Jeanetta Calhoun Mish
The late winter sun had barely shown its pale face when my great-great-grandfather, JP Sanderson, awoke, rolled out of bed, and pulled his overalls on, adding a layer of warmth to the threadbare long johns and baggy wool socks he'd slept in. His wife had been up for an hour already and he could smell the coffee and biscuits. But he wouldn't eat this morning—it might make his bitter tonic less effective. Instead of taking his place at the kitchen table he'd built for Lou when they first married, he slipped out the back door and headed for the outhouse. It was cold—still below freezing—and the crunch of yellowed grass beneath his boots seemed louder than it had yesterday. Once inside the outhouse, JP pulled the door to and latched it, then reached into the small space on his right where the eave and wall came together. His fingers quickly found the small glass bottle he'd wrapped in newspaper and stashed there a week ago. Just as he slipped the bottle into his pocket, he heard Lou hollering for him from the back door.
"Guess I'd better go have some coffee," he said to himself, in the low, quiet voice he was known for.
JP sat in the kitchen for a good hour, tilting the hot coffee out of his cup and onto the saucer for sipping. Lou and him said nothing during the hour but that was not unusual; they were neither one much for talking even when they were young, and after making eleven babies and raising the eight who survived, there was even less need for talk. They knew each others' habits and assumed they knew each others' minds. A few minutes before 8 am, JP pushed his chair back from the table, nodded a thanks in Lou's direction, and said, "I'm going out to the shed. To see what needs fixin' before spring."
Lou nodded back and turned to the sink to wash the breakfast dishes in hot water heated on the wood cookstove. JP loved to go out to that shed and piddle around. Then again, there was no doubt one or the other of their tools needed fixing; on tenant famers' wages, they couldn't afford to buy new ones.
Not five minutes after JP left, their oldest living son, James Harvey, knocked twice on the front door of house and came on in. "Mornin', James—your daddy's out in the shed. Here, take a cup of coffee with you, to stay warm." James took the offered cup of coffee, thanked his mother, and slipped out the door. Later, Lou told the sheriff she washed and rinsed two tin plates in the time between when James closed the door behind him and when she heard him roar like a wounded bull. She couldn't bear to think their eldest was hurt bad—not after losing the three before him. Terrified, she pulled on her worn gray wool coat and rushed out the back door in the direction of the shed. There was James—still howling—and on the ground near where he squatted, was JP, fallen half in and half out the doorway of the shed. In his hand, James held a small clear bottle. When she knelt down beside her son, she could see her husband was still alive, but she could also smell the sharp, sweet scent clinging to his overalls and she could see her husband's lips and tongue where the skin had turned white and begun to peel. Taking a deep breath, Lou gathered herself and ran to the neighbors' to ask them to call the doctor. When she returned, she found that James had carried his father to his bed where he died three hours later. The doctor was as sure as Lou of the cause of death—there could be no mistaking the odor and action of carbolic acid. On the death certificate dated December 29, 1913, Dr. Burnett wrote: "JP Sanderson, White, Farmer. Born October 15, 1855. Age 55 years, 2 months, 14 days. Drank carbolic acid and lived three hours. Signed: Dr. J. C. Burnett, Coppell, Texas."
The first time I heard that my grandpa's grandpa had killed himself must have been when I was thirty-six, in the year I finally checked myself into a mental hospital. The psychiatrist wanted me to write a family history of any mental illness that might be lurking, because he thought it might help him diagnose me properly and that it might help me not feel overwhelmingly responsible for all my less-than-sane actions.
There is something comforting about learning you're not the only nut in the family.
I had heard many stories about my granny's family, her mothers' sisters in particular. Granny told her tales of crazy aunts with a particular relish, almost as if she took pride in having beaten back the family curse. When she told of the aunt who ran away manically hysterical at age fourteen and was found riding on the cow-catcher of a Santa Fe engine as it chugged down the tracks, Granny gripped the sides of her chair to illustrate how she imagined the runaway hung on to her precarious perch. When she spoke of her aunt the artist and shoe model who had "breakdowns," Granny walked over to where her aunt's expressive painting of lilacs in a brass pot hung on the wall and patted it as she patted my shoulder when I was in despair. "My mother always said that her youngest sister, who drank hard and ran off with a bad man when she was 15 was not quite right, either," Granny added, meaning that of the five sisters, three were considered mentally ill. Granny's dramatics disappeared, though, for her last tale of family insanity as she related the trials of her own little sister who, for thirty or more years of her life, had been a regular patient at Big Springs State Hospital, diagnosed with manic-depression and treated with electroshock therapy. "Poor Polly," she sighed, and in the silence afterward, I filled in the family tree, broken branches and all. I thought I was finished with my assignment and started to leave the table, but then Granny spoke again, with something close to a triumphant tone, "Now wait a minute. It's not just my side of the family that has mental illness. Your grandpa's grandpa killed himself. And most of them, the men on both sides of his family, were depressed and drank like fish."
All my life, I'd been extremely close to my grandpa, a man I counted as my father. But I'd never heard him talk about anything like mental illness, and certainly not of his grandfather's suicide. Both my grandpa and his father, my great-grandfather who was twenty-eight when his father drank the poison, were tall, slim, reticent men who rarely spoke around company, who could hold a grudge for a lifetime, and who had both been known to have a temper when they were young. But crazy? My grandfather was the icon of stability for me, the opposite of the violent stepfather I lived with—it was hard to conceive of. I dutifully wrote down "suicide" and "depression?" next to the name of James Perry Sanderson. And didn't think of it again until a couple of years ago, when I found JP's photograph and a death certificate on a genealogical website. "Drank carbolic acid and lived three hours." It was then I realized that the great family secret was not that JP had killed himself, but why he did, why he did it so late in his life, and why he chose such a horrific way to go.
It's easiest to guess why carbolic acid was the method—surprisingly, carbolic acid was the most popular manner of suicide for several years in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Carbolic acid, also known as phenol, was used in Auschwitz, as an injection, to murder prisoners; it was the first antiseptic used by Lord Joseph Lister, but its use was discontinued because patients often died from absorbing the poisonous substance through their skin. Think Lysol (the two substances are related), with its uncomfortably sweet scent, but stronger. Similarly to Lysol, carbolic acid's primary use through the years has been as an antiseptic and germicide used for cleaning solid surfaces.
Deaths from carbolic acid became common stories in newspapers at the turn of the twentieth century. The headlines were often in caps: TOOK CARBOLIC ACID: M. A. Cohn Committed Suicide at the Republican House Yesterday." SUICIDE ENDS DRUNKEN SPREE: A Painter Kills Himself by Drinking Carbolic Acid in Wylie Avenue Rooming House." Alarming statistics showed carbolic acid suicides doubling year after year; one article from The Pacific Pharmacist estimates that up to 38% of all suicides at the turn of the century were effected by carbolic acid and that 85% of suicides by drugs or chemicals could be blamed on the substance. Doctors and pharmacists began to call for limiting the availability of carbolic acid, to make it more difficult to obtain for suicide and to slow the rate of accidental poisonings. By as early as 1904, some cities began limiting the sale of carbolic acid, which was usually easily purchased at a local pharmacy or at the farm store, where it was sold as antiseptic for barns and stables.
The popularity of carbolic acid could not have been based on the idea it was a quick and easy solution. Carbolic acid suicide is a hard way to go. First, there is an "excitation" of the heart, quickly followed by twitches and convulsions. In 1907, Dr. Henry B. Carey noted that carbolic acid, while rapidly causing complete collapse and a shock-like syndrome, had a peculiar attribute: "the sensibility of pain is often preserved far into the state of collapse" (The Pacific Pharmacist 407). I wonder, knowing well myself the urge to suicide and its precipitating self-hate, if part of the lure of carbolic acid for suicides was its association with cleansing—perhaps one could believe it burned the soul clean on its way through the body. Perhaps killing oneself in such a caustic manner, acid burning through the esophagus with the pain undiminished by shock, served as a preliminary hell, one which a despairing person might hope would mitigate post-life punishment.
But all this still leaves me with the question of "Why?" In a 1904 Joplin News-Herald interview (in the state JP was born in and lived for many years), City Marshal John A. McManamy, spoke of suicides in his city, among them many carbolic acid suicides. What drove people to commit suicide, according to the Marshal? McManamy declared, "Suicides usually follow debauches, or financial reverses. Debauches with the women and financial reverses with the men." But so far as I can tell, the Sandersons had been poor for a very long time—there seems to have been neither a financial reversal nor a worsening of personal financial status, although a 1913 article in the Bonham News, written by Peter Radford, president of the Ft. Worth Farmer's Union, decries the increasingly impoverished state of the farm laborer in Texas. Radford writes that tenant farmers' and farm laborers' "net earning power at best exceeds $150.00 per annum provided they are constantly employed." Maybe JP could no longer bear the heart-breaking, soul-killing, body-betraying poverty.
There were no great changes to JP's personal and family life, either, not any that could easily explain a suicide. JP was fifty-five years old; his youngest child, Katie Belle, was 16 and living at home. The rest of his eight living children were likely gone from home, having started families of their own. He'd been married to Louisa for thirty-eight years. Several of his sons lived close: James Harvey gave the information for the death certificate and he lived in the same town; my great-grandpa Owen (Henry Owen) was living in Argyle, TX, just up the road from Coppell, a town that, in 1914 "had two churches, two general stores, two blacksmiths, a bank, a hardware store, telephone service, a population of 450, and dealers in poultry, livestock, and lumber" (Handbook of Texas Online). Was JP ashamed that he had given his children no better life than the one he'd lived?
Were there national incidents in 1915 that could have been an impetus to JP's suicide? WWI was in full swing, but there is no evidence that either JP or his sons served, although they dutifully filled out their draft cards. The mostly guerrilla-style Border War flared in South Texas, but that was a long way from Coppell. On December 14, Jack Johnson became the first black heavyweight champion, but that doesn't seem sufficient cause, even for a Southerner. Maybe, I thought, it was the weather. Many folks who haven't spent a winter in North Texas may imagine that it's temperate, but that's rarely the case. It's cold and often wet in North Texas in December, and I wondered if a flood had taken the last of the topsoil from JP's rented acres or perhaps the deep winter had depressed him. But the weather in North Texas in December 1913 was not remarkable, except for the fact that about 3 1/2 inches of rain fell in one 24 hour period—a lot of rain but not out of the realm of the usual. There was no suicide note to explain his actions—according to the 1910 census, JP could neither read nor write. Not the weather. Not the war. Not the family. Not the finances. Still at a loss to understand why James Perry Sanderson drank carbolic acid, I have to fall back on my own experience.
On a summer day in 1980, I was driving my bailing-wire-and-duct-tape shit-brown 72 Ford Station Wagon south on highway 75. I had left Sapulpa, Oklahoma that morning after spending the day and evening before with a friend from childhood at his family home. With a boy-now-man I had first had a crush on, then a desire for, then a longing for, since I had first run into him—literally—while we were both chasing a Coke ball—a foul ball—behind the bleachers of the Little League field at our hometown. My older brother and his were playing on the same team. From then on, he was the center of my imaginary universe, but I found out years later he never had a clue about my devotion. I imagined him going off to the hated rival town to date blondes whose fathers ran lucrative oilfield service companies; he told me he was usually out fishing or hunting on the weekends when he disappeared. I watched him act in the one play a year our school speech and drama teacher coaxed out of mostly skeptical country kids and wished I could be his leading lady. We hung out with the same group of heads— partiers— , so sometimes, if I were lucky, I'd sit next to him on the concrete picnic table bench at the lake pavilion, late into the night and far into the drink and drugs. I had gone to see him in Sapulpa hoping that he would somehow intuit my need for his attention. Without me having to say it, without me having to put anything on the line. We had twenty-four hours of friendly talk, but nothing more.
I had, the fall before the fateful trip to Sapulpa, washed out of the University of Houston in my first semester. The smartest kid in the small town I grew up in, I wasn't prepared for the university, and instead of rising to the challenge, I spent most of my time working in bars or drinking in bars. And now, I was living back home with my mother, taking a class or two at Seminole Junior College, and in general being useless. I don't even remember if I had a job—but surely I did, I had always had a job. Anyway, on that summer day, driving with the windows down (no air conditioner), 75 miles an hour on highway 75, I tried to take stock of my life, but the numbers wouldn't tote up. The flat spot in the almost-bare right front tire rattled the steering wheel each time it turned over and the thump it made sometimes jaggled the loose wire in the radio, randomly turning it off and on again. Heat-mirages shimmering on the road seemed somehow momentous and inconsequential at the same time. I told myself I was being absurd. Somewhere near Okmulgee a huge bug flew in the window and splattered on my forehead. I pulled over at a gas station, looked at my entrailed face in the rear view mirror and suddenly, the world shifted. I am not sure I can explain it any better than that. The world shifted and was riven; I fell into the crevasse. I don't remember the rest of the drive to my mother's home in Seminole, but I can feel it, still. It is rising up in me now as I write, a void in the center of my chest, an abyss. I keep swallowing, hoping I can wash it down. And maybe I'll be successful tonight, in keeping the darkness away, but on that day, the black hole located just below my solar plexus sucked everything near its event horizon into a swirling oblivion.
The rest of the story is sketchy in my memory, but I obviously made it home because that's where they found me, the ambulance crew, some hours later. I had taken all the pills in the house I could find and washed them down with a bottle of my mother's Old Grandad. Someone had called—I remember that now—but who was it? One of the guys I'd been dating, I think, had called, and, out of habit, I had picked up the phone. My mother later told me that he had been alarmed at my slurred, strange, jumbled speech. He called her at work (he knew where she worked?) and she sent an ambulance. I am grateful I don't remember the stomach-pumping. I woke up to a former schoolmate checking my pulse; she was working as an aide at the hospital. She was surprised to see me, thinking as so many others did that I had left my hometown to become a success somewhere else.
Jeanetta Calhoun Mish is a poet and prose writer. Her 2009 poetry collection, Work Is Love Made Visible won the Western Heritage Award, the WILLA Award from Women Writing the West, and the Oklahoma Book Award. Mish's chapbook, Tongue Tied Woman, won the national Edda Poetry Chapbook for Women contest sponsored by Soulspeak Press. Her writings have been recently published or are upcoming in Red Dirt Chronicles, Cybersoleil, Naugatuck Review, Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Concho River Review and Blast Furnace. Jeanetta is Editor of award-winning Mongrel Empire Press, and contributing editor to the literary journal Sugar Mule (www.sugarmule.com) and to Oklahoma Today. She is Director of and a faculty mentor for the Red Earth Creative Writing MFA Program at Oklahoma City University. www.tonguetiedwoman.com