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|Suicide in California.
A half protest rises within me as I begin this Sketch. The page almost turns crimson under my gaze, and shadowy forms come forth out of the darkness into which they wildly plunged out of life's misery into death's mystery. Ghostly lips cry out, "Leave us alone! Why call us back to a world where we lost all, and in quitting which we risked all? Disturb us not to gratify the cold curiosity of unfeeling strangers. We have passed on beyond human jurisdiction to the realities we dared to meet. Give us the pity and courtesy of your silence, O living brother, who didst escape the wreck!" The appeal is not without effect, and if I lift the shroud that covers the faces of these dead self-destroyed, it will be tenderly, pityingly. These simple Sketches of real California-life would be imperfect if this characteristic feature were entirely omitted; for California was (and is yet) the land of suicides. In a single year there were one hundred and six in San Francisco alone. The whole number of suicides in the State would, if the horror of each case could be even imperfectly imagined, appall even the dryest statistician of crime. The causes for this prevalence of self-destruction are to be sought in the peculiar conditions of the country, and the habits of the people. California, with all its beauty, grandeur, and riches, has been to the many who have gone thither a land of great expectations, but small results. This was specially the case in the earlier period of its history, after the discovery of gold and its settlement by "Americans," as we call ourselves, par excellence. Hurled from the topmost height of extravagant hope to the lowest deep of disappointment, the shock is too great for reaction; the rope, razor, bullet, or deadly drug, finishes the tragedy. Materialistic infidelity in California is the avowed belief of multitudes, and its subtle poison infects the minds and unconsciously the actions of thousands who recoil from the dark abyss that yawns at the feet of its adherents with its fascination of horror. Under some circumstances, suicide becomes logical to a man who has neither hope nor dread of a hereafter. Sins against the body, and especially the nervous system, were prevalent; and days of pain, sleepless nights, and weakened wills, were the precursors of the tragedy that promised change, if not rest. The devil gets men inside a fiery circle, made by their own sin and folly, from which there seems to be no escape but by death, and they will unbar its awful door with their own trembling hands. There is another door of escape for the worst and most wretched, and it is opened to the penitent by the hand that was nailed to the rugged cross. These crises do come, when the next step must be death or life-penitence or perdition. Do sane men and women ever commit suicide? Yes - and, No. Yes, in the sense that they sometimes do it with even pulse and steady nerves. No, in the sense that there cannot be perfect soundness in the brain and heart of one who violates a primal instinct of human nature. Each case has its own peculiar features, and must be left to the all-seeing and all-pitying Father. Suicide, where it is not the greatest of crimes, is the greatest of misfortunes. The righteous Judge will classify its victims.
A noted case in San Francisco was that of a French Catholic priest. He was young, brilliant, and popular - beloved by his flock, and admired by a large circle outside. He had taken the solemn vows of his order in all sincerity of purpose, and was distinguished as well for his zeal in his pastoral work as for his genius. But temptation met him, and he fell. It came in the shape in which it assailed the young Hebrew in Potiphar's house, and in which it overcame the poet-king of Israel. He was seized with horror and remorse, though he had no accuser save that voice within, which cannot be hushed while the soul lives. He ceased to perform the sacred functions of his office, making some plausible pretext to his superiors, not daring to add sacrilege to mortal sin. Shutting himself in his chamber, he brooded over his crime; or, no longer able to endure the agony he felt, he would rush forth, and walk for hours over the sand-dunes, or along the sea-beach. But no answer of peace followed his prayers, and the voices of nature soothed him not. He thought his sin unpardonable - at least, he would not pardon himself. He was found one morning lying dead in his bed in a pool of blood. He had severed the jugular-vein with a razor, which was still clutched in his stiffened fingers. His handsome and classic face bore no trace of pain. A sealed letter, lying on the table, contained his confession and his farewell.
Among the lawyers in one of the largest mining towns of California was H. B - . He was a native of Virginia, and an alumnus of its noble University. He was a scholar, a fine lawyer, handsome and manly in person and bearing, and had the gift of popularity. Though the youngest lawyer in the town, he took a front place at the bar at once. Over the heads of several older aspirants, he was elected county judge. There was no ebb in the tide of his general popularity, and he had qualities that won the warmest regard of his inner circle of special friends. But in this case, as in many others, success had its danger. Hard drinking was the rule in those days. Horace B - had been one of the rare exceptions. There was a reason for this extra prudence. He had that peculiar susceptibility to alcoholic excitement which has been the ruin of so many gifted and noble men. He knew his weakness, and it is strange that he did not continue to guard against the danger that he so well understood. Strange? No; this infatuation is so common in everyday life that we cannot call it strange. There is some sort of fatal fascination that draws men with their eyes wide open into the very jaws of this hell of strong drink. The most brilliant physician in San Francisco, in the prime of his magnificent young manhood, died of delirium tremens, the victim of a self-inflicted disease, whose horrors no one knew or could picture so well as himself. Who says man is not a fallen, broken creature, and that there is not a devil at hand to tempt him? This devil, under the guise of sociability, false pride, or moral cowardice, tempted Horace B - , and he yielded. Like tinder touched by flame, he blazed into drunkenness, and again and again the proud-spirited, manly, and cultured young lawyer and jurist was seen staggering along the streets, maudlin or mad with alcohol. When he had slept off his madness, his humiliation was intense, and he walked the streets with pallid face and downcast eyes. The coarser-grained men with whom he was thrown in contact had no conception of the mental tortures he suffered, and their rude jests stung him to the quick. He despised himself as a weakling and a coward, but he did not get more than a transient victory over his enemy. The spark had struck a sensitive organization, and the fire of hell, smothered for the time, would blaze out again. He was fast becoming a common drunkard, the accursed appetite growing stronger, and his will weakening in accordance with that terrible law by which man's physical and moral nature visits retribution on all who cross its path. During a term of the court over which he presided, he was taken home one night drunk. A pistol-shot was heard by persons in the vicinity some time before daybreak; but pistol-shots, at all hours of the night, were then too common to excite special attention. Horace B - was found next morning lying on the floor with a bullet through his head. Many a stout, heavy-bearded man had, wet eyes when the body of the ill-fated and brilliant young Virginian was let down into the grave, which had been dug for him on the hill overlooking the town from the south-east.
In the same town there was a portrait-painter, a quiet, pleasant fellow, with a good face and easy, gentlemanly ways. As an artist, he was not without merit, but his gift fell short of genius. He fell in love with a charming girl, the eldest daughter of a leading citizen. She could not return his passion. The enamored artist still loved, and hoped against hope, lingering near her like a moth around a candle. There was another and more favored suitor in the case, and the rejected lover had all his hopes killed at one blow by her marriage to his rival. He felt that without her life was not worth living. He resolved to kill himself, and swallowed the contents of a two-ounce bottle of laudanum. After he had done the rash deed, a reaction took place. He told what he had done, and a physician was sent for. Before the doctor's arrival, the deadly drug asserted its power, and this repentant suicide began to show signs of going into a sleep from which it was certain he would never awake.
"My God! What have I done?" he exclaimed in horror. "Do your best, boys, to keep me from going to sleep before the doctor gets here."
The doctor came quickly, and by the prompt and very vigorous use of the stomach-pump he was saved. I was sent for, and found the would-be suicide looking very weak, sick, silly, and sheepish. He got well, and went on making pictures; but the picture of the fair, sweet girl, for love of whom he came so near dying, never faded from his mind. His face always wore a sad look, and he lived the life of a recluse, but he never attempted suicide again - he had had enough of that.
"It always makes me shudder to look at that place," said a lady, as we passed an elegant cottage on the western side of Russian Hill, San Francisco.
"Why so? The place to me looks specially cheerful and attractive, with its graceful slope, its shrubbery, flowers, and thick greensward."
"Yes, it is a lovely place, but it has a history that it shocks me to think of. Do you see that tall pumping-apparatus, with water-tank on top, in the rear of the house?"
"Yes; what of it?"
"A woman hanged herself there a year ago. The family consisted of the husband and wife, and two bright, beautiful children. He was thrifty and prosperous, she was an excellent housekeeper, and the children were healthy and well-behaved. In appearance a happier family could not be found on the hill. One day Mr. P - came home at the usual hour, and, missing the wife's customary greeting, he asked the children where she was. The children had not seen their mother for two or three hours, and looked startled when they found she was missing. Messengers were sent to the nearest neighbors to make inquiries, but no one had seen her. Mr. P - 's face began to wear a troubled look as he walked the floor, from time to time going to the door and casting anxious glances about the premises.
About dusk a sudden shriek was heard, issuing from the water-tank in the yard, and the Irish servant-girl came rushing from it, with eyes distended and face pale with terror.
"Holy Mother of God! It's the Missus that's hanged herself!"
The alarm spread, and soon a crowd, curious and sympathetic, had collected. They found the poor lady suspended by the neck from a beam at the head of the staircase leading to the top of the inclosure. She was quite dead, and a horrible sight to see. At the inquest no facts were developed throwing any light on the tragedy. There had been no cloud in the sky portending the lightning stroke that laid the happy little home in ruins. The husband testified that she was as bright and happy the morning of the suicide as he had ever seen her, and had parted with him at the door with the usual kiss. Every thing about the house that day bore the marks of her deft and skillful touch. The two children were dressed with accustomed neatness and, good taste. And yet the bolt was in the cloud, and it fell before the sun had set! What was the mystery? Ever afterward I felt something of the feeling expressed by my lady friend when, in passing, I looked upon the structure which had been the scene of this singular tragedy.
One of the most energetic business men living in one of the foothill towns, on the northern edge of the Sacramento Valley, had a charming wife, whom he loved with a deep and tender devotion. As in all true love-matches, the passion of youth had ripened into a yet stronger and purer love with the lapse of years and participation in the joys and sorrows of wedded life. Their union had been blessed with five children, all intelligent, sweet, and full of promise. It was a very affectionate and happy household. Both parents possessed considerable literary taste and culture, and the best books. and current magazine literature were read, discussed, and enjoyed in that quiet and elegant home amid the roses and evergreens. It was a little paradise in the hills, where Love, the home-angel, brightened every room and blessed every heart. But trouble came in the shape of business reverses; and the worried look and wakeful nights of the husband told how heavy were the blows that had fallen upon this hard and willing worker. The course of ruin in California was fearfully rapid in those days. When a man's financial supports began to give way, they went with a crash. The movement downward was with a rush that gave no time for putting on the brakes. You were at the bottom, a wreck, almost before you knew it. So it was in this case. Every thing was swept away, a mountain of unpaid debts was piled up, credit was gone, clamor of creditors deafened him, and the gaunt wolf of actual want looked in through the door of the cottage upon the dear wife and little ones. Another shadow, and a yet darker one, settled upon them. The unhappy man had been tampering with the delusion of spiritualism, and his wife had been drawn with him into a partial belief in its vagaries. In their troubles they sought the aid of the "familiar spirits" that peeped and muttered through speaking, writing, and rapping mediums. This kept them in a state of morbid excitement that increased from day to day until they were wrought up to a tension that verged on insanity. The lying spirits; or the frenzy of his own heated brain, turned his thought to death as the only escape from want.
"I see our way out of these troubles, wife," he said one night, as they sat hand in hand in the bedchamber, where the children were lying asleep. "We will all die together! This has been revealed to me as the solution of all our difficulties. Yes, we will enter the beautiful spirit-world together! This is freedom! It is only getting out of prison. Bright spirits beckon and call us. I am ready."
There was a gleam of madness in his eyes, and, as he took a pistol from a bureau-drawer, an answering gleam flashed forth from the eyes of the wife, as she said:
"Yes, love, we will all go together. I too am ready."
The sleeping children were breathing sweetly, unmindful of the horror that the devil was hatching.
"The children first, then you, and then me," he said, his eye kindling with increasing excitement.
He penciled a short note addressed to one of his old friends, asking him to attend to the burial of the bodies, then they kissed each of the sleeping children, and then - but let the curtain fall on the scene that followed. The seven were found next day lying dead, a bullet through the brain of each, the murderer, by the side of the wife, still holding the weapon of death in his hand, its muzzle against his right temple.
Other pictures of real life and death crowd upon, my mind, among them noble forms and faces that were near and dear to me; but again I hear the appealing voices. The page before me is wet with tears - I cannot see to write.