Where’d you go, Alexander? Finding death in the archives

Where'd You Go, Alexander_

TW: suicide

I encountered Alexander Duncan in the spring of 2016. Reading through the business correspondence of James Murray, a Scottish merchant who settled in Wilmington, North Carolina in the early 1730s, I found Murray’s connection with Duncan, another Scottish merchant in the port town. By the 1760s, James Murray had relocated to Boston where his sister, Elizabeth Murray, ran a shop. He still kept up his business interests in the Lower Cape Fear, particularly with his Scottish friends and family.

After reading several letters between Murray and Duncan–a “methodical and successful merchant”–about the sale of deerskins and naval stores, it was quite a shock to read of the “melancholy fate” of Duncan. In 1768, Alexander Duncan died and left behind a set of bewildered friends. Murray only wrote of it as a “rash act” which he guessed to have been brought on by “one of his peevish fits stimulated by the fame & pleasures of making a good many people happy with what he found wold or Could not make him happy.”[1] I wondered if Duncan’s death had been a suicide. Alexander Duncan left behind a will, written in May 1767, but I still wanted answers.

Years before I ever considered studying history as a profession, I loved reading mystery novels. Nancy Drew was a favorite, as were the Bobbsey Twins, and later, Agatha Christie. The simple act of gathering clues to get a better picture of “what really happened” did a lot to shape my love of historical research. (It’s also what led me to almost become a forensic scientist, but that’s another story!) Though not essential to my PhD project, I earmarked the incident with Duncan because it felt like a mystery worth solving.

I spent the summer of 2016 back in North Carolina (with the generous support of the North Caroliniana Society) to work in various archives around the Triangle. One day, as I was wrapping up my work in the State Archives, I decided to take my hunch and run with it. But where could I find out about a potential suicide? I had never looked into this sort of thing before. Were there even coroner’s inquests in eighteenth-century North Carolina? As it turns out, yes.

I dug into the coroner’s inquest records for 1768 in New Hanover County, but with no luck. However, I wasn’t about to give up. After chatting with the awesome archivists at the State Archives, they directed me to the North Carolina Secretary of State’s Coroner’s Inquests records. I thumbed through the file folders, found 1768, and there it was–an inquest into the death of Alexander Duncan!

Alexander Duncan Inquest
Alexander Duncan Inquest, 1768, Secretary of State: Coroner’s Inquest records, State Archives of North Carolina.

It was a solemn blow, however, to read how his friends had labeled him a “lunatic” and described his subsequent suicide on 4 May 1768: “The said Alex Duncan being a lunatic and non compos mentis [not sane or in one’s right mind] died in his own room with a Pistol in his hand voluntarily & feloniously shoot himself through the Brains which was the immediate cause of death.”[2] No other explanation was given by the fourteen men.

What did I learn by following up on this mystery? I found this to be a good lesson in persistence, asking for help, and following your instincts. It turns out that I didn’t really know where to look for this kind of information, not until I started asking the archivists what they might know. Get talking with the archives staff on your next research trip. You never know what you might find!

[1] James Murray to John Burgwin, 6 July 1768, James Murray Letterbook 1764-1769, James Murray Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston, MA.

[2] Inquest of Alexander Duncan, Folder 1768, Secretary of State: Coroner’s Inquests, 1738-1775, SS.XVIII, State Archives of North Carolina, Raleigh, NC.

3 Replies to “Where’d you go, Alexander? Finding death in the archives”

  1. Well-done Sherlock! Such a great lesson on perseverance and utilizing the knowledge of others (archivists in this case!). I would love to hear the tale of nearly becoming a forensic scientist…or perhaps a playful metaphor on how becoming a historian is a different sort of forensic science in the end? 😉


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