Department of American Studies
George Washington University
2013 to 2014
Morbid Propensities: Suicide, Sympathy, and the Making of the Eugenic Public, 1843-1903
Abstract: This project argues that debates over suicide catalyzed the emergence of American eugenics by reconstituting the meanings of sympathy. Undertaken amidst wartime nationalism and the rise of finance capitalism, these debates structured cultural and political disputes as conflicts between two populations: one that elicited sympathy and another that did not. Analysis of insurance documents, court records, and popular suicide stories demonstrates that the eugenic public resulted from complex negotiations between scientific and local knowledges. A remarkable array of agents contributed to this public: abolitionists, jurists, clubmen, and novelists. Members of this public used suicide in three distinct ways. First, they framed individual suicide as an efficient method for eliminating undesirables. Second, they argued that suicidal individuals threatened the nation with imminent destruction. Finally, they drew on “race suicide” to mobilize desirable populations against this threat. Morbid Propensities shows how the suicide politics of previous decades made possible this tripartite apparatus. Read more about Kathleen's Consortium-funded research here.