10 Troubled Historical Figures Who Committed Suicide

10 Troubled Historical Figures Who Committed Suicide

Natasha sheldon - August 6, 2017

According to the World Health Organization, one million people end their lives every year. That’s one death every 40 seconds. Most of these people remain anonymous to the wider world and history. But some achieve fame because of the circumstances of their death. Others are famous anyway, driven to kill themselves because of personal troubles or demons. Some chose death as a way of saving others. Here are just ten historical individuals who wanted to end their own lives.


Born around 493 BC in Agrigentum, Sicily, Empedocles was a statesman, philosopher, and mystic. Empedocles was one of the first people to encapsulate their knowledge and beliefs in poetic form. Only fragments of his works survive. But his influence trickled down the ages to other philosophical schools. Plato and Aristotle were both adherents of his views and Empedocles’s belief in the four elements of earth, air, fire and water as the basis of life influenced scientific and medical thinking right into the Middle Ages.

Empedocles believed in a pluralistic universe, based on love (philotes) and strife (neikos). These two opposing forces combined in varying ratios to form matter and shape the four elements. But Empedocles also believed in the transmigration or reincarnation of the soul, in a way that very closely reflected Orphism, a later belief linked to the life and descent into the underworld of the mythical Greek poet and musician, Orpheus. Empedocles believed Death was a transformation. It was this belief that seems to have influenced his suicide.

10 Troubled Historical Figures Who Committed Suicide
Empedocles. Google Images

According to the sources, Empedocles died by throwing himself into the Sicilian volcano, Mount Etna- making him the first historical person to be recorded as a suicide. One of his biographers, Diogenes Laertius, writing in the third century AD, believed that Empedocles chose such an unusual death to convince people he had vanished into thin air and become an immortal god. The volcano rather destroyed the illusion by throwing back one of Empedocles’s sandals.

In this, Diogenes was drawing on a traditional belief recorded by earlier chroniclers. But some writers throw doubt on the idea of Empedocles’s suicide. The Roman poet Horace refers to the traditional method of Empedocles’s death in his Ars Poetica, showing the philosophers’ ‘death by volcano’ was an accepted fact- even if Horace himself believed it was simply a metaphor. But the poet Lucan argued that Empedocles died in an eruption of Etna- and was carried up to heaven.

10 Troubled Historical Figures Who Committed Suicide
Qu Yuan. Google Images

Qu Yuan

Equally shrouded in legend was the tragic end of the Chinese poet, politician and patriot Qu Yuan. Qu Yuan lived in the third century BC in the kingdom of Chu in central China. This period was one of great turmoil, with the various states that would become modern China involved in wars and conquests of each other. Qu Yuan advised his king not to attack the neighboring kingdom of Qin, as he feared the effect of reprisals on the Chu. But the king was dissuaded from heeding his wise minister by others who were jealous of Qu Yuan’s influence. Qu Yuan was banished- and the Chu attacked Qin.

The Qin general, Bai Qi, retaliated and attacked and conquered the Chu. In 278 BC, he captured the Chu capital and deposed Qu Yuan’s king. Bai Qi again exiled Qu Yuan. The ex-minister tried to console himself with poetry, but his depression over the conquest of his beloved country was deep.

Some accounts say that the final blow to Qu Yuan came when he realized the ordinary people of Chu didn’t much care about their conquest. One king was very much the same as another to them. Others believe it was the continued slanders against his reputation that wore him down.

But either way, Qu Yuan finally waded into the River Miluo, weighed down with a rock and drowned himself. People never found his body. But anxious local villagers paddled out in boats to try and save him. When they realized they were too late, they attempted to drive away fish from his corpse by tossing rice into the river and agitating the waters. The annual Dragon Boat Festival serves as a commemoration of the race to save the suicidal Qu Yuan on the anniversary of his death.

10 Troubled Historical Figures Who Committed Suicide
Petronius, like Seneca, opened his veins in a bath. Google Images


Titus Petronius Niger, as he is commonly known, (or, according to Tacitus, Gaius Petronius), was a Roman senator, consul, and the author of the Satyricon- the famous satire of the underbelly of Roman society. He was also a leading member of Nero’s inner circle. It was this association that eventually forced Petronius to take his own life. But, as in life, Petronius made sure he had the last laugh.

Petronius was a lazy, indulgent, man, yet a very able politician. He spent “his days sleeping, his nights working and enjoying himself., according to Tacitus, who believed that he wasted his talents. In 62 AD, the emperor made the pleasure-seeking playboy Governor of Bithynia, a province he governed actively and well. But Tacitus didn’t think he was an evil man. Rather than dissipated, he was a ‘refined voluptuary” – and one with a sharp wit and an original way with words.

These qualities caught the attention of Emperor Nero. For a time, Petronius was the darling of Nero’s inner circle, acting as his “arbiter elegantiae” or ‘expert on good taste.’ It didn’t last. Tigellinus, another of Nero’s close advisers and prefect of the vigils, was jealous of Petronius’s influence. So he denounced the senator as a traitor because of his friendship with Flavius Scaevinus who had been part of a conspiracy against Nero. A slave was bribed to incriminate Petronius, Tigellinus’s men arrested his household and kept Petronius under house arrest in Cumae. Petronius’s career -and his life- were over.

Petronius knew his inevitable execution meant dishonor and the confiscation of his estate. The only way he could save something for his heirs was to kill himself. So he severed his veins- but then bound them up again so he could have one last bout of fun. He invited his closest friends to dine with him and passed the time, talking and reciting poetry. He dolled out gifts to his faithful slaves- and beatings to the disobedient. Then, he retired to his bath and reopened his wrists one last time.

Petronius’s will did not flatter Nero or make him his principal heir as was traditional in such cases. Instead, as the will would be public, it was a chance for Petronius to avenge himself from beyond the grave. He denounced the emperor’s profligacies in the most excruciatingly satirical detail, including details of the emperors’ male and female lovers. For good measure, just before he died, Petronius broke his most valuable vase. He knew Nero would try to claim it after his death and intended to deny him. He also destroyed his signet ring to prevent its misuse. His suicide was his ultimate joke- at Nero’s expense.

10 Troubled Historical Figures Who Committed Suicide
Execution by beheading. Google Images

Christina Johansdotter

For many Christians of the seventeenth and eighteenth century, suicide was a mortal sin. Those who chose to kill themselves could only expect to exchange the miseries of their lives for an eternity in hell. But in Sweden, many found a way around this. Instead of taking their own lives, they engineered it for someone to do it for them. Such an act did not mean they provoked someone into a murder. Rather, the potential suicide themselves took another’s life so the authorities would execute them.

One such person was Christina Johansdotter. In 1740, she was brought before the court of Sodra Forstads Kamnarsratt in Stockholm, charged with murdering the child of her friend. Christina was single, unemployed and living in lodgings. She admitted her guilt freely to the court, although she could not have hoped to escape the death penalty. Unlike adult murderers, child killers always earned execution. When the court asked Christina why she had committed such a horrible crime, a tragic tale unfolded.

Christina had been engaged to a man she loved deeply. But her fiance was now dead, and Christina sank into a depression so deep, she wished to rejoin him in the afterlife. She believed the teachings of the church that dictated if she killed herself, not only would she go to hell but by default never see her lover again. But then Christina was presented with a solution. After witnessing the decapitation of a woman executed for infanticide, she knew what she needed to do to see her lover again and escape hell.

The souls of young children were deemed pure and able to enter heaven without absolution. So Christina asked to borrow a friends’ infant. Instead of showing it off to a visitor as she promised, she decapitated the child. As Christina was sorry for her awful crime, she would be absolved by the church. And so, despite the fact she had ended an innocent life, she could look forward to entering heaven and seeing her fiancé after her execution. However horrifically flawed this thinking was, Christina was granted her wish. She was decapitated with her conscience clear, and her body burnt.

10 Troubled Historical Figures Who Committed Suicide
Drowning at Igbo Landing. Google Images

Mass Suicide at Igbo Landing

Groups of people can equally be moved to take their lives if they believe those lives are no longer worth living. The Igbo people of what is now modern Nigeria in West Africa were known to be independent and fiercely resistant to attempts to enslave them. But that did not stop slavers from capturing them and shipping them to the plantations of North America. But one group of Igbo foiled attempts to enslave them, choosing to drown themselves instead.

In 1803, a fresh shipload of West African slaves landed in Savannah, Georgia. Amongst them were seventy-five of the Igbo people. The crew auctioned the slaves on the docks, and agents representing John Couper and Thomas Spalding, plantation owners on St Simon’s Island, Georgia brought the Igbo slaves. Then, chained together, the slaves were loaded onto a small ship called either The York or The Morovia, according to different sources. The final leg of their journey had begun.

During the voyage, the slaves revolted and somehow managed to take control of the ship. They had drowned a number of their captors before the ship ran aground in the marshland of St Simon’s Island at a place then known as Dunbar Creek. What happened next is a mix of mythology and fact. Eyewitnesses, Roswell King, the overseer of a nearby plantation and William Mein who was called in to help recover the slaves, gave accounts of how the slaves took to the swamp as soon as they disembarked from the marooned ship and walked into the Dunbar creek to drown themselves.

But according to other versions, the Igbos went ashore under the guidance of their chief, not to kill themselves but to go home. They apparently walked into the Creek singing “The Water Spirit brought us; the Water Spirit will take us home.” Their god, however, did not oblige. While ten to twelve members of the seventy-five succeeded in escaping to death, the rest were ‘rescued’ by bounty hunters. The bounty hunters delivered the surviving slaves to their unwanted destiny and Dunbar Creek was thereafter known as Igbo landing.

10 Troubled Historical Figures Who Committed Suicide
Queen Rani Velu Nachiyar riding through the fire to victory. Google Images


In the seventeenth century, the British Empire had already begun its bid to take over the Indian subcontinent under the auspices of the East India Company. The Company was busy annexing Indian territories through trade- and force. Many Indian kingdoms fell to British rule in such a way. But not everyone submitted easily -or indeed gave up even when it seemed that they had lost. As in the case of Kuyili, they were willing to give their lives for the cause-literally.

Kuyili was a female warrior in the forces of Rani Velu Nachiar, the queen of Sivaganga in Tamil Nadu. The Queen’s husband had died in battle against the East Indian Company, and for eight years she and her daughter had lived under the protection of a neighboring King. But Rani Velu Nachiar did not spend her time idly. She was determined to reclaim her kingdom from the British. So she mustered an army to avenge her dead spouse and liberate her Kingdom.

By 1780, the queen and her allies, Gopala Nayaketr and Hyder Ali were ready to move. But they had a problem: British guns. They knew that British ammunition could take out their forces before they had even reached the city, so they needed to destroy them. The question was how. The Queen knew that the British stored the ammunition in the back room of a local temple, a temple still open for worship to women. So the Queen sent women in to destroy it. Kuyili was her weapon.

Kuyili and a group of female warriors entered the temple disguised as local women. Each carried a lamp of oil or ghee, ostensibly as offerings to the god. But once inside, they put their plan into action. The women poured the contents of the lamp on the unresisting Kuyili. The warrior then set herself alight and walked into the ammunition room, blowing it, the weapons and herself up. By turning herself willingly into a human bomb, Kuyili lost her life- but helped win back her homeland for her Queen and her people.

10 Troubled Historical Figures Who Committed Suicide
Korechika Anami. Google Images

Korechika Anami

Kuyili gave her life to win a war. But others have killed themselves after defeat. At the end of the Second World War and the allied defeat of Japan, the Japanese Minister of War, General Korechika Anami, killed himself according to the ancient art of Seppuku. Anami had had a lifelong career in the military. By the beginning of the Second World War, he was vice minister of war and in 1943, promoted to full general and war minister in 1945. To him, surrender was not an option.

As Minister of war, Anami was against the idea of Japan’s surrender, even though he knew the continued combat was damaging Japan’s civilian infrastructure. Even the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki did not change his mind. Instead, Anami proposed that Japan continue to fight on the Japanese mainland.

“Japan is not losing the war since we have not lost any homeland territory,” Anami argued. “ I object to conducting negotiations on the assumption that we are defeated.” He believed that if Japan could cause sufficient Allied casualties, the country could keep some of its wartime conquests and save face.

Eventually, Emperor Hirohito called for surrender. Anami was a traditionalist; he would not defy his Emperor. So on August 14, Anami conceded and signed the surrender document with the rest of the Japanese cabinet. The next day, clad in his dress uniform, he attempted to slice his belly open during the ritual of seppuku. Correctly done, the knife should have penetrated far enough to cut the descending aorta and cause swift death by internal bleeding. But Anami messed up. After three and a half hours, a staff officer ordered his suffering ended, and he was finished off by lethal injection.

10 Troubled Historical Figures Who Committed Suicide
Lawrence Oates. Google Images

Lawrence Oates

Captain Lawrence Oates sacrificed his life so that others could live- even if that self-sacrifice turned out to be ultimately futile. Oates was originally a British cavalry officer from a wealthy landed family. In 1910 after leaving the army, Oates applied to join Captian Scott’s ill-fated Terra Nova expedition to the Antarctic. Scott accepted him because of his experience with horses, which were used to pull the teams’ supply sleds. His ability to finance the expedition also played a part in his selection.

But the hardened ex-soldiers approach impressed Scott who eventually selected Oates as one of the final men to travel the last leg of the journey to the South Pole. The team reached their destination in January 1912- only to find Roald Amundsen, the Norweigan explorer had beaten them to it 35 days earlier. Defeated, the five men began to make their way back to base camp. But their progress was slowed by bad weather, diminishing supplies and ill health.

Edgar Evans died on February 17th of a head injury. Meanwhile, Oates was in a bad way. Oates’ feet are in a wretched condition..” wrote Scott in his diary on March 5th, 1912. “The poor soldier is very nearly done.” Oates knew he was slowing his team, and so risking their lives. But despite his pleas, they refused to desert him. So, on March 17th, his 32nd birthday, Oates, riddled with gangrene and frostbite, walked outside into a blizzard and temperatures of -40 degrees Fahrenheit with the last words “‘I am just going outside and may be some time.’

The rest of the party knew this was no simple walk but a sacrifice. In the end, it was a sacrifice in vain. Three days later, the three remaining members of the party, Scott, Wilson, and Bowers were trapped in their tent by a severe blizzard- eleven miles short of the food depot that could have saved their lives. Rescuers discovered their bodies on November 12, 1912. But Captain Oates’s body was never found.

10 Troubled Historical Figures Who Committed Suicide
Alan Turing, Aged 16. Google Images

Alan Turing

Alan Turing was a brilliant British mathematician and computer scientist. After studying at Cambridge and working and acquiring his Ph.D. at Princeton University, he lectured at Manchester University. During this period, Turing began work that would allow the advent of computers. He believed that machines were capable of calculating anything that was quantifiable- the basis of future computer technology. Turing also helped build the ACE computer at the British National Physical Laboratory and develop LU decomposition to help solve matrices.

During the Second World War, Turing was an important part of the Bletchley Park Code breaking team who was in charge of cracking the German enigma code. Turing succeeded, but he and the rest of the team were not credited until many years later as this war work was declared highly confidential. In 1941, he nearly married a colleague at Bletchley, Joan Clarke. But he called the wedding off because he did not believe it would be fair to marry her.

This was because Alan Turing was a homosexual. In 1952, when Turing was 39, a burglary/investigation of his house uncovered his relationship with 19-year-old Arnold Murray. Homosexuality was illegal at the time, and so despite his exemplary wartime service, Turing was convicted of homosexual acts. The court gave Turing a stark choice: prison or hormonal castration. Turing chose castration so he could remain free and continue his work. But as well as destroying his libido and physically altering his body, Turing’s ability to think and concentrate was taken away by the introduction of estrogen.

In a letter to a friend, Turing admitted that he had developed “shocking tendency at present to fritter my time away in anything but what I ought to be doing.” This is a side effect of hormonal castration according to Dr. Allan Pacey, an expert in male fertility at the University of Sheffield. Professor David Leavitt, a Turing biographer, believes this proved to be ” a demoralizing experience and embittering experience for him.” On June 8, 1954, at the age of 41, Turing was found calmly in bed, poisoned by vast quantities of potassium cyanide.

10 Troubled Historical Figures Who Committed Suicide
Ernest Hemingway. Google Images

Ernest Hemingway

Nobel-winning American writer Ernest Hemingway was born in 1899. He excelled academically and sportingly at school, but Writing was his primary love. He began a career in journalism, but after the First World War, his writing career took off. “A Farewell to Arms” became his first bestseller. During Hemingway’s career, he published seven novels and six short story collections and two works of non-fiction. But like so many artists and intellectuals, his life was blighted by depression and illness that eventually caused him to take his life.

Hemingway was a happy alcoholic, but he was also a serial philanderer. The repercussions of his troubled personal life had no good effect on his naturally depressive temperament. He was married four times. Divorced by his first wife for adultery, he subsequently married his mistress- only to have her divorce him in her turn for the same offense.

Hemingway’s third wife, Martha Gellhorn, a successful journalist turned the tables on Hemmingway and had an affair with a US paratrooper before divorcing him in 1945. He remained married to his fourth wife, Mary Welsh until his death.

But it was Hemingway’s mind that finished him. A biographer, James M Hutchinson suggests this was because “His high standards created an almost suffocating anxiety in him.” Hemingway’s last years were marked by ill health, as he suffered from high blood pressure and liver disease due to his drinking. But Hemingway was increasingly unable to take criticism, or contemplate anyone superseding him. He began to believe his work was worthless. His depression increased, as well as his nightmares, his anxiety, and paranoia. His intention to die was well known, and despite the efforts of his family, on July 2, 1961, he succeeded when he shot himself.


Sources For Further Reading:

Travel China Travel – Dragon Boat Festival Story – Legend of Qu Yuan

China Culture – Honoring Poet Qu Yuan During the Dragon Boat Festival

BBC – Antarctic Mission: Who Was Captain Lawrence Oates?

The Guardian – Scott Of The Antarctic: The Lies That Doomed His Race To The Pole

History Channel – Roald Amundsen Becomes First Explorer To Reach The South Pole

BBC UK – Edgar Evans: A Welshman to the Pole

The Guardian – Antarctic Hero Oates ‘Fathered Child With Girl Of 12’

Cool Antarctica – How Captain Scott And His Team Die?

Gizmodo – 10 Mistakes That Caused the Most Punishing Nature Expedition in History

Scientific American – How Alan Turing Invented the Computer Age

Encyclopedia Britannica – Alan Turing And The Beginning Of AI

Medium – Alan Turing’s Turing Test and Its Contribution to Computer Science

Medium – Joan Clarke

BBC News – Alan Turing’s Homosexual Court Files Go On Display

NBC News – WWII Codebreaker Alan Turing Becomes 1st Gay Man On A British Bank Note

Wired – Remembering Alan Turing: From Codebreaking To AI, Turing Made The World What It Is Today

The Sun – Who Were Ernest Hemingway’s Four Wives?

National Post – Before Ernest Hemingway’s Suicide, Nine Concussions Incapacitated His Brain, Forensic Psychiatrist Concludes

History Collection – Atypical Deaths of these Historical Figures