The Coroner Rules on Hamlet’s Ophelia—Accident, Suicide, or Murder?

Before I degenerated into the world of pulp fiction, I studied to become a scholar of Renaissance and Enlightenment literature. My specialty was what today you might call a forensic document examiner, that is, an expert in the origin and authorship of written documents.

Except for the Bible and other sacred works, few documents have been as thoroughly examined as Shakespeare’s works; and few of Shakespeare’s works have been examined as thoroughly as Hamlet. So I shocked myself when recently I reread Hamlet and realized there’s a mystery in it that I had not noticed before.

Sidebar: To refresh your memory, one of the many deaths in the play is that of a girl who drowned named Ophelia. The cause of death is known, but not the manner. (Ophelia’s body was recovered from a river.) Ophelia was Prince Hamlet’s “intended,” whom he rejected and told to “get thee to a nunnery.” This crushing blow drove Ophelia mad; she began to rant in public about Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, even hinting that Gertrude was involved in the death of Hamlet’s father (the former king, Hamlet, Sr.). Gertrude claimed the girl’s death was accidental, so the “crowner” (that is, the coroner) who worked for “the crown” (that is, King Claudius, the usurper of the Danish throne) declared Ophelia’s death accidental. This permitted her body to be buried in the churchyard (a suicide’s body could not have been). However, the common folk widely believed Ophelia committed suicide. Ophelia’s brother (Laertes) apparently believed it was suicide as well, since he accused Hamlet of driving Ophelia mad.

Ophelia’s Manner of Death

I have literally read Hamlet backward and forward many times. Last week I read the scenes in reverse order as a way of analyzing the plot. Reading the play in reverse order put several plot elements into a new context, especially the play’s extensive dialog about the suicide v. accident issue concerning Ophelia.

Scholars have long been divided over whether Ophelia killed herself or not. The interpretation of the play rests largely on the issue, since the salvation of both Ophelia’s and Hamlet’s souls hangs in the balance. In other words, is Hamlet damned or redeemed by his actions?

But there’s another possibility, namely, Ophelia was murdered—pushed into the river. Back in the day, no scholar I had heard of made this suggestion, but a recent search of Goggle Scholar turned up newer scholarly arguments about the possibility of murder. For a brief survey of these ideas see Read the summary of Harmonie Loberg’s 2004 article in Atenea.

By reading the play backwards (in part), I discovered several peculiarities I had previously overlooked:

  1. An unnamed gentleman “tattles” on Ophelia to King Claudius and his wife, Gertrude, and claims Ophelia is rousing the rabble (which would be treasonous if it were true, but there’s no hint in the play of such an accusation).
  2. As a result of the gentleman’s tales, in most editions of the play King Claudius and Gertrude send Hamlet’s best friend, Horatio, to follow Ophelia around and stop her from spreading insane rumors. (The “document” is unclear about who they really sent to follow Ophelia [see below]).
  3. Gertrude is the one who describes Ophelia’s off-stage drowning, even though Gertrude was not present at the scene of her death.
  4. At the funeral, Gertrude claims she hoped to strew flowers on Ophelia’s marriage bed, not on her grave; but Gertrude is the archetypal doting mother, who probably was glad Ophelia was dead.

Testimony before the Coroner’s Jury

Now, think about this as if you were a juror on a coroner’s jury (which decides the cause and manner of a suspicious death). Listening to Gertrude’s testimony, along with the unnamed Gentleman, King Claudius, and Horatio, wouldn’t you have many, many questions about the involvement of these witnesses in Ophelia’s death?

[Coroner swears in unnamed gentleman X, then asks]: Did you have occasion [using legalese] to pay a call on the king and queen in the throne room?

[X]: Yes, I did. That was right before Ophelia’s body was discovered.

[Coroner]: And what did you tell them at that time?

[X]: I told their majesties that Ophelia was running around saying crazy things that the mob misinterpreted.

[Coroner]: Thank you, you may step down. [Juror raises hand to ask a question.]

[Juror]: What did she say that could be misinterpreted as dangerous speech?

[X]: I can’t remember exactly.

[Juror]: And what harm could a crazy girl do by ranting, anyway?

[X looks in the direction of King Claudius]: Well . . . . you know what kinds of rumors are going around.

[Juror]: So you’re saying Ophelia was encouraging the mob to rebellion? Shouldn’t she have been arrested for sedition?

[X]: Well, I wouldn’t go that far. [The Coroner dismisses X and swears in King Claudius.]

[Coroner]: Did you have occasion at some time to entertain the mad Ophelia in the throne room?

[King Claudius]: Yes, I did.

[Coroner]: How did she appear to you? Was she mad in your opinion?

[King Claudius]: Yes, I thought so.

[Coroner]: And as a result, what did you do?

[King Claudius]: I felt it was wise to have someone keep an eye on her. I sent a court gentleman to follow her.

[Coroner]: For what purpose?

[King Claudius]: Well, that’s obvious. I was worried about her safety. [Sounds a bit like George Anthony testifying against his daughter, doesn’t it?]

[Coroner]: Who did you send to follow her?

[King Claudius]: My memory of that is foggy. I may have sent X. I may have sent Horatio.

[Coroner]: Thank you, you may step down. [Juror raises hand to ask a question.]

[Juror]: What did you tell the gentleman to do if she starting ranting treasonously?

[King Claudius]: Nothing. [The Coroner dismisses King Claudius and swears in Gertrude.]

[Coroner]: Was Ophelia engaged to marry your son, Hamlet?

[Gertrude]: At one time she was, yes, at least in a manner of speaking.

[Coroner]: Please explain.

[Gertrude]: My son courted Ophelia when she was too young to marry, that is, before she was fourteen. He was twice her age. We all agreed—including her father Polonius—that when she was of age they would marry. That’s why I said at the funeral that I had never expected to put flowers on her grave. I expected to decorate her marriage bed with flowers.

[Coroner]: Were you present at the meeting in the throne room and, if so, how did Ophelia appear to you?

[Gertrude]: Yes, I was present. Ophelia was clearly out of her mind.

[Coroner]: Do you recall who the king sent to follow her?

[Gertrude]: I can’t remember.

[Coroner]: Thank you, you may step down. [Juror raises hand to ask a question.]

[Juror]: Can you remember who told you about the way Ophelia died? I believe you were the one who spoke to the press about it.

[Gertrude]: Now that you mention it, I was, but things were very hectic after her body was found, and I can’t really remember who told me about it.

[Juror]: But you said it was an accident, and someone was supposedly following Ophelia. Is that who
found the body? [Juror looks at Coroner] Why didn’t Mr. X testify about finding the body, if it was him? [A different juror raises a hand.]

[Juror]: I never heard of a mother who looked forward to making up a bed for her son to sleep in with another woman. Are you sure you really wanted your son to get married? Why did he wait until he was thirty to come back to Elsinore Castle and get together with Ophelia?

[Coroner]: That’s enough. The queen is too distraught to continue. You may step down, my lady. [Gertrude steps down and Coroner swears in Horatio.]

[Coroner]: Now, Horatio, were you present at this meeting?

[Horatio]: I might have been, but I think I would remember if the king ordered me to follow her.

[Coroner]: You may step down. [Juror raises hand to ask a question.]

[Juror]: Are you saying that you did not follow Ophelia?

[Horatio]: That’s right. I did not follow Ophelia, and I am not the one who found the body. If I had followed Ophelia, she never would have had a chance to get near that river, let alone climb into a willow tree with branches hanging over the river. And if she had somehow managed to fall into the river—whether on purpose or accidentally—I would have considered it my duty to dive in after her and save her or die in the attempt. Ophelia was my best friend’s girlfriend. And, by the way, it was a willow tree, for gods sake. I never knew a girl who was a good tree-climber, and even if she was she must have had a fairy godmother to fly her into the top of such “willowy” tree.

Sidebar: In other words, because Horatio is the most reliable, honorable character in the play, if Horatio followed Ophelia and saw her die, then we are faced with the suicide/accidental death dilemma. It would mean that Hamlet bears responsibility for the harmless, innocent Ophelia’s death in either case. He would be damned whether or not he revenges his father’s death. Why would Shakespeare waste his time writing such glorious verse about such a worthless person?

Even the most devout Christian in Shakespeare’s audience in 1601 would feel that Ophelia’s manner of death ought not to be held against her in the Highest Court of Heaven. You would have to say that Shakespeare believed there is no real justice in the whole universe—not just a lack of justice in Denmark.

It all depends on whether or not Horatio is the one who followed Ophelia—and I don’t believe it. The circumstantial evidence points elsewhere.

Evidence from the Document

1) A textual critic would investigate the question of why Shakespeare put an unnamed gentleman in the throne-room scene as a staging problem.

Scholars (including my dissertation advisor) have written extensively about the minimum number of actors required for any given Shakespearean play. The King’s Men (Shakespeare’s theatrical company) had a fixed number of actors who could play male parts and those who could play female parts (usually because their voices hadn’t broken yet). As a result, plays were staged using “doubling” (meaning every actor could play more than one part, as long as enough actors could be assigned to gender roles). In every scene Shakespeare had to be careful to write speaking parts so that actors who were doubling up on parts were not required to appear in the same scene with themselves (! obviously a problem). There also had to be extras available for crowd scenes. Because the company had a fixed, limited number of actors, parts for characters that are required in crowd scenes could not be doubled with supernumerary parts.

So scenes such as Act IV, scene v, in which an unnamed Gentleman appears and delivers only one speech, are rare in Shakespeare.

Nonetheless, most editions of the play indicate that an unnamed Gentleman appears on stage with Gertrude and Horatio. He speaks 12 lines and then disappears from the play.

Sidebar: The edition I am currently reading relies on stage directions from the First Folio edition (1623, 7 years after Shakespeare’s death), because that edition was prepared by members of the King’s Men and has the most-extensive stage directions. Every literary critic knows that the stage directions in Shakespearean plays (including assigning lines to characters) are iffy.

The Gentleman is a supernumerary. Any actor who played this part would have been doubling, probably taking several roles, one of which would have been a named character, Polonius, for example, who is dead before the Gentleman comes on stage. It seems highly peculiar that Shakespeare—who was careful not to write parts for too many actors—would have wasted such a part on a scene in which Horatio appeared, since Horatio is required in several very crowded scenes, including the final scene which leaves actors bodies all over the stage and then brings in a whole army of Norwegians to take over Denmark.

Conclusion: Given the large cast of Hamlet, Shakespeare would have been careful not to use Horatio in too many scenes with supernumerary characters, such as the “follow her” scene. If he did put Horatio in the scene, then he did so in order to have Horatio be the one to follow Ophelia. In effect, Shakespeare would have thus damned his hero, Hamlet, and his heroine, Ophelia, in the eyes of God. From what I know of Shakespeare, he was not cynical; he would not have intended to do this. Also, Horatio would not have been permitted to survive the final carnage; he, too, would have been damned.

2) King Claudius and Gertrude send Hamlet’s best friend, Horatio, to follow Ophelia around and stop her from spreading insane rumors.

What evidence is there that the First Folio (1F) stage directions are accurate?

Very little. It looks to me as if 1F may have been mistaken about the presence of Horatio in Act IV, scene v.

Other than Act I, i, and Act IV, vi, the scene is the only scene Horatio appears in without Hamlet being present. (The Horatio character is Hamlet’s foil and alter-ego. There are few scenes in which he is needed if Hamlet isn’t on stage.) The first scene in the play is the famous ghost scene. Horatio—though a religious skeptic—sees the ghost of Hamlet’s father and then later convinces Hamlet to come out onto the castle’s ramparts one night to see the ghost when it reappears.

Coincidentally, a Gentleman is the only other actor on stage with Horatio in Act IV, vi, which, of course, immediately follows the scene in question. This Gentleman is clearly not the same Gentleman as in the preceding scene. The fact that Horatio is still inside the castle in scene vi after having supposedly been directed to follow Ophelia outside the castle, suggests that Horatio ought not to appear in Act IV, scene v.

The First Folio opens Act IV, v with “Enter Horatio, Gertrude, and a Gentleman.” The sequence of names is significant, since named male characters always precede named female characters; unnamed characters come last, precisely because it doesn’t matter who is assigned their part.

Suspicious is the fact that Gertrude first speaks to the Gentleman, not to Horatio, who is clearly his “better.” She says, “I will not speak with her,” as if the Gentleman has previously asked her to speak to Ophelia. (Note that Gertrude isn’t all that loving of a would-be daughter-in-law after all.) If Horatio is present (presumably also a more-likely candidate for peacemaker b
etween Gertrude and Ophelia), why didn’t Shakespeare use Horatio to perform this function? Why clutter the scene with a supernumerary Gentleman?

A highly suggestive typographical error (or what’s presumed to be a typo) is present in the Second Quarto (2Q) version of the play at Act IV, scene v, line 16. The line, “Let her come in,” is assigned in 2Q to Horatio instead of Gertrude. Horatio says to Gertrude: “’Twere good she were spoken with, for she may strew dangerous conjectures. Let her come in.” This would only make sense if Horatio and not the Gentleman was the one urging Gertrude to see Ophelia. But then no Gentleman would be needed in the scene.

Most editions insert a stage direction right after “Let her come in”: namely, [Exit Gentleman] with brackets to indicate that it is an editorial insertion, not Shakespeare’s stage direction. Presumably the Gentleman exits to call Ophelia on stage. After that, Ophelia enters while Gertrude is uttering an aside, but the Gentleman doesn’t accompany her. He’s gone from the play for good (supposedly).

The fact that F1 breaks off Horatio’s speech before “Let her come in” is interesting. There’s clearly something going on with the staging, which involves Horatio.

It also troubles me that Shakespeare would assign Horatio to serve as King Claudius’s minion who follows Ophelia apparently to her death. Horatio is Hamlet’s ally, and by this time in the plot he knows Claudius is a murderer as well as the usurper of Hamlet’s rightful throne.

Frankly, I  just don’t believe it. The circumstantial evidence points to the Gentleman as the spy. If he exited the stage and then returned with Ophelia, he would be available on stage for Shakespeare later to send him off stage to follow Ophelia. The Gentleman is toadying up to Gertrude from the beginning of the scene. He’s telling tales on Ophelia. He would be the logical choice to entice her on stage to make a fool of herself in front of Gertrude. He would be the logical candidate to follow Ophelia and make sure she keeps her mouth shut–permanently.

Conclusion: Editorial error places Horatio in Act IV, v. Horatio should not appear in the scene. The reason Shakespeare used a supernumerary Gentleman in this scene is because the character is only needed in this scene.

Literary critics who say the reason Ophelia dies off stage is because it would have been too difficult to stage a river drowning or because the spectacle of Ophelia’s death would be too horrific are wrong, wrong wrong. If Shakespeare could stage a tempest, he could stage a rivulet of water; if Shakespeare could stage a slaughter at the end of Hamlet without horrifying his audience unnecessarily, he could stage a drowning.

Sidebar: This is a Jacobean revenge tragedy, the essence of which was horror. The reason Shakespeare kills Ophelia off stage is so the audience has to wonder about the true manner of death. Ophelia’s death is a mystery.

3) The question of how Gertrude learned about “the accident” cannot be settled by reading the play, nor can it be settled by looking at Shakespeare’s sources (that is older documents, tales of the legend of Hamlet, earlier plays written on the story, etc.), mainly because Ophelia is Shakespeare’s invention. At least one early version of the story had an Ophelia-like character, but she did not die in it.

Given that the Gentleman is likely the one who offed Ophelia, my belief is that Shakespeare intended us to assume the Gentleman reported back to Gertrude, and Gertrude made up the “accident” story to try to convince the mob (who already are suspicious of her and Claudius) that at worst Ophelia killed herself. Gertrude’s pathetic description of the girl’s death is phrased to make Gertrude sound like a loving would-be mother-in-law; but she knows no one will buy it. Everyone will assume Ophelia killed herself. It’s another case “of “methinks the lady doth protest too much.”

4) At the funeral, Gertrude claims she hoped to strew flowers on Ophelia’s marriage bed, not on her grave.

See above. Gertrude is widely assumed to have incestuous thoughts about Hamlet, if not actually having committed incest with him. Besides, you can probably count on the fingers of one hand the number of mother-in-laws who actually like their daughters-in-law.

Verdict of the Coroner’s Jury: Homicide

For Arthur Rimbaud’s take on Ophelia’s death, see my translation of his poem at:

The Fate of the Jury—Part I, Coroner’s Juries

Westminster-Coroners-Court The tabloids are still full of Casey Anthony gossip, but no mention has been made of the fate of the jurors in her murder trial. After all the cries of outrage at the verdict, after all the bubble-headed pundits who saw the verdict as a sign that jury trials were obsolete, after Judge Belvin Perry, Jr., wrote to the Florida Attorney General about the folly of the “sunshine” law that compelled him to release the jurors names, now no one cares what happened to the jurors—no one but me, apparently.

Wisely, most of the jurors seem to be hiding. Foolishly, one juror has hired a publicist.

In an insightful article about the so-called “scientific evidence” presented in the Anthony trial, Matt McCusker of the American Society of Trial Consultants explained very clearly that the Anthony jury served the role it was intended to serve; it applied common sense to the arcane machinations of the law (my interpretation of Mr. McCusker’s article).

Among the so-called scientific experts who testified against Casey Anthony was the media darling, Dr. G (medical examiner Dr. Jan Garavalia—warning, link is a noisy ad). Dr. G testified that the manner of death was homicide, based on the presence of duct tape in the vicinity of the skull and the fact that the body was transported to a wooded area in a garbage bag, a.k.a. trash bag.

Of course, this is nonsense. It’s fallacious reasoning. No real scientist would draw such a conclusion. The only conceivable reason an intelligent woman would make such a claim is that she was biased toward the state’s argument, because she is a state employee. It was clearly in her self-interest to support the state’s case, and it would clearly have been personal and professional suicide to go against public opinion.

Coroners v. Medical Examiners

The office of coroner goes back almost to the Norman Conquest in England. The coroner (or “crowner”) was the king’s representative in the counties and, as such, handled legal matters. The coroner conducted inquiries into crimes in the form of trials (inquests) in which testimony was presented to a jury. In matters of unexplained deaths, the coroner’s jury decided whether the death was of natural causes, accidental, or homicide.

Sidebar: I took the photograph above earlier this year in the city of Westminster, which is a borough of London. Westminster is the seat of the British government. I found it interesting that in Westminster there is a coroner’s court, not merely a medical examiner’s office.

Medical examiners are forensic pathologists who, like coroners, are appointed at the county level in the United States. Coroners are not forensic pathologists; they can be any citizen.

Apparently, the first medical examiner’s office in this country was established in New York City in the 1940s; board-certified forensic pathologists were first recognized in 1959. Since then, the trend has been away from coroners toward medical examiners—based on a common assumption (or perhaps mythology) that medical examiners are more objective in their judgments than the layperson.

I contend that Dr. G proves otherwise.

Coroners must convince a jury of their judgments about cause and manner of death. Medical examiners need only convince a prosecutor, a lawyer who generally knows nothing about the scientific method.

When a medical examiner pronounces a death to be a homicide, then the State is free to step in and take away the liberty of any citizen it chooses to blame.

In the Casey Anthony trial, the jury played the role of a coroner’s jury and declared that the cause of death was not proven to be homicide. The cause of death could have been accidental. It could even have been natural. The medical examiner did not have sufficient evidence to determine the cause of death, and, without a cause of death, the manner of death can never be proven.

It may rankle the mob, but that is why we have a Bill of Rights.

Murder or Suicide by Aspirin Overdose?

Last week I literally climbed Mt. Parnassus and visited the Oracle of Delphi. But people living in Illinois who want to know when disasters are about to occur need not go to such extremes. Instead of visiting an oracle they might want to keep track of my comings and goings. It seems to me that when I return from travel in late summer or early autumn, the headlines are always startling.

I remember returning to Chicago in the mid-1980s to headlines that Chicago’s first African-American mayor had died of unexpectedly. I returned to Chicago when Hurricane Katrina was about to hit New Orleans. And yesterday I returned to headlines about the apparent “death by aspirin overdose” of former IL governor Blagojevich’s indicted aid, Chris Kelly.

Only in Chicago would the chief witness for the prosecution die from a suspected aspirin overdose.

Not only that, but apparently Mr. Kelly committed suicide in a lumber yard in Country Club Hills, a southwest suburb (his home is in Burr Ridge). He was driven to Oak Forest Hospital (not in Country Club Hills) by a mysterious “girlfriend,” where he was “stabilized.” In other words, he was no longer in danger.

  • Sidebar: Why does this lumber yard make me think of Kafka’s The Trial? Could it be his “lumber room”? Or maybe I should think of Fargo. What is it about lumber and people charged with crimes?

As consequence, he was taken by ambulance to Stroger Hospital (aka Cook County Hospital). This, in itself, is peculiar. Stroger Hospital is a Medicaid hospital, essentially. It is renowned for its gunshot trauma expertise. Anyone with medical insurance or any financial means of any kind would have gone to just about any other hospital in the area, including the University of Chicago Hospital (where Michelle Obama was until recently in charge of community relations, just to give you an idea of its prestige).

Unfortunately for Mr. Kelly, Stoger’s trauma unit was apparently not trained in aspirin overdoses, because he died there in mid morning on Saturday. It might also be noted that the hospital is named for the former Cook County Board president, John Stroger, father of the current president, Todd Stroger, who inherited his elected position and is (purely coincidentally) currently under siege by IL state legislators for his high-handed management style and for his raising of Cook County sales taxes to the highest rate in the nation.

image I suppose stranger ways of committing suicide have been used successfully. But isn’t it interesting that Mr. Kelly was scheduled to be the prime witness for the Feds in the coming trial of former Gov. Blago?

BTW: Cook County has a Medical Examiner, not a coroner. There will be no coroner’s jury. Instead, the matter of this suspicious death will go to a grand jury – yet another jury I would not wish to serve on.

(To the left is a photo of vials that held a dose of hemlock for condemned prisoners in Athens. Like Socrates, for the good of the republic politicians swallowed poison. Taken in the Stoa, the Agora Museum of Athens, Sept. 6, 2009.)

Police Sgt. Drew Peterson: Rule of Law or of Lawmen?

By now everyone knows that Drew Peterson (Bollingbrook, IL) was arrested yesterday. (For thorough coverage, see the Bollingbrook Sun.) Why did it take so long?

The sign of a civilized society is supposed to be “the rule of law, not of men,” but IMHO when it comes to government officials all “rules” are off: Peterson is (or was) a Police Sergeant with the Bollingbrook, IL, Police Department.

Read the Bollingbrook Sun’s history of the investigation of Kathleen Savio’s death (link above). Briefly:

  • Savio was divorcing Peterson.
  • Peterson meets a teenager named Stacy.
  • Peterson “discovers” Savio’s body (I know, he claims he was not literally the one to discover her).
  • The Will County Coroner recommends to the coroner’s jury that the death was accidental drowning in a dry bathtub.
  • A state police investigator testifies to the coroner’s jury that there was no sign of foul play, although she had head injuries.
  • The coroner’s jury brings in a verdict of “accidental death.”

The coroner appears either to have failed to properly autopsy the body and investigate the death or to have taken some other official’s word for the cause of death (Peterson, perhaps?). Coroners and police, after all, are on the same team.

The state police investigator appears to have failed in his investigations, too, or to have taken the word of his fellow police officers (Peterson, perhaps?).

Over a year ago I heard an interview with one of the coroner’s jurors. He said the jury followed the lead of a police officer among them as to the probable cause of death. That’s right: a police officer coincidentally was on the coroner’s jury.

I also heard an interview with a young woman who lived in Bollingbrook and who claimed Peterson was in the habit of stopping attractive women drivers on trumped up traffic violations so he could hit on them. No one did anything about it.

Then there are the allegations that Peterson habitually abused his four wives: it terrifies me to think what these women must have endured. Who in Bollingbrook could they call for help when their abuser was a sergeant in the police department?

If the Drew Peterson case isn’t an example of the rule of men, rather than law, I can’t imagine what is.

He will be arraigned this morning in Joliet’s Will County Circuit Court—home of the slammer where he’s likely to land in very short order now that national attention is turned on Will County.

It strikes me as ironic that a cop like Peterson can get away with murder (figuratively speaking, of course, since he’s innocent until proven guilty), while a cop like Trooper Higbee is apt to be called a murderer by his local prosecutor for doing his job.

Electing Your Law

The moral of this story? Citizens need to pay a good deal of attention to the election of county prosecutors, coroners, and even judges. I know it’s difficult in a large county to be fully informed about these offices and candidates who run for these offices, but they have a direct impact on your life. Before each election, check with the local bar association for recommendations—at a minimum.

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Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics: Suicide or Homicide?

Warning: If you follow some of the links in this post, you’re liable to see some shocking things.

Two recent murder trials revolved around the issue of whether or not the victim’s “manner of death” was homicide or suicide: Phil Spector and Raynella Dossett-Leath. In neither trial were suicide statistics cited as evidence (thankfully), because statistics aren’t evidence. The only time statistics can make it into evidence, I believe, are when an expert witness uses statistics in forming an opinion about some aspect of a crime. (But this is also very tricky.)

Even so, outside the courtroom it seems as if everyone wants to talk about the statistics. In the Phil Spector trial, defenders of Spector claimed that gunshot wounds to the mouth were proof-positive of suicide. A comment from a reader of this blog claimed that “55% of gunshot deaths are suicide.” In the Dossett-Leath trial, the whole police investigation was predicated on the assumption that three-bullets could not possibly be fired by a suicide victim.

What do statistics say?

I decided to check out U.S. suicide statistics, to see if these beliefs were true.

Guess what, they are not. Not by a long shot (hideous pun intended).

Is it true that 55% of gunshot deaths are suicide?

  • Yes, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), in 2005, 55.4% of gunshot deaths were suicide; 40.2 % were homicide. However, statistically speaking, 51% of anything is random chance; and every statistical proof is subject to a “margin of error” (also known as the “standard deviation”)of something like plus or minus about 4 percentage points. So statistically in gunshot-caused deaths it is just barely possible to claim gunshot is an indicator of suicide (Clarkson); and it is definitely not possible to claim that gunshot is an indicator of homicide (Leath).

Is it true that a gunshot to the mouth is proof of suicide?

  • Not proof—only suggestive.
  • German forensic scientists conducted a statistical study to determine whether it is possible during an autopsy to distinguish homicide gunshots from suicide gunshots. The findings are significant. More than one gunshot wound per suicide occurred in 5.6% of the cases (including one case of 5 wounds). 7.5% of homicide wounds were near-contact (Spector). Suicide gunshot wounds occurred in the mouth in only 20% of the cases (Clarkson), and in the forehead in only 11% of the cases(Leath) (but, notably, they did occur in these locations). The conclusions were: “Consequently, some bullet path directions cannot be considered indicative of suicide: downwards and back-to-front in gunshots to the temple, left-to-right in gunshots to the left chest and downwards in mouth shots. The isolated autopsy findings can only be indicative of suicide or homicide but the combined analysis of several findings can be associated with a high probability.”
    • I believe the bullet’s path in the Spector-Clarkson case was downward into the base of the spinal column (hence indicative of homicide). I believe in the Leath case the bullet’s path was slightly upward, with flesh being embedded on the underside of a piece of the headboard (hence indicative of suicide).
  • A site called has some gory but suggestive information concerning suicide versus homicide wounds. Among the points of interest are that a suicidal man with a gun can, indeed, shoot several bullets before succeeding in killing himself; and homicide can, indeed, be committed by shooting someone in the mouth.

Is it true that suicide by gunshot is always fatal on the first try?

  • Absolutely not. Most suicide attempts are failures. Depending on the age group for which the statistics are calculated, the range of the ratio of attempts to suicide can be as high as 200:1 and as low as 14:1.
  • Emergency rooms see hundreds of thousands of failed suicide attempts each year. According to the CDC in 2005, 372,722 people were treated for self-inflicted injuries.
  • According to the National Institutes of Health, overall 8 to 25 attempts at suicide occur for every fatal suicide; most nonfatal suicide attempts are associate with drug use (as in Mr. Leath’s case)
  • All Experts posed an interesting question and posted an interesting answer about suicide and multiple gunshots. Here is part of what they said: “People who commit suicide with a gun typically will instinctively pull away as the trigger is pulled, and people have wounded themselves superficially by doing so.” This reminds me of the Dossett-Leath case in which the defense tried to prove that the first of three shots grazed the victim’s scalp. It also is suggestive with regard to Ms. Clarkson, who did not “instinctively pull away as the trigger [was] pulled,” in my opinion because the gun barrel was being rammed into her mouth by Spector;she didn’t see it coming and she couldn’t move her head.

Who is more likely to commit suicide? A 40-year-old woman or a 55-year-old man?

  • A 55-year-old man. Suicide attempts increase with age, after age 25. In other words, the highest rates of suicide are among very young people and very old people. (Not that I think 55 is very old, but Mr. Leath did have a history of dementia-like behavior.)
  • According to, white women in 2005 had a suicide rate of only 5 per 100,000, as opposed to 19.7 per 100,000 for white men.
  • According to, California is 42 out of 51 states (plus D.C.) in incidents of suicide (in other words as a Californian Ms. Clarkson was less likely to commit suicide than most other American women). Tennessee, however, is 18 out of 51, which means that David Leath was more likely than most American men to commit suicide. (BTW: Illinois is 43 out of 51. Despite the cold, we’re happier than the people in California.)
  • According to the CDC, in 2005 men were 6.8 TIMES more likely to commit suicide with a gun than women. Overall (statistics for more than one year), men are four times as likely to commit suicide than women, but women are two to three times more likely to attempt suicide. In part, this is because men use guns more often than women, and gunshot suicide attempts are more lethal.
  • According to the CDC, men are more likely to use a gun to commit suicide than women (almost 58% of male suicides are with guns). The most common form of suicide for females is poisoning (almost 40%).

Is it possible for a suicidal person to hide their depression from loved ones? In other words, do the families of suicides always suspect that suicide is a possibility?

  • Of course it is possible to hide suicidal feelings from loved ones. It happens all the time. The American Society for Suicide Prevention lists some warning signs to watch out for, though. An interesting one is “Giving away prized possessions,” which reminds me of Mr. Leath’s sudden desire to change his will before he died. However, acquiring things is not a sign of suicidal depression (as in Ms. Clarkson’s purchase of several pairs of shoes, which I can assure men always cheers a woman up. I don’t know what it is about shoes.)

Where do suicides occur more often? In the residence of the victim? Or in another location?

  • I gave up trying to Google this issue. It was too sad. A few weeks ago, I saw an I.D. Channel show on “Crime Scene Cleanup” in which a crime-scene worker told about a person who got up from the table at a family holiday meal and went into another room where he shot himself in the head.

From these statistics, you can conclude whatever you want about the Spector and Dossett-Leath cases. In fact, that’s why statistics aren’t often presented to juries.

Statistics are useful to scientific researchers since they can be used to prove or disprove hypotheses about general cases. But statistics cannot be used to prove that some specific “case” is true or false.

Let me repeat: Hypotheses about generalities are proved with statistics. Crimes cannot be solved with statistics.

Why? Because in every set of statistical data, there are always data points that prove the affirmative and data points that prove the negative and even data points called “outliers” that seem to be impossible. Take a look at the German study mentioned above. The medical examiners looked at a case of suicide in which the individual shot himself IN THE BACK OF THE HEAD.