What Killed Chick Stahl?

”Boys, I couldn’t help it. It drove me to it.”

Those were the last words of Chick Stahl, a 34-year-old ballplayer who killed himself in 1907 by drinking carbolic acid. I wrote an article about Stahl and his problems for Elysian Fields Quarterly, published in the spring of 2003. Baseball historians have suggested four possible “causes” or reasons for his suicide: general melancholy; the pressures of managing (Stahl had agreed to manage as well as play for the Boston Pilgrims); blackmail, supposedly by a woman pregnant with Stahl’s child (Stahl was known to be a womanizer); and drug addiction (considered the least plausible).

It wasn’t until after the piece was published that another possibility took hold of me—that Chick Stahl was gay—that he took his own life after years of living in secret anguish. Six factors lead me to believe homosexuality may have been the root of his troubles.

(1) A New York Times story lodged the idea in my mind: On March 30, 1907—two days after Stahl killed himself—David P. Murphy also killed himself by drinking carbolic acid. “It is believed,” reported the Times, “the suicide of ‘Chick’ Stahl, who was an intimate friend of Murphy, had some effect in giving a suicidal impulse to Murphy’s mind. Murphy left a note saying: ‘Bury me next to Chick.’ “

Friendship can be profound, but for someone to take his own life because a friend killed himself strikes me as unlikely. Such an act—Shakespearean in its tragedy—is more likely to be carried out by a lover. Given Murphy’s suicide note, this is even more plausible.

(2) Chick was a devout Catholic, who, if possible, “never missed mass.” One of the gravest sins in nearly all religions is homosexuality, and the Catholic Church (the current Pope’s view notwithstanding) is second to none in its anathema toward it. Were he gay, a devout Catholic would certainly suffer extreme guilt feelings.

(3) Many psychologists and therapists believe that excessive womanizing by a man can be a sub-conscious attempt to suppress latent homosexuality—a denial of his gayness by “proving” his heterosexuality. Some even marry to prove they’re “normal.” Stahl was a renowned skirt-chaser who married a woman he met in church.

(4) Reports that Stahl killed himself because of blackmail were never proved. And even if a woman carrying his child did blackmail him, it would not remove homosexuality as the ultimate reason for his suicide. Indeed, Stahl’s affair with the woman would support number three above.

(5) Statements from Stahl’s childhood friends testifies to his lifelong sadness. According to the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, one friend said, “Chick talked about killing himself several times . . . . “ The newspaper reported that to his friends Stahl had a sort of “half repressed melancholy,” and he had “periods of mental depression” and “used to talk about taking his own life.”

Today, thanks to considerable social progress, we’ve become aware of the inner turmoil suffered by young homosexuals. There are agencies that gays can turn to for help. Even so, some gay youths still commit suicide. Imagine what it was like a hundred years ago when there were no such groups, when a gay child had to deal with his troubles alone. Chick Stahl may have been one of them—confused and isolated with his secret. Unable to hide it, he appeared to his boyhood friends as chronically depressed.

(6) “Boys, I couldn’t help it. It drove me to it.” As Chick lie writhing in agony before his teammates, why would he use the word “it” as the thing that drove him to suicide? The reason is alluded to in number five above. Homosexuality at the turn of the 20th century was not only a grave religious sin warranting eternal hellfire. It was a social sin of such depravity that it had to be kept absolutely secret—so utterly taboo that it became unspeakable—the love without a name.

I wrote the above addendum several years ago and stuck it into the EFQ issue containing the article. Why it took me over a decade to present the theory that Stahl was gay I don’t know. But I believe it’s at least as plausible as the other theories.

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