For many of these public suicides, the motive was not out of depression or mental illness but rather to make a very serious statement against a political position. Thich Quang Duc is perhaps the most well known for his public suicide when he, a Buddhist monk set himself ablaze in Saigon and sat silently as he burned to death wehile a crowd – journalists included – stood and watched. But Duc is just one who sacrificed his own life for a political agenda as others like Roman Lakanta, Malachi Ritscher and Ryszard Siwiec performed the same self-immolation in political protest.
Others who chose to end their lives in a very public way were believed to be suffering from personal struggles which led them to a place of desperation and eventually death. Pennsylvania Treasurer Budd Dwyer famously shot himself as television cameras rolled during a press conference he called after his conviction on bribery charges. Dimitris Christoulas felt he had no other option when he committed suicide in Greece after his pension was slashed by the government. Jodon F. Romero was being chased by police in Florida when he chose to end his own life on live national television, care of Fox News.
Whatever the reason or the manner, each of these men and women will always be connected for their choice to commit suicide with the world watching. They may not be the most famous suicide deaths but all occurred with various eyes, sometimes even live television cameras, watching.
Black Lives Matter activist MarShawn McCarrel was just 23 when he shot himself of the steps of the Ohio Statehouse in 2016. No one witnessed his suicide, but McCarrel posted on his Facebook page earlier in the afternoon, saying, “My demons won today. I’m sorry.”
Before his death, McCarrel had worked to help plan the protests after a Missouri cop shot and killed Michael Brown. He also founded youth mentorship program called Pursuing Our Dreams. But his exhausting efforts to build the movement may have ultimately taken a toll on his own mental health. His last Tweet said:
Thich Quang Duc, a Vietnamese Mahayana Buddhist monk, committed public suicide on June 11, 1963, by burning himself to death in the middle of a busy intersection in Saigon. Duc’s self-immolation was to protest the persecution of Buddhists by South Vietnam’s Roman Catholic government as stated in a letter drafted prior to his death.
After gathering a small group of journalists to the area, Duc sat in the meditative lotus position on a small cushion in the middle of the busy street. He was doused with gasoline, spoke a few words, and then struck a match and dropped it on himself. Duc barely moved and did not make a sound as he was engulfed in flames. Malcolm Browne, the Saigon bureau chief for the Associated Press, photographed the suicide, and his work was later named the World Press Photo of the Year.
Robert Budd Dwyer, the 30th Treasurer of Pennsylvania, became embroiled in payroll tax scandal while he was in office in the early 1980s. Dwyer was accused of accepting bribes after allegedly receiving kickbacks from a California firm contracted to investigate the payroll tax inconsistencies. Throughout the whole scandal Dwyer denied the allegations yet was convicted in 1986.
On January 22, 1987, hours before he was to be sentenced for the bribery matter, Dwyer called a public press conference in which he spoke to reporters and live television crews about his situation including his distrust of the justice system and his innocence. Dwyer then pulled a .357 Magnum from an envelope and shot himself in the head as cameras rolled.
Jodon F. Romero
On September 28, 2012, Jodon F. Romero, already wanted for a parole violation, stole a Dodge Caliber at gunpoint in Phoenix, Arizona. He was soon located by local law enforcement offers who followed for a high-speed chase. At one point, Romero fired his gun towards police cars and a police helicopter though no one was hit. He continued to evade police until 75 miles outside of Phoenix he pulled into the desert, stopped the car, pulled out a handgun, and shot himself in the head.
Of the many local and national television news stations that were covering the police chase live, Fox News went as far as airing the suicide on national television, though on a five-second delay. News anchor Shepard Smith immediately apologized for the broadcast as did Fox News Vice President Michael Clemente later.
Romas Kalanta committed one of the most high-profile self-immolation protests in recent history. The high school student from Lithuania occurred on May 14, 1972, in front of the Kaunas Musical Theatre near Laisves Aleja, the same location where the People’s Seimas declared establishment of the Lithuanian SSR in 1940. Kalanta covered himself in gasoline and set himself ablaze, succumbing to his burn injuries some 14 hours later.
His death provoked a number of post-war riots as well as at least 13 other self-immolation suicides. While Soview propaganda described Lakanta as mentally ill, Lithuania saw his suicide as a statement of solidarity and posthumously awarded Kalanta the Order of the Cross of Vytis, an honor for those who heroically defended Lithuania’s freedom and independence, in 2000.
Dimitris Christoulas, a 77-year-old retired pharmacist, committed public suicide by shooting himself in the head at Syntagma Square in Athens, Greece, just outside of parliament, on April 4, 2012. Christoulas, whose last words were “I am not committing suicide, they are killing me,” shot himself in protest of Greek government austerity measures that slashed his pension.
In his suicide note, Christoulas wrote that he’d rather die than scavenge for food. “The occupation government… has literally wiped out my ability to survive, based on a respectable pension which I had paid for during a 35-year period… I find no other solution for a dignified end before I start sifting through garbage to feed myself.”
Christine Chubbuck worked first as television news reporter for ABC 40 WXLT-TV in Sarasota, Florida, before later receiving her own local community affairs talk show, “Suncoast Digest.” Chubbuck was dedicated to the series, often profiling serious issues like alcoholism and drug addiction, even suicide. Chubbuck however also dealt with serious issues of her own including depression and self-depreciation.
On July 15, 1974, Chubbuck opened her show with an odd claim that she was required to read local news to start the program. After reading four news stories, Chubbuck stated, “In keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in blood and guts, and in living color, you are going to see another first—attempted suicide.” She then pulled a revolver and shot herself in the head.
Emily Wilding Davison
Emily Wilding Davison devoted her life to working as a women’s suffrage activist and was widely known for her militant and confrontational, often violent tactics. Many times, she was arrested and imprisoned for her campaigns, which included arson and assault.
On June 4, 1913, Davison attended the Epson Derby in England – though her exact motive for the visit, either for pleasure or protest, are disputed. Just as the stable of horses, including one belonging to King George V, reached her position on the track, Davison stepped out on the course and lunged herself in their path. She was trampled nearly to death in the incident, suffering internal injuries and a fractured skull. She died four days later.
Polish accountant, teacher, father of five, and former Home Army soldier Ryszard Siwiec committed public suicide in Warsaw, Poland. On September 8, 1968, Siwiec set himself on fire at the National Harvest Festival at Dziesięciolecia Stadium. He was in front of a crowd of nearly 100,000 people, including foreign diplomats and local leaders. Though he regained consciousness after the self-immolation, Siwiec died four days later.
Though many claimed that Siwiec battled mental illness, Siwiec wrote of his suicide plans in several statements. Siwiec explained in written and voice statements that his suicide was to make a stance against the the Warsaw Pact invasion and Communist Poland’s participation in it.
Kevin Whitrick, a British electrical engineer, estranged husband, and father of adopted twins, committed public suicide on the Internet. Whitrick spent time in an Internet video chat room on the evening of March 21, 2007. The chat, which had about 60 members at the time of Whitrick’s death, was specifically for those looking to be insulted and insult others.
As chat members watched, Whitrick slung a rope around a joist in his home, stood on a chair and hung himself. While some Internet viewers thought the act was a hoax, some even encouraging Whitrick, others contacted local police who found him dead moments later. Whitrick was 42 years old.
Norman Morrison joined the unfortunate list of those who have committed self-immolation when he committed suicide on November 2, 1965. After leaving his young daughter with a stranger in the crowd outside of the office of Defense Secretary Robert McNamara at the Pentagon, Morrison covered himself in kerosene and set himself on fire.
Morrison, a Baltimore Quaker, wished his death to serve as a statement against the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War. In a letter written to his wife, Morrison stated that his death should be viewed not as “a tragedy not only for his family, but also for me and the country,” but as a an “outcry against the killing that was destroying the lives of so many Vietnamese and American youth.”
Jan Palach, History and political economy student of Charles University in Czechoslovakia, committed public suicide as a political protest. Prior to his death, Palach joined with other university students in making a suicide pact to protest the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Soviet Union. Palach was the first to fulfill that promise.
On January 16, 1969, Palach entered Wenceslas Square in Prague and set himself on fire. He survived briefly, long enough to explain that his actions were not so much in protest of the invasion but of the demoralization of the Czechoslovakian citizens that happened as a result, but later died from his injuries.
Greek geology student Kostas Georgakis, though anonymously, was vocal about his feelings that the military junta’s intelligence service had infiltrated the Greek student movement in Italy. This led to him being attacked by members of the junta student movement.
As a result, in the early morning hours of September 19, 1970, Georgakis visited Matteoti Square where he proceeded to Palazzo Ducale. There, Georgakis set himself on fire and ran around the area shouting statements such as “Long Live Greece,” “Down with the tyrants,” “Down with the fascist colonels,” and “I did it for my Greece” until his death.
Malachi Ritscher, a human rights activist and anti-war protester, enjoyed a successful career as a jazz musician in Chicago, Illinois, before leaving the music industry to travel the world. He also took up protesting with anti-war activists which led to two arrests.
On Friday, November 3, 2006, Ritscher visited a place on the side of the Kennedy Expressway near downtown Chicago and set himself on fire as the morning rush hour traffic watched. Though much of the local media declined to report on the act, his family vowed that Ritscher took his own life to protest the American involvement in the Iraq war.