Boom and bust suicide myths

The Spanish property crash and 1929. With an anecdote of a frustrated rural hanging.

Andrés Rodriguez and Tristán the Vulture have debunked the hysterical ranting of the PAH, and they’re both worth a read. Eurostat only takes us up to 2010, and shows a gradual decline in suicides in both Spain and the EU. It will be interesting to see what it says in a few years time, but for now I thought it would posting JK Galbraith on the 1929 Great Crash suicide myth, from which I doubt that misreporting of our particular hubris-nemesis cycle will differ greatly:

In the week or so following Black Thursday, the London penny press told delightedly of the scenes in downtown New York. Speculators were hurling themselves from windows; pedestrians picked their way delicately between the bodies of fallen financiers. The American correspondent for the Economist wrote an indignant column for his paper protesting against this picture of imaginary carnage.

In the United States the suicide wave that followed the stock market crash is also part of the legend of 1929. In fact, there was none. For several years before 1929, the suicide rate had been gradually rising. It continued to rise in that year, with a further and much sharper increase in 1930, 1931, and 1932 – years when there were many things besides the stock market to cause people to conclude that life was no longer worth living. The statistics for New Yorkers, who might be assumed to have had a special propensity for self-destruction, derived from their special propinquity to the market, show only a slight deviation from those for the country as a whole.


One can only guess how the suicide myth became established. Like alcoholics and gamblers, broken speculators are supposed to have a propensity for self-destruction. At a time when broken speculators were plentiful, the newspapers and the public may have simply supplied the corollary. Alternatively, suicides that in other times would have evoked the question, “Why do you suppose he did it?” now had the motive assigned automaticaly: “The poor fellow was caught in the crash.” Finaly, it must be noted that, although suicides did not increase sharply either in the months of the crash or in 1929 as a whole, the rate did rise in the later depression years. In memory some of these tragedies may have been moved back a year or two to the time of the stock market crash.

The weight of the evidence suggests that the newspapers and the public merely seized on such suicides as occurred to show that people were reacting appropriately to their misfortune. Enough deaths could be related in one way or another to the market to serve. Beginning soon after Black Thursday, stories of violent self-destruction began to appear in the papers with some regularity. Curiously, though another myth runs strongly to the contrary, few people in these days followed the classic method of jumping from a high window.

I’m slightly curious as to why more people aren’t killing themselves. One hypothesis says that the people is wilfully misleading its government and the government the EU regarding the effects of the crisis with a view to increasing payouts; another has it that no one in Spain is at all interested in the economic situation as compared to say football – it would be interesting to follow football-related suicides now the Spanish league appears to be about to fall off a cliff; a third, which I met in a village bar on Sunday, relates it to a lack of suitable materials:

A Moroccan travelling salesman came in with an armful of overpriced bargain basement watches, belts etc. A very down-at-heel gent across the table from me took a belt, tried it round his neck, removed it, manipulated it, and returned it: “It’ll break. It’s Chinese: cardboard inside.”

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Last updated 21/05/2013

John Kenneth Galbraith (1): John Kenneth Galbraith, also known as Ken Galbraith, was a Canadian-born economist, public official, and diplomat, and a leading proponent of 20th-century American liberalism.

Kaleboel (4307):

Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (1): Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca is a Spanish grassroots organization that takes direct action to stop evictions and campaigns for housing rights. The PAH was set up in Barcelona in February 2009 and now has 150 branches across Spain.

Spanish property bubble (1): The Spanish property bubble is the collapsed overshooting part of a long-term price increase of Spanish real estate prices.

Wall Street Crash of 1929 (2): The Wall Street Crash of 1929, also known as Black Tuesday, the Great Crash, or the Stock Market Crash of 1929, began on October 24, 1929, and was the most devastating stock market crash in the history of the United States, when taking into consideration the full extent and duration of its after effects.


  1. Kurt Vonnegut, A Man without a country has a hypothesis:

    during the era of slavery in this country—an atrocity from which we can never fully recover—the suicide rate per capita among slave owners was much higher than the suicide rate among slaves. (Albert) Murray says he thinks this was because slaves had a way of dealing with depression, which their white owners did not: They could shoo away Old Man Suicide by playing and singing the Blues.

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