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  • Moments of Despair: Suicide, Divorce & Debt in Civil War North Carolina by David Silkenat
  • Jane Turner Censer
Moments of Despair: Suicide, Divorce & Debt in Civil War North Carolina. By David Silkenat (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011, x plus 296 pp.).

In the list of catastrophes that nineteenth-century North Carolinians dreaded, David Silkenat has hit the trifecta with his study of suicide, divorce, and debt. In this fast paced, well written book, the Civil War is the social reagent that changed attitudes on these three subjects among white and black Carolinians, but not necessarily in the same directions. For white Carolinians, “this transformation entailed a shift from a world in which individuals were tightly bound to the local community to one in which they were increasingly untethered from social ties” (2). For African Americans, “these trends headed in the opposite direction, as emancipation laid the groundwork for new bonds of community” (2). [End Page 223]

Arguing that all three of these topics were barometers of moral change, providing a window onto changing social views and cultural practices, Silkenat gives a separate section to each. He chronicles how the prewar white community soundly condemned the practice of suicide, and those considering it worried about divine punishment in the afterlife. In contrast, enslaved African Americans saw suicide as a protest that would return the dead person to Africa. All this changed in the late nineteenth century as whites became less judgmental about those attempting suicide, and blacks increasingly decried it.

Given that the state did not record vital statistics until the twentieth century, Silkenat relies on newspaper reports of suicides and is cognizant of that source’s shortcoming. What he finds in the postwar period is a more frequent reporting of suicide and indeed even a focus on “suicide mania,” those periods in which a suicide seemed to trigger others in the community. Arguing that the upswing in self destruction seemed to stem from veterans suffering from post traumatic stress disorder and clusters of suicides, the author asserts that attitudes changed “rapidly and decisively” (69) after the Civil War.

Not only does Silkenat focus on prominent suicides, he also recounts the tragic career of Eugene Grissom, who superintended the North Carolina Insane Asylum for over twenty years. In contrast to some of the other heads of asylums in North Carolina, Grissom advocated restraining suicidal patients with ropes or in a special chair with straps. Although suicides almost never occurred at his hospital, complaints from employees led to a public inquiry into conditions. While Grissom was acquitted in 1889, public disapproval led him to resign his post that year and sink into a deep depression. A later addiction to drugs and confinement to an asylum all preceded Grissom’s own suicide, which occurred over a decade after he left the North Carolina post.

Much like his focus on suicide, Silkenat studies divorce both from social and cultural angles. Using the divorce records from five counties, he describes a skyrocketing divorce rate after the war among white families. The author also notes how the advent of legal marriage led to a transition period among the freed people, who continued to rely on informal separations. But black ministers very quickly came to denounce divorce as a threat to morality and to warn their flocks against it. Only after 1889 and publication of the state’s divorce statistics in a federal report, did North Carolina’s white clergymen begin to inveigh against divorce. At that point Episcopalian bishop Joseph Cheshire led a crusade against the current laws, using an uncontested divorce in the prominent Duke family as an illustration of the current evils. Although the laws were tightened in 1905, within a few years the divorce rate was climbing again. For the next twenty years Cheshire would continue his sermons against divorce, to little avail.

On debt, Silkenat also follows patterns of change over time. Here he also finds a difference between groups of white men in the antebellum period. While both the yeomen and merchant-planter classes in the abstract deplored debt as dependence, the author argues that wealthier groups treated loans of money as a kind of gift exchange...


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pp. 223-225
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