHARLIE PARKER.
MY DARLING FOR GOD’S SAKE HOLD ON TO YOURSELF
MY DAUGHTER IS DEAD. I KNOW IT. I WILL BE THERE AS QUICK AS I CAN. MY NAME IS BIRD. IT IS VERY NICE TO BE OUT HERE. PEOPLE HAVE BEEN VERY NICE TO ME OUT HERE. I AM COMING IN RIGHT AWAY TAKE IT EASY. LET ME BE THE FIRST ONE TO APPROACH YOU. I AM YOUR HUSBAND. SINCERELY, CHARLIE PARKER.
He never forgave himself for being absent during Pree’s death. “Bird detached from things to save himself, which meant that in a way the sadness between them was very powerful,” recalled his stepdaughter, Kim. “I’ve seen very sad photographs of them … shortly after Pree’s death, and there’s just a complete space between them, and I think it was just the beginning of the end, really.” A year later he too was dead.