Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Of Carbolic Acid, Suicide, and Key Words

The 1903 Death Return for Carolyn Merrill hints at the tragedy that ended her short life. Death Records, Adams County Death Return, Washington State Archives, Digital Archives.
The 1903 Death Return for Carolyn Merrill hints at the tragedy that ended her short life. 

Last month I was working with State Archives employee Allie Honican to present some of our sources for historical research to an EWU history class. The multimedia room in the archives is decorated with framed reproductions of historic documents--including the 1903 death return above. Looking at it during a break in the training I spotted a clue that hinted at a darker story in the death of young Carolyn Merrill. Can you find the clue?

The cause of death was listed as "carbolic acid," which was a common household disinfectant back then, but also a deadly poison. For these reasons, it was commonly used by suicides at the turn of the century. Merrill had killed herself.

Allie, who is a wizard with the Google News Archive, quickly turned up the whole sad story. “Rejected Girl Ends Her Life,” blares a headline in the June 11 Spokesman-Review, “Parting Talk to Lover, Then Carbolic Acid.” It seems Merrill had been engaged to local tavern owner Joe Naffziger. He had broken off the engagement the night before. The story is poignant: “The young woman spent the night grieving for the love she had lost. On her person were found letters of farewell to Naffziger and her brother, saying that ‘she could not live without Joe’s love,’ and begging God to forgive her for the deed she was about to commit.”

Merrill's is not the only record to list carbolic acid as a cause of death. The death certificate of Kate Barrett, the Spokane prostitute who is sometimes blamed for starting the Great Spokane Fire of 1889, lists "suicide carbolic acid" as her cause of death.

I wanted to do a little research on carbolic acid and suicide. Unfortunately, the Washington State Archives, Digital Archives is not set up to allow searching records for causes of death. So I went over to the Chronicling America website, which has 11 million pages of digitized, OCRed newspapers, most from 1900-1920. A search for "carbolic acid" revealed the shocking frequency of this manner of suicide with 75,785 results for the search term, many of them stories about women (and sometimes men) committing suicide.



Contemporaries also noticed what appears to have been an epidemic of suicides by carbolic acid. In a 1904 article, "Carbolic Acid the Favorite Poison of the Despondent," a Minneapolis coroner notes that there had been 100 suicides in his city in the last three years, 59 by carbolic acid. He called for tighter regulation of the substance to reduce the epidemic of suicides. The City Marshall of Joplin, Missouri made a similar set of observations that same year. By the 1920s, closer regulation of carbolic acid seems to have greatly reduced the number of suicides by this method.

This macabre short history makes a larger point about historical research in the digital age. Even a few years ago, researching the history of carbolic acid and suicide during this time period would have involved months of tedious skimming of microfilmed newspapers, trying to catch the odd story here and there. Now, a quick keyword search brings tens of thousands of leads in an instance. Yet this is only possible because we have a fairly unusual set of keywords--carbolic and acid. Similarly, it is easier to do digital research for Spokane (there are two in the United States, and the other one is tiny) than it is for say Springfield (42 towns of places) or Riverside (186 place names).




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