No. 1471:
Jamestown and Suicide

Today, a story about Jamestown and self-destruction. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Long ago, I visited the site of the Jamestown settlement. What a disappointment! Hardly anything was left but shards of a small old stone church. The Virginia Company sent three boatloads of male settlers off to Jamestown in December, 1606. Within a year, most had died. The next group arrived in 1608, and over half of them died during the second year. After sixteen years of that, eighty percent of some six thousand would-be colonists had died.

In a classic study, Howard Kushner goes to early Jamestown and uses it as a window into the workings of suicide. School textbooks tell us that the settlers made mistakes under great adversity, but that they persevered. Well, they did not.

As historians piece the story together, they find something else entirely. Those early settlers arrived expecting a new Eden with fruit falling from the trees and friendly natives by their side. They soon found they had to grow their food, that they were actually invaders facing hostile natives, and that life was hard.

This was an age when suicide was considered the worst capital crime. A suicide's worldly goods were taken from the heirs, a stake was driven through the heart, and the body was buried in a nameless grave.

The legal system required an inquest to decide whether a suicide was guilty of a felo de se (a felony against self) or non compos mentis (innocent by reason of insanity). Down through the 17th and 18th centuries, inquests gave increasing fractions of non compos mentis verdicts. By 1800, suicides were routinely written off as insanity. Of course depression is the mental problem behind most suicides. And it needn't trigger an overt act to destroy a life.

Kushner is pretty sure of the source of the widespread depression that caused people to stop holding onto life in Jamestown. It worked like this: The settlers lived mainly on Indian maize. Maize lacks the chemical tryptophan, an amino acid, and it blocks the synthesis of serotonin, and the result is depression. Records show that the settlers didn't go out and hunt animals. They didn't persevere at all in their adversity. Instead of helping themselves, they gave up to disease and starvation.

Explorers and immigrants are especially vulnerable to a loss of hope. In 1880, suicides on the Western frontier ran a hundred times higher than they do across America today. Remember the old song, Sweet Betsy from Pike. In various versions, pioneers Betsy and Ike go through every form of despair. The literature of the West, and the various gold rushes, groan with stories like that.

So Jamestown is a reminder that we don't have to put a gun to our head to end life. The tar pits of despond will do the job as well. Let our body chemistry go out of whack, and we can lose the ability to grasp creative renewal. That's what the Jamestown settlers did, and it truly is self-destruction -- conscious or not.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Kushner, H., Self-Destruction in the Promised Land: A Psychocultural Biology of America Suicide. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1989. (See especially the Epilogue: From Jamestown to Jonestown.)

MacDonald, M., and Murphy, T.R., Sleepless Souls: Suicide in Early Modern England. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990.