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The strange and disturbing suicide of Tom Schweich

As a former resident of the St. Louis, Missouri, area (from the late 1970s to the early 1990s), the news that Republican state auditor and candidate for governor Tom Schweich shot himself to death on Thursday was mysterious and disturbing.

Learning about some of the events preceding the suicide perhaps made it slightly less mysterious but vastly more disturbing.

Schweich had earlier confided in [St. Louis] Post-Dispatch Editorial Page Editor Tony Messenger that he believed that [Missouri Republican party Chairman John] Hancock had deliberately spread disinformation about Schweich’s religion. That topic was what Schweich wanted to discuss with reporters for the Post-Dispatch and the Associated Press Thursday.

In several conversations via text and phone, Schweich told Messenger that Hancock mentioned to people in passing that Schweich was Jewish. Schweich wasn’t Jewish. He was a member of the Church of St. Michael & St. George, an Episcopal congregation in Clayton.

Schweich told Messenger he believed the mentions of his faith heritage were intended to harm him politically in a gubernatorial primary in which many Republican voters are evangelical Christians. He said his grandfather was Jewish, and that he was “very proud of his connection to the Jewish faith.”

Hancock hasn’t denied that he may have mentioned to people his mistaken belief that Schweich was Jewish, but he has adamantly denied it was intended as a smear. He reiterated that position in his email to [Republican] committee members Friday.

“I would like to set the record straight, once and for all,” Hancock wrote. “Until recently, I mistakenly believed that Tom Schweich was Jewish, but it was simply a part of what I believed to be his biography—no different than the fact that he was from St. Louis and had graduated from Harvard Law School.

“While I do not recall doing so, it is possible that I mentioned Tom’s faith in passing during one of the many conversations I have each day. There was absolutely nothing malicious about my intent, and I certainly was not attempting to `inject religion’ into the governor’s race, as some have suggested.”

Of course it’s possible there were other things going on Schweich’s life that led to his suicide. And even if Hancock did try to spread the word that Schweich was Jewish, he may be an asshole, but he can’t be blamed for the death. You can read here what Messenger wrote about his relationship with Schweich, and listen to the phone message Schweich left for him shortly before he shot himself.

I have many good memories of my years in Missouri, but the politics of the state have shifted sharply to the Right since I lived there. In 1978, an anti-union “right to work” amendment on the state ballot was defeated with 60 percent of the vote. Now the only thing preventing Missouri from becoming a “right to work” state is a veto by the Democratic governor of a bill passed by the Republican-controlled legislature.

In 1982 Harriett Woods, an unapologetically liberal Jewish woman, ran as a Democrat for the US Senate against Republican incumbent John Danforth and almost beat him. Two years later she ran for lieutenant governor and won. In 1986 she lost another close race for US Senate.

It seems some things have changed in Missouri since I lived there. And not for the better.