A Brief History
On August 12, 30 BC, Cleopatra VII Philopater committed suicide by means of an asp bite (small cobra snake) to the breast. (Yes, that Cleopatra.) Through the centuries many people have killed themselves for a wide variety of reasons, including but not limited to shame, grief, to avoid execution, to avoid jail, terminal illness, and depression. Here we list 10 of the most famous or most interesting of these, with no significance to the order listed.
10. Cleopatra, 30 BC.
Having aligned herself with Julius Caesar and then Marc Antony, Cleo picked the losing side in the struggle for power over Rome. When the battle was lost, she killed herself to avoid the humiliation of a trial and execution, as did her buddy Marc Antony (stabbing himself with his own sword). Cleopatra, was the last Ptolemaic Pharaoh of Egypt, and was of Greek origin. Unlike her predecessors, she was the first of her Dynasty to speak Egyptian instead of only Greek.
9. Battleships Yamato and Musashi, 1945.
Japan was desperate at the late stages of World War II, and sacrificed the biggest battleships ever built on suicide missions to try to inflict such heavy damage and casualties to the American Navy that the US would perhaps negotiate a more favorable peace. The main miscalculation was the lack of effective air cover for the giant ships, and US aircraft pummeled them with an incredible array of bombs and torpedoes. Military suicide missions are not uncommon, as the Japanese Kamikaze program, the German Leonidas Squadron (in honor of “The 300” Spartans), “The 300” Spartans of Thermopylae, and many others.
8. 9/11 Terrorists, 2001.
It is hard to imagine an act of suicide more in the public consciousness at this time than the Islamic terrorist airplane hijackers that flew the jetliners they hijacked into the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Suicide incorporated with taking out civilians seems to be a common pastime in the past few decades, especially in the Middle East. Dishonorable mention to the Mercedes-Benz truck driver that blew up the US Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983 with a spectacular blast, the equivalent of over 10 tons of TNT, killing 241. Witnesses though they had been nuked.
7. William Kogut, 1930.
In recognition to the incredible inventiveness of people that are determined to kill themselves and come up with ingenious ways to do it, we relate the sad tale of convict William Kogut of San Quentin prison, who took the hollow metal leg off his bunk, filled it with chopped up playing cards, moistened them, blocked the far end with a broomstick, put the end against his head and heated the tube on a kerosene heater, causing the innards of his makeshift weapon to blow the contents through the prisoner’s brain. People in jail that want to commit suicide are some of the most inventive people in history, and time and again they manage to succeed despite the best efforts of prison officials to prevent such acts.
6. Dominique Venner, 2013.
This disgruntled conservative was unhappy with the state of France, with liberal policies regarding immigration and gay rights and such, and expressed his discontent by shooting himself in the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, and act guaranteed to get the attention of his nation.
5. Bud Dwyer, 1987.
Convicted of bribery, this public official called a news conference and shot himself on television, placing a .357 Magnum revolver to his head and killing himself, a film clip shown over and over again on the internet and on shows about suicide making this one of the most famous of the public spectacle suicides. Honorable mention to the Buddhist monk, Thich Quang Duc, who set himself on fire in 1963 in South Viet Nam to protest the government, another well known image and video.
4. Robin Williams, 2014.
One of Hollywood’s most famous comedians and actors, Williams is the latest example of a long history of top notch celebrity suicides. Depressed and experiencing the early stages of Parkinson’s disease, Williams hanged himself. He also suffered from another disease, Lewy Body Dementia (LBD), a form of dementia that has no cure, which may have contributed to his decision to end it all. Apparently the rich and famous have serious problems, too.
3. Heinrich Himmler, 1945.
This Nazi official was head of the dreaded SS, and was the architect of the “Final Solution” to the “Jewish Problem,” the systematic killing of every Jew the Nazi’s could get their hands on. Knowing he would be executed by the Allies, Himmler attempted to sneak away in disguise, but was caught by the British as the Reich collapsed. Rather than face trial and hanging, this weasel killed himself with cyanide hidden in a hollow tooth. Dishonorable mention to Joseph Goebbels.
2. Herman Goring, 1946.
Goring, a top Nazi official and convicted war criminal was set to be executed by hanging the next morning, but cheated the hangman by killing himself with cyanide, probably smuggled to him by one of his jailers. He was the most senior Nazi to be sentenced to death. Goring had been a World War I flying ace and was the commander of the unit formerly commanded by Manfred von Richthofen (the Red Baron). He had earned Germany’s highest medal for valor, the Pour le Merit (Blue Max). Dishonorable mention to Adolf Hitler.
1. Judas Iscariot, 33 AD.
After selling out Jesus Christ for 30 pieces of silver, so the story goes, this erstwhile Apostle could not live with the shame of what he had done and hanged himself. If you believe popular modern fiction, he then turned into the first vampire.
Question for students (and subscribers): Should Cleopatra not have committed suicide? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Barbagli, Marzio and Lucinda Byatt. Farewell to the World: A History of Suicide. Polity, 2015.
Schiff, Stacy. Cleopatra: A Life. Back Bay Books, 2011.