Census worker hanging may have been suicide

It was too easy to fit Bill Sparkman's death into a storyline we already knew


Gabriel Winant
November 6, 2009 9:45PM (UTC)

When news broke in September of the apparent violent death of a Kentucky census worker, it raised some red flags. In addition to being horrifying and gruesome on its own merits, the case seemed to point toward the dangerous side of extreme anti-government sentiment. The census, after all, has been singled out on the right as a threat to liberty, and the worker who was found hanged in a forest reportedly had the word “fed” written on his chest. Nobody wanted to jump to conclusions, but frankly, it seemed open-and-shut.

Well, now the AP has a report that’s a reminder against making those kinds of assumptions. Apparently, investigators are doubtful that Bill Sparkman was killed because of his job, and instead have begun to suspect that it was a suicide.

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Apparently, Sparkman’s body showed no signs of struggle, and his hands were bound in a way that would have left him able to manipulate a rope. Still, his son, his colleague and the man who found his body all believe that he was killed, based on what they saw of him before and after his death.

It’s all quite disturbing, and obviously does have some potential political implications. Many on the left have spent the year sizing up the resurgent far-right to determine just how worried they ought to be. The death of Sparkman seemed like another entry, and a tragic one, in the “be afraid” category.

Today’s AP story doesn’t necessarily refute the broad trend (or even the specific theory about Sparkman), but it’s still a good corrective. Sometimes we really don’t know the details, and should have the humility about these things. It's a particularly useful lesson in light of how many have responded to yesterday's shootings at Fort Hood.

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Gabriel Winant

Gabriel Winant is a graduate student in American history at Yale.

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