Secret sorrows: a social history of suicide in Victoria, 1841-1921
AuthorCooke, Simon John
AffiliationArts - School of Historical Studies
Document TypePhD thesis
CitationsCooke, S. J. (1998). Secret sorrows: a social history of suicide in Victoria, 1841-1921. PhD thesis, Arts - School of Historical Studies, The University of Melbourne.
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© 1998 Dr. Simon John Cooke
The modern approach to suicide in Victoria had fallen into place by World War One. By then, the inquests held into deaths by suicide bore little resemblance to the traditional common-law procedure. Professional coroners or police magistrates had taken over from amateur coroners and juries of twelve. Inquests in Melbourne were no longer held in hotels, but at a custom-built morgue with facilities for post mortem. The police played a pivotal role, not because they necessarily considered suicide a terrible crime, but because they had become part of the administrative machinery of the state. With the abolition of punishments for suicide, the purpose of the inquest became description of the cause of death and the characteristics of the deceased on the death certificate. Institutionally, suicide became morally neutral and was treated the same as any other cause of death. At the same time that institutional change was thus re-making the way in which Victorians dealt with suicide, popular attitudes to suicide were also in flux. Old understandings of the role that religious despair played in formulating the desire to die, already in retreat by the early nineteenth century, were replaced by the popular belief that suicide was precipitated by madness. A third way of understanding suicide also emerged during the nineteenth century, in which suicide was a sign of neither madness nor sinfulness, but an understandable response to suffering which did not need to be explained. There are also signs that suicide was becoming impossible to interpret. Even most suicides who left notes did not try to explain the way they felt; perhaps they could not explain it even to themselves. The sociology of suicide, epitomised by Durkheim's research, was one response to uncertainty in the face of suicide. As a region of recent white settlement, colonial Victoria was demographically very different from European countries where sociological theories of suicide were developed. Immigration during the gold-rushes meant that family life in nineteenth-century Victoria was shaped by the ageing of an immigrant population. Clearly, this social structure shaped patterns of suicide in Victoria. But the study of Victorian suicide rates also shows how resistant they were to social change. One reason for this is that suicide rates are shaped by culture as well as by social structure. The differences between the suicide rates of young and old, and of men and women, can be more credibly accounted for by a study of their meanings than by their position in the social structure.
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