Hugh Miller and the Mystery of His Death

His death provokes more discussions than his life.

Some blamed his mother, who told him stories about frightening Gaelic spirits. Some suggested he could not deal with the apparent contradictions between his faith and his geological studies. Interestingly, this second theory is still strong today. Yet, its proponents don’t know Hugh Miller. He was never afraid of the truth, nor of the questions and challenges that led to its discovery.


On December 30, 1856, thousands of people followed Hugh Miller’s coffin to the Grange cemetery in Edinburgh, Scotland. He was dearly loved and respected, particularly for his thought-provoking writings on a wide variety of subjects. As an editor of Miller’s memoirs aptly said, “In choosing him, readers were choosing a friend.”[1]

        A question meandered through the crowd, “Why?”

        On Christmas Eve, after reading some poems to his children and sending them to bed, Miller wrote a suicide note to his wife Lydia and shot a bullet through his chest, muffling the sound. Lydia discovered the body the next morning.

        “Dearest Lydia,” he wrote, “I must have walked, and a fearful dream rises upon me. I cannot bear the horrible thought. God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me.”[2]

Searching for Reasons

        Speculations about Miller’s reasons immediately rose. Upon request of his pastor, physicians conducted an examination of his brain, which showed a “diseased appearance.” The final judgment was that the suicide had been committed “under the impulse of insanity.”[3]

        He had not been well for a while. He had complained to his doctor that his brain was “giving way,” and had reported terrible nightmares that left him “trembling all over, and quite confused.” He had also reported sharp pains, like “an electric shock,”[4] passing through his brain and leaving a burning sensation on top of his head. Because of these physical symptoms and the visible appearance of a “diseased brain,” some have suggested a brain tumor. Whatever it was, it was fairly sudden and unpredicted. As most illnesses of the brain, it was also largely unexplainable.

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