Historical essay
A Tale of Two Deaths: Chronic Illness, Race, and the Medicalization of Suicide

A Tale of Two Deaths: Chronic Illness, Race, and the Medicalization of Suicide

Jakob Burnham

On a Thursday morning in 1726, French colonial officials in Pondichéry – France’s principal colonial holding on India’s southeastern coast – received word that a dead body had been discovered at the bottom of a well. The governor of Pondichéry dispatched three officials to investigate the report. The officials quickly located the body and identified the dead man as the French soldier Le Bel, but it would take over three hours of interviewing witnesses before they began to make sense of his death.[1]

Le Bel’s wife, Marie-Anne, stated that a loud splash in the home’s well had roused her early that morning. Realizing she was alone in bed, Marie-Anne went in search of her husband. She found herself in the courtyard, gazing into the family’s well, when she discovered her husband’s body. Marie-Anne began to scream, and two men nearby quickly arrived to help. When questioned by the officials, both men confirmed that they had seen Le Bel in the well and that, although they had retrieved him, he was already dead. The investigators returned to their questioning of Marie-Anne, asking her if she knew why her husband might have been in the courtyard. She replied that Le Bel had been sick for ten months with a “lung abscess.”[2] The investigators confirmed Le Bel’s illness with the surgeon-major, Antoine Ferrier, who also testified that he found neither contusions nor wounds on the body that might indicate foul play. Thus, in Ferrier’s professional opinion, there could be but one cause of death: the illness from Le Bel’s lung had “transport au cerveau” – gone to his head – something Ferrier claimed had happened before. Ferrier concluded that Le Bel, during a delusion, had thrown himself into the well and drowned.[3]

Sketch of a woman drawing water up from a well
Wells were essential to life in the early modern period (Le Puits, Hubert Robert, n.d. The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Just six weeks after Le Bel’s death, officials in Pondichéry investigated the death of a seventy-five-year-old local South Asian man named Canagesabay.[4] Again, investigators were called to inspect the events surrounding the death. The investigators spoke with Canagesabay’s brother and his two sons, and all three men recounted that Canagesabay had suffered from serious stomach pains that had become increasingly worse over the last year.[5] They reported that Canagesabay had become so ill during the last month that he could eat “only milk and sugar.”[6] The day before he died, Canagesabay was in such pain he requested a doctor, who subsequently prescribed some unspecified remedies. Canagesabay’s brother and sons stated that just as day was breaking, they awoke to the sound of screams coming from the street. Running outside, the three men saw Canagesabay hanging from a tree.

After his family brought him back to the house, Canagesabay survived for another half-hour before dying. According to the investigator’s report, the three men also claimed that Canagesabay had announced six months earlier that he wanted to throw himself into the street in front of the house – implying some forethought in ending his life.[7] Surgeon-major Antoine Ferrier, the same man who decided Le Bel’s case, ruled Canagesabay’s cause of death as “strangulation” resulting from the hanging, without any indication he considered the chronic illness as a mitigating condition as it had been in Le Bel’s case.

Much of Canagesabay’s story parallels that of Le Bel: a chronic physical ailment preceded and seemingly precipitated self-inflicted death. Yet, early modern Europeans were hardly equitable when it came to the application of medical grace, especially when it came to any social “others.” The outcomes of the two cases were decidedly different since, as we will see, the conclusions of suspicious deaths were influenced by investigators’ perceptions of race and social status.

The findings in these two cases reflected a broader shift in Europeans’ mindsets regarding suicide. By the seventeenth century, public officials in France and elsewhere increasingly concerned themselves with suicide as a matter of public order and as part of a larger effort to investigate the circumstances around suspicious deaths. This greater attention to the circumstances of death contributed to what has been called a “medicalization” of suicide, especially at the turn of the eighteenth century. Testimonies from investigations into reported suicides revealed that witnesses and family members began amplifying connections between chronic illness and suicide during this period. Official reports, witness statements, and even interviews with survivors made references to “melancholy, mental and physical maladies over which they reputedly had no control.”[8] These investigations – both in the metropole and in the colonies – emphasized the existence of new reasonings and attitudes that tied chronic illness to suicide. With these new rationalizations explaining the circumstances, negative associations with the act of suicide lessened and mitigated some of its social and legal implications.[9] In a way, these changes made such deaths more palatable and prosecuted less harshly.

As we can see, the findings of the Le Bel investigation in Pondichéry aligned with similar thinking in the metropole. Transport au cerveau was a medical term professionals used to signify the progression of a physical illness towards affecting one’s mental capacity.[10] Ferrier’s assessment of Le Bel’s cause of death fit with a growing tendency among medical, legal, and judicial officials to embrace the reasoning that people deemed to have committed suicide could not be held responsible for their actions. This maneuvering allowed the officials to work around the dictate in French law and (inconsistently applied) criminal sentence requiring French subjects who were determined to have committed suicide to hang by their feet in the gallows; have their bodies dragged through the street; be denied Christian burial; as well as have their personal goods and assets confiscated. The seizure and the subsequent management of those goods could be a messy and complicated practice. The implications for such seizures on estates in the colonial setting, which might span the globe, could be even more unwieldy.[11] By concluding that French subjects were legally not at fault in their own deaths, probates might be more easily managed by heirs and less detrimental to social order in communities.

An aged, hand-written document in an archive.
Courtesy France, Archives Nationales d’Outre Mer (INDE, P 006, ff.109).

Le Bel himself was certainly concerned with his post-mortem estate. Just days before his death, Le Bel had written a note on the very subject.[12] In the letter, Le Bel empowered Monsieur Dugué – one of the men who had helped hoist his dead body from the well – to “sell the effects in [his] godown” (basement, or cellar room of a house used for storage). The proceeds of the sale would settle debts that Le Bel owed around the city, including a bequest of 20 pagodes to the city’s Capuchins to fund two masses for him. Le Bel’s careful manipulation of legal probate practices demonstrates his broader awareness that officials would be likely to view his apparent suicide as an act beyond his personal control, particularly in the context of his well-known chronic illness.

While officials had accepted the medical circumstances of Le Bel’s death at face value, they approached Canagesabay’s presumed suicide with greater skepticism. Upon finishing the report, the investigators presented their findings to the Superior Council–the city’s highest legal and administrative authority. After reviewing the information, the authorities condemned Canagesabay, who was himself a French subject as a resident of Pondichéry, to a sinner’s death. The Superior Council ordered his body to be hung by his feet from the tree where he had killed himself until sunset, after which he was to be thrown into the street.[13] The disparate treatment of the suicides of Le Bel and of Canagesabay raises the question of why some were afforded the grace of suicide’s medicalization when others were not.

Though Enlightenment thinkers had established greater links between (temporary) madness and suicide, not everyone could lay claims on such explanations. Women were usually excluded from such explanations, ironically, due to the perception their physical/corporeal weakness made them more susceptible to chronic mental hysteria.[14] And, though seemingly inconsistent, this susceptibility frequently prevented investigators from attributing such deaths to temporary mental incapacity. Similarly, according to some French doctors, South Asians were “nearly all weak and feminized.”[15] These sentiments extended to men like Canagesabay, linking their status as a racialized-other with established beliefs of female predisposition to physical weaknesses.[16] When confronted with the death of South Asian others, investigators were predisposed to blame the death on perceived inferiorities associated with the increasingly racialized identities of the deceased.

The officials’ inherent distrust of South Asian residents is further evidenced by the fact that none of the investigators chose to confirm Canagesabay’s chronic illness. This may have stemmed from the fact that South Asians in Pondichéry rarely sought out French medical remedies, and French officials rarely interacted with South Asian medical practitioners. Even at the end of his illness (and as he had likely done previously), Canagesabay sought out a South Asian rather than a European medical practitioner for remedies. Given this divide, Ferrier or others in the French medical marketplace were likely unaware of Canagesabay’s struggle with chronic illness.. Even if the officials had confirmed Canagesabay’s illness with his doctor, there is little reason to believe this information would have changed the results. The French were skeptical about the skills of local practitioners. One traveling doctor noted that “Hindu doctors […] are men without study, science, or any knowledge of anatomy.”[17] The separation between Franco-European and South Asian medical knowledge proved just another barrier to allowing grace towards Canagesabay’s actions.

Circumstances surrounding suspicious death in Pondichéry, given the distance from the metropole, became fresh canvases where investigators painted complex narratives of human motivation.[18] Like all forms of violence, perceptions of and responses to suicide in the eighteenth century were deeply tied to legal, social, and intellectual contexts. Diverse people committed suicide for diverse reasons, even if official investigations shaped subsequent narratives. The medically produced fictions around one corpse might not fit for another. Clearly, both Le Bel and Canagesabay battled chronic illness at the end of their lives. While that struggle might have offered new medicalized explanations for their actions – and have absolved them of responsibility – deeply ingrained social and cultural prejudices profoundly colored their stories and, likely, their families’ grief.


  1. All citations regarding the cadaver of Le Bel can be found in France, Archives Nationales d’Outre-Mer [Hereafter FR, ANOM], INDE, P 029, ff.87-88, Procès-Verbal d’un cadavre trouvé noyé.
  2. FR, ANOM, INDE, P 029, ff.87 : “elle nous avait répondu qu’étant malade depuis dix mois d’un abcès au poumon, ce que nous avait confirmé a dit Sr. Ferrier.”
  3. FR, ANOM, INDE, P 029, ff.87 : “[il] aurait déclaré que sa maladie lui aurait pu causer un transport au cerveau, lui étant déjà arrivé plusieurs fois pendant sa maladie […]”
  4. FR, ANOM, INDE, P 029, ff.123-124, Procès-Verbal d’un cadavre trouvé pendu.
  5. FR, ANOM, INDE, P 029, ff.123 : “ils ont dit que ledit Canagasaby était malade depuis environs quatre ans d’un malade ventre lequel était devenu très cruel depuis un an […]”
  6. FR, ANOM, INDE, P 029, ff.123 : “ […] manger depuis environ un mois que du lait et du sucre.”
  7. FR, ANOM, INDE, P 029, ff.123-124 : “qu’il y a environ six mois que ledit Canagesabay se voulu jeter dans une rue de sa maison […] ”
  8. Jeffrey R. Watt, ed., From Sin to Insanity: Suicide in Early Modern Europe (Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press, 2004), 6.
  9. For an expansive introduction, see Kevin Siena, “Suicide as an Illness Strategy in the Long Eighteenth Century,” in Histories of Suicide: International Perspectives on Self-Destruction in the Modern World, ed. John Weaver and David Wright, (University of Toronto Press, 2009), 53–72.
  10. “transport,” in Le Dictionnaire des arts et des sciences. tome 2, (Paris,1694), 513.
  11. Laurie M Wood, “Recovering the Debris of Fortunes between France and Its Colonies in the 18th Century,” Journal of Social History 51, no. 4 (June 1, 2018): 808–36.
  12. FR, ANOM, INDE, P 029 ff.89 : “Quittance de Le Bel
  13. FR, ANOM, INDE, P 029, ff. 124 : “nous ordonnons que le corps mort dudit Canagesabay sera pendu par les pieds de même arbre ou il s’est pendu, et y restera exposé jusques au soleil coucher après quoi il sera jeté à la voirie…”
  14. See Evelyne Berriot-Salvador, “The Discourse of Medicine and Science” in Natalie Zemon Davis et al., A History of Women in the West, Vol 3: Renaissance and Enlightenment Paradoxes, (Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1992), 348-388.
  15. Bibliothèque de l’Académie nationale de médecine, La Société Royale de Médecine, Carton 182, Dossier 4.
  16. Aristotle’s climate-based somatic theory, which equated negative effeminate characteristics with non-white bodies, was increasingly popular among Enlightenment thinkers including Montesquieu, Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks, Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe, fourth edition., New Approaches to European History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019), 47-50.
  17. Mr. D.L.F “Traité des Maladies Particulières aux Pays orientaux et dans la Route et de leurs Remèdes” in Luillier, Nouveau Voyage aux Grandes Indes avec une instruction pour le Commerce des Indes Orientales. (Paris, 1726), 213: “Les médecins gentils […] sont gens sans étude, sans sciences & sans aucune lumière de l’anatomie […]”
  18. Le Bel and Canagesabay are hardly alone in this story, as the notarial and criminal records of Pondichéry contain numerous more cadaver reports–some suspicious, some not.

Featured image caption: By the end of the 1700s, suicide had become romanticized in the French imagination (Courtesy Jeune Suicidée, Jean-Baptiste Palliere, 1792, Bibliothèque municipal de Bordeaux)

Jakob Burnham is a PhD candidate at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. His dissertation, “Producing Pondichéry: Notaries, Social Lives, and Urban Development in French India, 1699-1757,” examines the history of French settlements on the Indian subcontinent. By analyzing the social practices of daily life in French India using archives in France, England, India, the US, and Réunion, he argues for the centrality of domestic economies to French colonization across the Indian Ocean. While Writer-in-residence, he will continue to explore how these same archives can uncover dynamic questions about the histories of race, gender, and medicine in the eighteenth-century Indian Ocean World.