I came across this headline while researching an allegedly haunted roof under which socialite Bessie Hillyer died in 1888. The article, which ran in The Princeton Union on February 24, 1898 provided the only image of Miss Hillyer readily available and also hinted that there was a suicide epidemic among Washington, D.C. debutantes which I found incredibly fascinating.
Instead of a news piece this turned out to be an editorial written by Edgar Saltus who was known for his unique voice and leanings towards morbid and dark subject matter. Knowing this, it makes sense that he would address a possible pattern that emerged from the untimely and tragic deaths of several women from influential, wealthy families.
Contrary to Saltus’ opinion, official reports conflict rumors that not all of the ladies mentioned committed suicide.
Saltus realized the discrepancies and wrote:
“In Washington last week it was reported that a young gentlewoman, Mrs. Thomas F. Lane, daughter of Senator Blackburn, had attempted suicide. Subsequently the occurrence was attributed to an accident, and the report denied. The incident may, therefore, be dismissed. But a text remains.”
Saltus has some interesting thoughts on the subject, which you can read for yourself below.
An unattributed clipping also appeared in The Columbian on Feb. 3, 1898 discussing the rash of suicides.
Originally I was only going to post Saltus’ piece but I found myself unable to stop scouring available resources for more information.
Annie Virginia Wells, the 33-year-old daughter of a lawyer, shot herself in the chest after a combination of a four month illness and grief over her friend Lelia Herbert’s recent suicide.
Little Falls Weekly Transcript, Dec. 31, 1897
Lelia Herbert jumped from a third floor window “during a fit of dementia,” with many accounts claiming that her actions stemmed from a horseback riding accident two months prior.
Daisy Garland‘s age and location of the bullet wound vary among newspapers, but she shot herself in October 1893 after struggling with “religious melancholia” and/or a failed relationship. In August of that year she “went missing” for three days and turned in Baltimore. Daisy explained her disappearance on miscommunication. Whether there was more to the story remains a mystery.
There were several accounts of the former Colorado Governor Waite’s daughter attempting suicide. Some listed her as “Mary” and others “Kate.”
Katherine Bayard, daughter of President Cleveland’s Secretary of State, was found dead in her home in 1886. The official cause of death was linked to heart disease but after this article mentioned “wild rumors” I decided to dig further.
There were several mentions on different websites alleging that Kate had an affair with Juan Valera y Alcala Galiano, the married minister to Spain. Amy Heard: Letters From the Gilded Age contains a footnote that Kate killed herself shortly after learning that Juan was leaving Washington.
Whether Kate died from a physical heart condition or the result of a broken heart is a secret she (and maybe a few others) took to the grave.
Lucille Blackburn Lane shot herself in the chest in January 1898 in her bedroom at the Wellington Hotel. At the time her husband, daughter, and the nanny were also in the home. One explanation for the accidental shooting was that while getting ready for bed she dropped her beloved pistol, causing it to fire.
Fortunately Lucille’s wounds healed but she only lived until 1902 when she succumbed to brain fever.
In an unexpected turn of events, Lucille’s husband Dr. Thomas Lane took his own life in October 1900 with a bullet to the head. (I wonder how being present when both of her parents shot themselves affected Teresa/Therese, the Lanes’ daughter.)
This excerpt is from a controversial set of letters and a will he sent to his brother before his death, but then requested they be returned before they were read.
Were the rich and powerful youths of Washington, D.C. more prone to suicide as Saltus suggested due to its status as a melting pot and privilege? I don’t have a definite answer to the question but because I’ve spent so much time researching deaths in historic newspapers it seems as though when members of the upper class were involved in tragedy or suicide it was more widely reported/exploited than the woes of the commoners. (An idea which actually holds true to this day.)
Regardless of the circumstances surrounding these deaths, I hope that these young women (and Dr. Lane) found the peace in death that eluded them in life.