Fact Check

Failed Suicide

Did a suicide attempt involving hanging, shooting, poisoning, and immolation go wrong?

Published Mar 17, 2000

Legend:   Suicide attempt involving hanging, shooting, poisoning, and immolation goes wrong.


[Smith, 1959]

When I lectured to my students on multiple methods of suicide I generally finished up by relating the most outstanding case of all, a classic of its kind, which is, unfortunately, not susceptible to confirmation. I might say that it is not one of my cases.

The story is that a highly pessimistic individual had determined to take his life, and wanted to make sure that there would be none of the slip-ups he had read about. He decided that hanging would be an efficient means of self-destruction, and selected a tree with a stout branch overhanging a cliff, the sea being fifty feet below. This, he thought, would make a fitting and spectacular finish. In order to prevent any pain in the hanging process he procured for himself a large dose of opium. Although these arrangements seemed fairly complete, he decided that in order to make certain of a successful result it would be a good idea to shoot himself as well. The noose adjusted, the poison taken, and the revolver cocked, he stepped over the cliff, and as he did so fired. The jerk of the rope altered his aim, and the bullet missed his head but cut partly through the rope. This broke with the jerk of the body, and he fell fifty feet into the sea below. There he swallowed a quantity of salt water, vomited the poison, and swam ashore a better and wiser man.

[Morris, 1927]

[A Tulsa youth] was in the Slough of Despond — the whole world had become utter darkness, life was not worth the living — his girl "that was the one thought of his waking moments, the radiant image of all his dreams," had turned him down cold, spurned his one great passion. He would put an end to it all, and perhaps when she looked on his rigid face, she would realize her cruelty. Yes, he would bring the tears to her beautiful eyes. So he procured a bottle of carbolic acid, a rope, a pistol, and some gasoline. He rushed to the Arkansas river, jumped into his canoe — first tying one end of the rope to a stout tree limb, the other end around his neck. He drank the carbolic acid, poured the gasoline over his clothes, set fire to them, and jumped from the canoe, shooting his gun at the same time. The shell, missing his head, cut the rope in two, sousing him into the river, which quenched the flame. He swallowed so much water, in his excitement — up came all of the carbolic acid — and "If I hadn't been a darned good swimmer," he says, "I surely would have drowned." But the best part, his lady love was waiting at the shore, saying, "You big boob, if you want to use this license with me get into some dry clothes. Won't you ever learn that when a woman says 'No,' she means 'Yes' — sometimes?"

[Bryson, 1982]

Intent on suicide, Frenchman Jacques Lefevre drove a stake into the ground on the top of a cliff overlooking the sea, then tied one end of a rope around the stake and the other around his neck. Being nothing if thorough, Lefevre then drank a bottle of poison, set his clothes on fire, lowered himself over the cliff, and tried to shoot himself in the head. Unfortunately he missed, the bullet cut the rope in two, dropping the hapless gentleman into the sea, where the salt water put out his flaming clothes and caused him to spew up the poison. A passing fisherman picked Lefevre up and delivered him to a nearby hospital, where at last the weary Frenchman got his wish - and died from the effects of exposure.

Origins:   This legend regained popularity in 1999 when it turned up as one of the nominees for the 1999 Darwin Awards. In that version,

Cartoon of the legend

the victim was said to be a Frenchman named Jacques Lefevrier.

There's no record of any Jacques Lefevrier (or Lefevre) meeting his maker in such a fashion, and the Darwin Award entry appears to have been lifted from a 1982 book of tall tales. This legend was also recounted in a 1944 London Daily Express article titled "50 Years Ago," leading one to believe it might have been a news story in 1894. Passing mention has also been made by another source to an account appearing in a British journal of forensic science in the late 1800s.

A number of the earlier versions are simpler concoctions — they tell of a suicidal individual who tries to do himself in primarily by hanging but who plans to shoot himself in the head as a form of insurance. The opium he downs is for the purpose of making his passage out of this vale of tears and into the afterlife a painless one.

Fleshed-out versions have the unhappy man ingesting a poison rather than a painkiller, and also setting himself on fire. These additional details make for a more satisfyingly ludicrous mental picture of the attempt, but they also move the story from the realm of the remotely possible into the

world of fiction. Self-immolation (setting oneself on fire) is one of the least popular methods of self-termination. Those who resort to it are most often prompted by a desire to lodge a terminal protest with whoever wronged them in life, or to very publicly follow a loved one in death (e.g., the Hindu practice of sattee). It's a form of exit which plays to an audience, so if there's no audience present, it's unlikely to be chosen. The addition of immolation to this tale is clearly prompted by a desire to add one more death mode which can be foiled by the fall into the sea. (Another convoluted suicide attempt story can be found on our Ronald Opus page.)

The most recent example culminates with the fellow dying in an unplanned manner; though he's pulled from the water and receives medical care at a hospital, he ultimately succumbs to hypothermia. This gives the story a twist in that he gets what he wanted, just not the way he wanted it.

Earlier tellings see the hero live to change his mind (he swims to shore, after all). We're left with the impression he went on to live a long and happy life after Fate made it painfully clear his presence was not yet required in the afterlife.

Legends such as this confirm our belief in a higher power working quietly behind the scenes. No deaths are untimely, says this belief. If you're meant to go, you will. Likewise, if it's not your time, you're staying here no matter what you try.

Barbara "dead to the whirled" Mikkelson

Sightings:   On the 1983 Robert Bryan and Marshall Dodge comedy album Bert & I Stem Inflation, there appears a piece called "Suicide" in which the tale of the failed suicide is recounted. The legend is also enacted in the British TV series Lovejoy in a episode called "Out to Lunch" (original air date 19 January 1992) by Tinker as having happened to a friend of his. Likewise, the 1991 film Delicatessen features this legend.

Last updated:   21 January 2007


  Sources Sources:

    Algie, Jim.   "Heaven Forbid: Survival Sans Fitness."

    The [Thailand] Nation.   8 December 1998.

    Botkin, B.A.   Sidewalks of America.

    Indianapolis/New York: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1954   (p. 530).

    Brunvand, Jan Harold.   The Baby Train.

    New York: W. W. Norton, 1993.   ISBN 0-393-31208-9   (pp. 86-87).

    Bryson Jr, Bill.   The Blook of Bunders.

    London: Sphere, 1982.   ISBN 0-7221-1931-3.

    Smith, Sir Sydney Alfred.   Mostly Murder.

    New York: David McKay, 1959   (p. 259).

    Morris, Mrs. Dan.   Tulsa - The City Beautiful.

    Tulsa: [Publisher Unknown], 1927   (p. 10).

Sources Also told in:

    Flynn, Mike.   The Best Book of Bizarre But True Stories Ever.

    London: Carlton, 1999.   ISBN 1-85868-558-3   (p. 213).

The Big Book of Urban Legends.

    New York: Paradox Press, 1994.   ISBN 1-56389-165-4   (pp. 98-99).

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