Thursday, July 28, 2011

A New Look At The Suicide of Margaret Moorehead

Precious Little Time

Margaret Ann Moorehead died on the 14th of July 1929 at 7:50am in the Miami Valley Hospital, Ward 8 of Bi chloride of Mercury poisoning which the coroner ruled a suicide. She was 23 years old.  She had precious little time on the face of this earth and died a horrendous, painful death at her own hands.  I have seen in comments on other blogs people wondering what could possibly have been so bad in her life that it would cause her to end it and to end it so horribly?  I hope to provide some insight into that and to discuss the second victim of that suicide, Agnes.

Borderline Personality Disorder Theory

There is only one contributing factor to Peggy's demise was listed on her death certificate and that was Nephritis.  Nephritis was and is just a fancy way of saying her kidney function was impaired which is a side effect of Bi chloride of mercury poisoning.  There is, however, another highly important unlisted contributing factor and that is Borderline Personality Disorder. I will hereafter refer to this as BPD, just a whole lot easier than spelling it out. BPD is a mental illness and the underlying cause of every single suicide is a mental illness of some type.

First let me tell you a little bit about BPD.  You can read forever and get everybody elses opinion about this disorder or you can go straight to the tools used to diagnose BPD The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Fourth Edition or DSM IV-TR.  This is what you will find:

A pervasive pattern of instability of interpersonal relationships, self-image and affects, as well as marked impulsive behavior, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following:
  1. Frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment. Note: Do not include suicidal or self-injuring behavior covered in Criterion 5
  2. A pattern of unstable and intense interpersonal relationships characterized by alternating between extremes of idealization and devaluation.
  3. Identity disturbance: markedly and persistently unstable self-image or sense of self.
  4. Impulsivity in at least two areas that are potentially self-damaging (e.g., promiscuous sex, eating disorders, binge eating, substance abuse, reckless driving). Note: Do not include suicidal or self-injuring behavior covered in Criterion 5
  5. Recurrent suicidal behavior, gestures, threats or self-injuring behavior such as cutting, interfering with the healing of scars (excoriation) or picking at oneself.
  6. Affective instability due to a marked reactivity of mood (e.g., intense episodic dysphoria, irritability or anxiety usually lasting a few hours and only rarely more than a few days).
  7. Chronic feelings of emptiness
  8. Inappropriate anger or difficulty controlling anger (e.g., frequent displays of temper, constant anger, recurrent physical fights).
  9. Transient, stress-related paranoid ideation, delusions or severe dissociative symptoms

The onset of the symptoms of BPD typically occurs during adolescence or young adulthood.  Parents of individuals with BPD have been reported to show co-existing extremes of over-involvement and under-involvement. During this period Margaret's parents were largely absent from her life.  She lived in Saint Louis with family not with her mother and father.

 Individuals with BPD can be very sensitive to the way others treat them, reacting strongly to perceived criticism or hurtfulness.  Given Mollies predilection for making demeaning pointed remarks to Agnes it is likely that she did the same to Peggy especially if and when she began to feel her control over Peggy slipping away. 

Their feelings about others often shift from positive to negative, generally after a disappointment or perceived threat of losing someone. We know from Agnes' letter written to her sister after her death that Agnes had most certainly had words just the previous year with Peggy and it was over the topic that would haunt her the rest of her life her sexuality.  I think we can safely assume that was the topic of discussion because Agnes states, "Poor dear little girl your words of last year ring in my ears, “ you never loved a man like I have.” 

The self-image of someone BPD can also change rapidly from extremely positive to extremely negative. Perhaps Agnes' referral to Peggy as beautiful was a reference to her sisters view of herself.  Impulsive behaviors are common in people with BPD and although we have no documentation specifically talking about impulsive behavior demonstrated by Peggy I think it is safe to assume that she had some impulses contrary to the behaviors her mother would approve of.

 People with BPD tend to view the world generally as dangerous and malevolent, and they tend to view themselves as powerless, vulnerable, unacceptable and unsure in self-identity.  Given her shuttling back and forth from Reedsburg to Saint Louis Peggy was undoubtedly in flux with her view of herself as well as her view of the world.  We will never know if the life she was living in Saint Louis was one in which she felt safe or if something traumatic happened to her during her time there.  No record remains of any of it.  She was powerless, vulnerable and unsure of that there can be no doubt.

Individuals with BPD are often described as deliberately manipulative or difficult, but analysis and findings generally trace behaviors to inner pain and turmoil, powerlessness and defensive reactions, or limited coping and communication skills.  Inner pain is never more apparent than when someone successfully takes their own life.  It speaks volumes about how Peggy saw her own life and how she viewed her parents.  Suicide is at is core a manipulative behavior.  It leaves people behind with lives forever changed and the person who dies feels no pain.  Often it is done as a punishment.  In this case it could be not only Frank that Peggy wanted to punish but Mollie as well.  It also shows that Peggy really had no coping skills what so ever and wasn't offered any support, at least by her mother.  I'm sure that for her father her "troubles" were difficult because being a minister means that people look up to you as a role model and there you sit with your troubled child, very difficult position to say the least.

If any of this sound familiar it should, because it is laid out in the communication between Mollie and Agnes that I have transcribed further down on this page.  In this communication Mollie hints at the trouble Peggy wants Mollie to forgive her for.  Notice that it doesn't mention any issue with their father only an issue between Peggy and Mollie.  In the previous post I mentioned that Mollie qualified as an "overbearing mother."  I also went through the list of things that can develop psychologically when you have an "overbearing mother."  Additionally I mentioned the quip to Agnes that  the "wrong daughter died."  Well, as stated above an over involved parent can push someone into BPD and I guarantee you that is what has happened here.  BPD has also been linked to increased levels of chronic stress and conflict in romantic relationships.  Remember the mention in the first go around with this of  "Frank?"   Also think about the fact that Peggy did not live with her parents full time for years and attach that to the statement above of co-existing extremes of under and over involvement by the parents of a child with BPD.  It took me a long time to connect these dots believe me but the evidence, slim as it may be, is certainly there to support a diagnosis of BPD.

Recurrent suicidal behavior, gestures, threats or self-injuring behavior such as cutting, interfering with the healing of scars (excoriation) or picking at oneself.  

It took Margaret four days to die. The “attack”, as it has been referred to, began on Wednesday July 10th. I do not know when Margaret was hospitalized but I do know that her sister was sent a telegram telling her “Things are not so well come at once.” This telegram was received in New York at 9am on July 12th 1929. I also know that her mother telephoned her but I do not know when. I know that during that conversation she was told that her sister had attempted suicide and I know that from Mollies letter to Agnes transcribed below:

My Dear Agnes,
I didn’t intend to frighten you so last night for I didn’t want that word to go over the telephone but as you know what happened why you are prepared for the worst if things don’t go on well. I came down early and Margaret is sleeping –had a fair night. The kept her doped and we have two good nurses…we will send for you if we things are going against us. Mother came and is at the house, we dad and I can take turns being here. I in the morning and he in the afternoon. Peg realizes now what a mistake she made and says she was to blame and wants me to forget all the trouble which I told her I would and ask her to forgive me for being crass and unreasonable. I told her, she and you were the only things we had in this world and we couldn’t lose her. She said she would fight and has been. She says that she took care of girl who was worse than she is and she pulled through. Agnes, I think Frank was cruel to her, for out of a clear sky he said they would quit and she fainted and he never called me. And if he had I could have watched her. I’ll try to keep calm and keep your dad cheered up. Please think of us…He has been a peach and he directed things when we needed a cool head around. Let us hear from you.
We all send love.
Lovingly yours,
Mother

It is apparent “that word’ Mollie was so desperate to avoid using on the telephone is suicide. In the ensuing years it was always said that Margaret died of a heart seizure or heart attack. Every obituary written from Xenia to Zanesville contains disinformation from “a brief illness” to “a sudden illness while at her occupation as a nurse in New York.” Suicide was then and continues to be today a stigma that families are saddled with. In addition Margaret’s father was the minister of a Presbyterian church and to have the daughter of a minister die by their own hand was unthinkable. If you read between the lines of that letter you will witness a family dynamic that formed the personalities of both children. Mollie refers to herself in the first person 9 separate times. She only refers to her husband and herself as we 4 separate times. Rev. Moorehead is only referred to only 3 times and finally Agnes is referred to only as Agnes once and as “you” 6 times. Blame for the suicide is laid squarely on the shoulders of Margaret who accepts it willingly with Mollie stating only that she asked to be forgiven for being crass and unreasonable. Frank, the lover/boyfriend who instigated the ending of the relationship, is chided for simply failing to call Mollie but not for driving a disturbed young woman to suicide. I believe that Charles Tranberg makes a valid observation when he says that Agnes was “daddy’s girl” and Margaret was “mommies girl.” However much we may want to believe it suicide is never a momentary lapse in judgment. There are always signs and portents that someone is on their way down the one-way street of suicidal behavior and suffering with a mental illness.  People don't like those signs though because they view it as a failure on their part so they overlook them, they call them phases and assume they will pass.  BPD is a bonified mental illness that can and does lead to tragic endings.
Many physicians have listed characteristics of suicidal people. These are thought to be:
1. A sense of isolation and withdrawal.
2. Few friends or family.
3. Distraction and a lack of humor.
4. A focus on the past. Often voicing that the world or people would be better off without them around.
5. Being haunted and dominated by hopelessness and helplessness.
6.Viewing themselves as helpless is 2 ways. First by being unable to free themselves from the sea of despair that is swallowing them and secondly that nobody else can help them either.

This reads exactly like the list in the DSM-IV for BPD and really that is what they are talking about.  Mental illness, BPD, Schizophrenia, Depression, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder,  the list is endless but a common thread runs through all of them.  If no help is sought or given the outcome is likely to be quite tragic.
There are certain life events that precipitate suicidal behavior and one of them is the loss of a love relationship. It has also been said that past emotional or physical damage to the person can lead to self-destructive behavior. It has been written many times over “suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.” If a person is what they call “presuicidal” they are in a state of extreme anguish in which there is no ability to neither make rational decisions nor distinguish rational options to the problem. For most people who are in the right state of mind the decision to end ones own life seems not only irrational but also incomprehensible. Loved ones cannot understand or accept that somebody they love could possibly do this to himself or herself. Unfortunately that inability to comprehend the depth of a loved one’s pain can act as a blinder to family or friends preventing them from picking up on the clues that may be right in front of them. The person who dies by suicide is in so much pain emotionally that they cannot focus on anything but ending that pain by whatever means possible.

Bi Chloride of Mercury is highly, highly toxic. If Margaret had been a nurse she would have been acutely aware of the properties of this poison. It was used primarily as a topical treatment for Syphilis before the advent of antibiotics. It was also used as a fungicide. It usually came dissolved in alcohol, which, if ingested, took it into the bloodstream more quickly thereby making it all the more deadly. It was a long drawn out extremely painful way to die. In the early 1920’s the actress Olive Thomas, wife of Jack Pickford, died from Bi Chloride of Mercury poisoning. It was widely covered in the popular press of the time and perhaps that was what made Margaret think of it. The symptoms are a litany of severe pain explaining why Peggy was kept "doped" and are as follows:

1. Severe abdominal pain.
2. Severe difficulty in breathing.
3. Decreased urine output potentially stopping completely.
4. Diarrhea
5. Metallic taste
6. Mouth lesions
7. Severe pain in the mouth and throat.
8. Shock
9. Severe swelling of the throat.
10. Vomiting

The prognosis for survival of this type of poisoning depended then on what symptoms manifested themselves within the first 10-15 minutes of ingestion and how rapidly you got to a hospital. It didn’t take much of dose to kill you. Kidney failure and death could occur with small doses of the poison. It simply appears as though even having expressed regret, according to her mother, that Margaret was determined to end her life. What a painful tragic end it was.

Parents of individuals with BPD have been reported to show co-existing extremes of over-involvement and under-involvement.

Peggy appears to have been isolated from her parents by distance for quite a long time. Peggy did not, as has always been believed, move to Dayton with her parents in 1925 nor did she remain in Reedsburg with her parents after their fall 1919 relocation from Saint Louis. Peggy, who would have been 13 at the time of the move, remained in Saint Louis with family. She graduated in June of 1925 from Cleveland High School in Saint Louis. I can only assume that between 1925 and her move to Dayton in the fall of 1928 that she attended college to become a nurse. I have never been able to find any record of her nursing degree or what college she might have attended to obtain it. All there is to go on is misinformation in an obituary that gives her occupation as a nurse and her mother’s reference in the letter to Agnes of a girl that Peggy had taken care of who was far worse off but survived. It has made me wonder if she might have been a psychiatric nurse but

I’m afraid that we’ll never really know for sure. Her death certificate, which I have, lists her occupation as “at home.” This indicates to me that she either couldn’t find work or wasn’t capable of it any longer. The reference to her moving from Saint Louis to Dayton comes from a front-page obituary in a Xenia, Ohio newspaper and is specific in the details of the move happening the year before her death. It is transcribed below:

“Miss Margaret Moorehead, 22, daughter of Dr. and Mrs. J.H. Moorehead of 19 Stone Mill Road, Dayton, died at Miami Valley Hospital early Sunday morning after a brief illness. Dr. Moorehead is a first cousin of Miss Margaret Moorehead and William Moorehead of this city. Miss Moorehead had been a resident of Dayton for a year, coming to that city from St. Louis last fall when Dr. Moorehead assumed the pastorate of Patterson Memorial Presbyterian Church.

She is survived by her parents and one sister, Agnes Moorehead, New York City. Funeral arrangements have not been completed.”

The Evening Gazette, Xenia, Ohio, Monday, July 15, 1929


A pattern of unstable and intense interpersonal relationships characterized by alternating between extremes of idealization and devaluation.

This brings us to one of the roots of  Peggy's problem, “Frank.” Whoever Frank was, obviously there was a romantic relationship. Peggy either moved to Dayton from Saint Louis to be near him or she met him after her move to Dayton. If the latter is true then she couldn’t possibly have known him for more than a year before apparently opting to end her life over his alleged rejection.  I think that it was a very intense affair as evidenced by Agnes’ quoting of Peggy's words to her in her postmortem letter to her sister, “your words of last year ring in my ears, “You never loved a man like I have.” The truth of it is you can search forever in a sea of Frank’s and never find the exact one. He is never referred to in any document that I am aware of other than Mollie's letter to Agnes. There were several young men with the right name and of a similar age within a short radius of her parent’s home at 19 Stone Mill Road but we will never know if “Frank” was one of those young men. Her parent’s home now falls within the campus confines of the University of Dayton and even then may have housed students among the families that lived there. It is possible that Frank was a student. What is less likely is that the decision to end their relationship came out of “a clear sky” as Mollie states in her letter to Agnes. Rarely do children dole out specific details of their romantic relationships to their parents so we have to accept Molly’s statement as coming from her own point of view. Peggy and Frank’s relationship may have been one sided or extremely stormy from the very beginning. There were obviously difficulties that had drove Margaret down the road toward suicide long before Frank ended their relationship. I have never read of anybody just suddenly on a whim decide to take their own life. It could have been a long lasting depressive state that pushed Frank to sever ties with Peggy, however, we’ll never really know for sure because we weren’t there. I do know from the letter to Agnes that Peggy asked Mollie to forget “all the trouble.” This statement seems to indicate that there were tensions within Peggy's mother as a result of her relationship with Frank. Anyway you cut it family tension added to Peggy’s already apparently fragile emotional state.

Can Suicide Take Two Lives At Once?

This brings me to the second victim of this suicide Peggy's sister Agnes. What I want to talk about here is how it affects a person when a sibling takes his or her own life.

So much has been published now about how suicide affects the surviving sibling or siblings. I have read that they are often called the forgotten mourners. Most typically people fixate on the parents of a dead child rarely on the remaining child or children. This leaves them to fend for themselves with their grief. Often they put that grief aside in an attempt to help parents cope with the loss and never fully grieve on their own. Who can determine the severity of the heartbreak of losing a sibling to suicide?  Losing a sibling changes family dynamic in one swift brush stroke.  In the case of Agnes she went back to being the only child in a heartbeat.

Agnes was 28 years old when her sister died. When a sibling dies by their own hand at this stage in life the surviving sibling learns, in a most difficult way, that life does not hold the unlimited promise they once believed it did. They are literally blindsided by reality. At this point in their lives siblings have spent more time together than they have with their parents. We know this to be true of Agnes and Peggy because it is documented that Agnes spent a great deal of time in St. Louis in the 1920’s. The two of them had shared their whole lives with each other. Sharing a room, secrets, dreams, wishes, fears and plans. She may have acted as a mother figure to Peggy because of the separation between Peggy and their parents. Now, at 28, she would find herself having lost her other half. Typically when there are only 2 children they are always grouped together. In 1925 there is a reference in the Zanesville newspaper to the “Misses Agnes and Margaret Moorehead,” returning to Saint Louis after visiting their grandfather. You can believe that they were a tandem, Aggie and Peggy. Suddenly you are left without your right hand. You are without the one person you would talk to about something this life altering and tragic. The anguished letter Agnes wrote to her sister the week after she died and transcribed below evidences that:

“A week later so many things have happened and my own dear sister where are you? Where can you be? How brave and courageous you are to face death so young—how you know our maker—the secret of life and death you know…How I wanted to see you and yet the thought of seeing you was beyond my strength. I loved you—I love you know—you asleep in a cold little bed in a tomb like the good father who created you. And you were beautiful. I only wish you could talk to me sometimes. I know you are alive and well and even so much better off than we. If only you could have come to us. Men are so heartless so cruel. Poor dear little girl your words of last year ring in my ears, “ you never loved a man like I have.” Now you know I have your spirit will know how I feel toward Jack. My little sister I loved you so. I have always loved you and prayed for your happiness. I dreamed of you last night—I love you.”

Look at this phrase from this litany of anguish, "How I wanted to see you and yet the thought of seeing you was beyond my strength."  We know that Agnes arrived either just prior to or just after her sisters passing.  She never saw her sister that much is obvious.  Because she couldn't bring herself to.  It "was beyond my strength."  Agnes was a strong woman.  She had achieved 3 different degrees by the time her sister died.  She had taught school for a year to save money to attend the American Academy.  She packed up and moved to New York without even a thought as to how she would survive.  She worked while attending the Academy.  She stepped onstage in front of audiences and performed, no mean feat in itself.  But she could not handle seeing her sister.  Their last meeting had been at least a year before Peggy's death.  We know that because of the letter above.  Words only ring in your ears when they are exchanged in heated discussion.  Casual happy words are never described as "ringing in my ears."  We also know from an article about Agnes' success in New York published in the Hamilton newspaper in January of 1929 that her family expected her home immediately after her graduation in March of 1929.  That obviously never happened.  It is stated in the article from Hamilton that Agnes had only been to her parents home in Dayton once before January of 1929.  Given the letter Agnes wrote her sister that visit happened in 1928 and if Peggy's obituary in the Xenia paper is to be believed as accurate Peggy didn't come to her parents home in Dayton until fall of 1928.  That means that the last time the sisters had seen each other was sometime between the end of September 1928 and Christmas of 1928.  My money is on Christmas.  So, Agnes sees her sister during Christmas of 1928, fails to return home in March or April of 1929 as agreed and by July 14th of 1929 Peggy is dead. That is a period of about seven months.  The stock market crash and the Great Depression didn't begin until October of 1929 so it wasn't that which made the trip in March or April of 1929 impossible
for Agnes to make.  Peggy's birthday was April 12th and surely Agnes wanted to be there for that or perhaps this is where the statement in her letter to her sister actually comes into play, "How I wanted to see you and yet the thought of seeing you was beyond my strength."  Maybe she was already aware of some difficulty rearing it's ugly head and she didn't want to deal with another confrontation with her sister regarding her own personal choices.  It has always seemed odd to me that Peggy made such a pointed remark about Agnes by saying "you never loved a man like I have."  Siblings are privy to each other's secrets.  Often times they know their sibling better than anyone on the planet.  So why this comment and why such an aversion on Agnes' part to seeing her sister.  Why didn't she go when she had the chance?  You can bet she asked herself that question over and over and over again!  If she had gone would she have been able to save her sister?  Also a question she repeated to herself numerous times.  It's called survivors guilt.  What if?  Why didn't I know?  Maybe I did know and couldn't cope with it myself? 

The other thing that puzzles me about Agnes' depressed letter to her sister is her intimation that her sister was brave and courageous to face death so young.  I would certainly say that of someone who died of a disease like cancer or heart failure but suicide doesn't seem like an act of bravery to me. From my own experience I can tell you that the only suicide I ever witnessed, yes witnessed, was an act of illness not bravery.  The person was severely mentally ill and had killed two people I knew as well as wounding three others.  He was ill, very ill and his suicide was the result of terminal mental illness.

She also seems to think that somehow her sister now knew the secret of life and death.  That seems rather an odd observation to me, although I suppose it is true enough.  Her desire to speak to her sister and her adamant desire that her sister "know" how she felt about Jack also seem out of place somehow.  I think that it shows the fragile nature of her own state of mind.  Her thinking was not 100 percent clear.  She was obviously depressed over her sister death and she was dealing with demons that would have no resolution now because the only person with whom resolution could happen was gone.  She had made the choice not to resolve those demons she was paying a very high price for that choice.

Agnes never spoke of her sister’s death. This is typical of a time when the stigma of suicide was considered a black mark on the family. The public denial of the sibling’s suicide often leads to a failure to cope with the grief. It would be then that grief, like a mold, would force its way out of the person in many other ways. Frequently it would manifest itself in a physical illness. Sometimes it would come out in deeper more damning ways such as difficulty in establishing healthy long term relationships, fear of rejection, control issues, isolation, and not least of all guilt.
It is my opinion that all of these things are evident in Agnes’ personality. Agnes had difficulty in establishing long-term relationships. Hers were, to say the least, stormy.  Take for example Quint Benedetti's reference to Agnes being physically abused by her husband. "On the other hand, Agnes would sometimes show up with a deep bruise on her face or slice alongside her head or a band aid somewhere and say "Look what my husband did."  She said it with no emotion as if it were a part of life." The only way he could have known about any of that was to be told either by Agnes or those close to her because she wasn't married when he knew her.  We know from newspaper articles that Jack Lee did allegedly beat her.  Lee never denied that as far as I can tell. This was not the first time that anyone had referred to her saying something with no emotion whatsoever, Bernice Mason said the same thing when she talked about Agnes' reaction to Sean's disappearance. "There is no emotion in the things she says," said Mason.  No emotion, none.  Disconnected.

She became so disconnected that she isolated herself from everyone emotionally. She was distant and was often described by those who adored her as being “cold.” I think she demonstrated a fear of rejection and yet a willingness to involve herself in relationships that would end in rejection. Perhaps it was a form self-punishment because of the guilt that hung her over her sister’s death.

Agnes definitely had control issues but, again, constantly put herself into situations over which she had no control. She literally was two people living in one body, one mind.  Even Benedetti, who claims to have known her best says, "You might say Agnes lived a double life, a life on the stage, on the movie set and her life off."  The eccentric outgoing woman the world saw and the troubled, isolated, abandoned sibling that the world only caught fleeting glimpses of. Her career was literally her salvation. She could spend time not having to be herself. It allowed her to leave the isolated sibling behind and become anything she wanted to be. It seems to me that Peggy's suicide was one of the things that made her so successful at her career and so unsuccessful in her private life.  But she definitely did not escape her past unscathed.  She was emotionally crippled by her past and I believe she herself fought mental illness of a sort.  The difference between she and her sister was that Agnes won.  She had to have had an inner strength that was unimaginable because she did it on her own.


The next installment: My Alter Ego

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