Do Hard Economic Times Spur Suicide?

Recent high-profile suicides have been linked to the global economic downturn. They call to mind stories of bankers jumping out of windows during the Great Depression. John Steele Gordon, financial historian and author of An Empire Of Wealth: The Epic History Of American Financial Power, says stories of Depression-era jumpers are a myth.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

German billionaire and respected businessman Adolf Merckle took his life by throwing himself in front of a train earlier this week. His holding company had lost millions in the global recession. In Chicago, real estate mogul Steven L. Good was found dead Monday, also an apparent suicide. And two days before Christmas, Wall Street fund manager Rene-Thierry Magon de la Villehuchet slit his wrists with a box cutter after losing more than a billion dollars in Bernard Madoff's Ponzi scheme.

T: The Epic History of American Financial Power." And he joins me now. Mr. Gordon, we've always heard of stock market suicides when Wall Street takes a tumble. Is this myth or reality?

NORRIS: It's pretty much myth. The joke started right away with the crash. Will Rogers said that people had to line up in order to jump out of windows. But it simply didn't happen. The suicide rate in New York in the last three months of 1929 was perfectly normal, about a hundred people, and only four of them were caused by jumping. And only two of those took place on Wall Street, and neither of them were bankers or stock brokers.

BLOCK: So let me get this straight. All this lore, all those songs that were written, that old movie footage that we've seen portraying people jumping to their deaths after the great crash, that's all based on bunk?

NORRIS: It's all based on bunk. There were some reports of it in the tabloid newspapers, especially in Britain. And one of the reporters was Winston Churchill, who was on Wall Street that day and himself lost a bundle. And he reported of somebody thudding to the street just close to where he was standing. But apparently, he was just adding a little artistic verisimilitude to his report.

BLOCK: Now setting aside, then, the myth of the stock market suicides, do suicides increase during tough economic times?

NORRIS: Apparently not, according to psychologists. I mean, what does happen is that people tend to go back to bad habits that they'd broken. Ex-smokers become smokers again and, you know, people who had given up drinking suddenly are hitting the bottle. But the suicide rate does not appear to be noticeably correlated with market swings.

BLOCK: Now, we've been talking about the current downturn and comparing that with the great crash following 1929. There have been other downturns and recessions in the economy. What have we seen in terms of the suicide rate in those downturns?

NORRIS: Well, in 1987, the last really great crash on Wall Street, when it went down 22 percent in one day, there were only two suicides that seemed to be related to that crash.

BLOCK: Now can you say that with confidence, after Black Thursday, only two? Or is it only two that we know about, only two high-profile suicides?

NORRIS: Well, there's only two that we know about. Suicide, up until very recently, was, you know, very much not socially acceptable. So, people would try to get the coroner to rule that it was not a suicide. Also, insurance might be involved in that.

BLOCK: After all these years, why hasn't there been more done to correct the record?

NORRIS: Well, because sometimes factoids - things that look like facts, but aren't - are harder to kill than vampires. You won't find it in respectable histories of Wall Street, but you find them in newspaper stories and things like that because they're just good stories.

BLOCK: Well, John Steele Gordon, thanks so much for talking to us.

NORRIS: Thank you.

BLOCK: John Steele Gordon is a financial historian. He's also the author of "An Empire of Wealth: The Epic History of American Financial Power."

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.