October’s “Atlantic Monthly” contains an intriguing story on Abraham Lincoln’s struggles with mental illness.
The cross Abe bore was depression — then called melancholy — and he often contemplated suicide, the article stated.
“Lincoln didn’t do great work because he solved the problem of melancholy; the problem of his melancholy was all the more fuel for the fire of his great work,” Joshua Wolf Shenk wrote, in ending his story. http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/prem/200510/lincolns-clinical-depression
This got me to thinking about the way newspapers cover suicide. People view the media today as sensational, but it was common in the 1800s — Lincoln’s day — to give all the gritty detail when people took their own lives… .
For example, the York Gazette presented a detailed story about how a despondent and depressed Adam King, the newspaper’s owner and former congressman, hanged himself in his own house.
A family member found King “suspended by the neck from a beam in the garret of his dwelling,” King’s newspaper stated.
“He had, with his own hand, terminated a life, which, to him, was a ‘joyless, cheerless, solitary waste,'” the newspaper said.
Today, the York Daily Record/Sunday News, successor of The Gazette, publishes information about suicides only if they happen in a public place.
If the Daily Record/Sunday News was faced with a decision today about covering the self-inflicted death of a prominent official — such as King — in his own home, we probably would do so. But we’d probably call it a hanging and leave it at that. In other words, the prominence of the person would have superseded the privacy accorded by our policy.
This decision would be sensationalism to some, but tame compared to coverage of yore.
Here’s an entry about King’s sucide from my book, “Never to be Forgotten.”
1835: York – Suicide reported
The county is abuzz with the news that Dr. Adam King, a prominent York politician-physician, hanged himself in his home. King owned The York Gazette and served three terms in the Congress, two terms as orphan’s court clerk and was serving as a presidential elector at the time of his death. Grieving journalists at his newspaper report his death in great detail in an article titled “Melancholy Event.” Many newspapers of the day regularly provide details of suicides.
Abraham Lincoln visited York County one time – on his way to deliver the Gettysburg Address. See: York County has its own Lincoln photo debate.