Society Is An Elixir of Bon-Bons: Washington’s Socialite Suicide Problem


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.

washington The Princeton Union, February 24, 1898

washington 2

washington 3

An unattributed clipping also appeared in The Columbian on Feb. 3, 1898 discussing the rash of suicides.

The Columbian., February 03, 1898

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.

Lelia Herbert Little Falls weekly transcript December 31, 1897

Little Falls Weekly Transcript, Dec. 31, 1897

wells The Roanoke times., December 30, 1897
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.

herbert The Cape Girardeau Democrat., December 25, 1897
The Cape Giradeau Democrat, Dec. 25, 1897

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.

Daisy Garland The Roanoke Times October 28, 1893
The Roanoke Times October 28, 1893
Daisy Garland Watauga Democrat November 09, 1893
Watauga Democrat November 09, 1893
Daisy Garland The Salt Lake Herald, October 28, 1893
The Salt Lake Herald, October 28, 1893

garland The Lafayette advertiser November 04, 1893

garland 2
The Lafayette Advertiser November 04, 1893
daisy 3 The Indianapolis journal., October 28, 1893
Little Falls Weekly Transcript, Dec. 31, 1897

There were several accounts of the former Colorado Governor Waite’s daughter attempting suicide. Some listed her as “Mary” and others “Kate.”

waite Kansas City journal, January 08, 1898
Kansas City Journal, Jan. 08, 1898
waite kate Colorado Transcript, January 12, 1898
Colorado Transcript, January 12, 1898

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.

Clarksville weekly Chronicle., January 23, 1886

bayard 2

bayard 3
Clarksville Weekly Chronicle, Jan. 23, 1886

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.

valera 19020
Bayard, from another source claiming she committed suicide

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.

lucille The Roanoke times., January 18, 1898
The Roanoke Times, January 18, 1898
lucille The Globe-republican., February 03, 1898
The Globe-Republican, February 03, 1898

Fortunately Lucille’s wounds healed but she only lived until 1902 when she succumbed to brain fever.

lucille San Francisco Call, Volume 87, Number 49, 19 July 1902
San Francisco Call, Volume 87, Number 49, July 19, 1902

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.)

lane thomas Devils Lake inter-ocean. (Devils Lake, Ramsey Co., Dakota [N.D.]) 1884-1905, October 19, 1900
Devils Lake Inter-Ocean, October 19, 1900
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.

lane thomas The Washington times., October 18, 1902
The Washington Times., October 18, 1902

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.