Why It’s Important to Recognize Unusual Suicides

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Nine years ago, I collected several cases of unusual suicides to post here. Since then, I’ve encountered several more. I teach a course on the psychology of death investigation, where I state that death investigators and consultants must educate themselves about unique and bizarre suicides. In part, these cases can assist with early decisions about the manner of death. First responders might not be trained to understand that some people choose to die in very unusual ways.

Suicidology became a formal discipline after staff members from the Suicide Prevention Center in Los Angeles worked with the coroner’s office during the 1950s to identify when equivocal deaths were more likely to be suicide than natural, accident, or homicide. Edwin Shneidman, one of the SPC directors, coined the term. The SPC staff would later help to establish the American Association of Suicidology.

Shneidman and his colleagues found that it was difficult to distinguish a potentially suicidal person from case details alone, aside from certain obvious “red flag” conditions such as paranoid schizophrenia and reactive depression. Yet they noted that almost three-fourths of those who’d completed the act had attempted or threatened it in the past. About fifty percent of those who killed themselves after being discharged from a hospital accomplished this within three months. They worked to correct false assumptions about suicidal decisions.

Yet errors about the manner of death still occur. Some investigators mistake autoerotic accidents as suicides, or fail to notice signals of a homicide staged as a suicide. They might think any piece of writing near a body is a suicide note, or that the presence or absence of a note clinches a death determination. They might accept certain misleading cultural myths about suicide or dismiss a death as suicide because the method is too unusual or violent for the decedent to have done it.

Yet people are full of surprises. The array of things some individuals devise to end their lives is limited only by their imagination and the methods available. Membership in organizations that publish details about unusual cases, eg, the American Association of Suicidology and the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, can be useful, but one can always use search engines for professional articles to find atypical cases.

Typically, intentional self-decapitations (which account for less than 1 percent of suicides) occur as a death-by-train, hanging, or vehicle-assisted ligature. One involved decapitation with a tractor loader. This case featured a depressed 45-year-old man who rigged his farm machine to bang the loader against a silo wall. He seemed to have turned it on and run to position himself at the spot where the blade would lift and slice through his neck. It might have looked like an unfortunate accident except for the man’s persistent desire to die.

Also unusual for this very definitive death method is a homemade guillotine. In my prior article on this subject, I included a female engineer who built a chainsaw guillotine. In 2012, an article covered three cases of males who’d made guillotines with blades. The first one involved a sophisticated set-up with a heavy blade encased in a metal frame and triggered by a strong rubber band. Suffering from extreme paranoia, the 31-year-old had constructed the mechanism in an attic, fixing his head in place with a clamp. The other case involved a younger male who’d badly injured himself with the guillotine, dying later from the wound. In the third incident, a man had fashioned a guillotine in the door frame of a pub. He’d announced his intention beforehand and had tested the blade with pieces of wood.

Weapons and bombs feature in other atypical suicides. One case reported in 2018 involved a sub-machine gun. It delivered a lethal shot to the chest, but then shot twice more, one to the neck and one to the head. Ordinarily, this would seem to have been a homicide, since the first shot would have incapacitated the decedent, but testing the weapon showed that he had continued to fire, making the successive wounds on his own.

A man with 19 stab wounds to the neck also seemed to have been a homicide. How would such self-wounding even be possible? However, who considers turned up a surveillance video. It showed the man stabbing himself over the course of several minutes. No other description of self-stabbing in this area has shown such a high number of wounds. What had seemed impossible turned out to be only improbable.

In another case, an elderly man was found dead outside his home with a deep cavity blown into his chest. His associates knew he had a passion for building explosives, so his death appeared to have been an accident. However, a full victimology analysis showed that he faced extensive medical treatments. More importantly, he’d written more than twenty suicide notes, found in his bedroom under his pillow and in trouser pockets. The notes revealed obsessive suicidal idea. He’d apparently decided to die by holding a homemade explosive device against his chest.

Death investigators, whether coroners, medical examiners, detectives, or psychological consultants, need to learn about the unusual methods people use to end their lives. They should then pass this information along when training first responders. Cognitive bias toward the expected can generalize the accuracy of death investigations, leading to errors about the manner of death that can drain resources or possibly be irreversible.

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