Malachi Ritscher envisioned his death as one full of purpose.
He carefully planned the details, mailed a copy of his apartment key to a friend, created to-do lists for his family. On his Web site, the 52-year-old experimental musician who’d fought with depression even penned his obituary.
At 6:30 a.m. on Nov. 3 — four days before an election caused a seismic shift in Washington politics — Ritscher, a frequent anti-war protester, stood by an off-ramp in downtown Chicago near a statue of a giant flame, set up a video camera, doused himself with gasoline and lit himself on fire.
Aglow for the crush of morning commuters, his flaming body was supposed to be a call to the nation, a symbol of his rage and discontent with the U.S. war in Iraq.
“Here is the statement I want to make: if I am required to pay for your barbaric war, I choose not to live in your world. I refuse to finance the mass murder of innocent civilians, who did nothing to threaten our country,” he wrote in his suicide note. “... If one death can atone for anything, in any small way, to say to the world: I apologize for what we have done to you, I am ashamed for the mayhem and turmoil caused by my country.”
There was only one problem: No one was listening.
It took five days for the Cook County medical examiner to identify the charred-beyond-recognition corpse. Meanwhile, Ritscher’s suicide went largely unnoticed. It wasn’t until a reporter for an alternative weekly, the Chicago Reader, pieced the facts together that word began to spread.
Soon, tributes — and questions — poured in to the paper’s blogs.
Martyr or man consumed by mental illness?
Was this a man consumed by mental illness? Or was Ritscher a martyr driven by rage over what he saw as an unjust war? Was he a convenient symbol for an anti-war movement or was there more to his message?
“This man killed himself in such a painful way, specifically to get our attention on these things,” said Jennifer Diaz, a 28-year-old graduate student who never met him but has been researching his life. Now, she is organizing protests and vigils in his name. “I’m not going to sit by and I can’t sit by and let this go unheard.”
Mental health experts say virtually no suicides occur without some kind of a diagnosable mental illness. But Ritscher’s family disagrees about whether he had severe mental problems.
In a statement, Ritscher’s parents and siblings called him an intellectually gifted man who suffered from bouts of depression. They stopped short of saying he’d ever received a clinical diagnosis of mental illness.
“He believed in his actions, however extreme they were,” his younger brother, Paul Ritscher, wrote online. “He believed they could help to open eyes, ears and hearts and to show everyone that a single man’s actions, by taking such extreme personal responsibility, can perhaps affect change in the world.”
His son, who shares the same name as his father, said his father was trying to cope with mental illness. Suicide seemed to be the next step, and the war was a way to give his death meaning.
“He was different people at different instances and so, so erratic. I loved him no doubt, but he was a very lonely and tragic man,” said Ritscher, 35, who is estranged from the rest of the family. “The idea of being a martyr I’m sure was attractive. He could literally go out in a blaze of glory.”
Born in Dickinson, N.D., with the name Mark David, Ritscher dropped out of high school, married at 17 and divorced 10 years later. Eventually, he would change his name to match his son’s and, coincidentally, a world-famous prophet. At the end, he worked in building maintenance and was a fixture in Chicago’s experimental music scene.
He described himself as a renaissance man who’d amassed a collection of more than 2,000 musical recordings from clubs in Chicago. He was a writer, philosopher and photographer. He was an alcoholic who collected fossils, glass eyes, light bulbs and snare drums. He paid $25 to become an ordained minister with the Missionaries of the New Truth and operated a handful of Web sites protesting the Iraq war.
A member of Mensa who claimed to be able to recite the infinite number Pi to more than 1,000 decimal places, he titled his obituary “Out of Time.” Friends, who seemed surprised about his death, found themselves searching for answers. Ritscher’s death became even more enigmatic than his life.
'Too hard for them'
Perhaps the most famous self-immolation occurred in 1963, when Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc burned himself at a Saigon intersection in protest against the south Vietnamese regime. Another activist, Kathy Change, lit fire to herself in 1996 at the University of Pennsylvania to protest the government and the country’s economic system.
Ritscher’s death brought back memories for Anita King, a 48-year-old artist from West Philadelphia who was Change’s best friend.
“I think both of them, they just felt like their death could be the last drop of blood shed,” King said. “It was too hard for them. They had too much of a conscious connection to the struggle to go on in their lives.”
In the end, only Ritscher knew the motivations for his suicide. There is little doubt, though, that he was satisfied with his choice.
“Without fear I go now to God,” Ritscher wrote in the last sentence of his suicide note. “Your future is what you will choose today.”