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J.E. Lighter, Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang (1994) provides this entry for "Dutch act":

Dutch act n. Und[erworld] suicide.—constr[ued] with the. [Earliest cited occurrences:] 1902 Hapgood Autobiog. of Thief 112 {ref. to ca 1890} A week later Del was found dead in his cell, and I believe he did the Dutch act (suicide). 1911 A.H. Lewis Apaches of N[ew] Y[ork] 31: Spanish...did not croak Dribben and Blum and do the Dutch Act for himself. 1922 In the Clutch of Circumstance 235: He was a "lifer," and not being able to endure the system longer he did the "Dutch act" in order to shorten his sentence.

The Hapgood reference is to Hutchins Hapgood, The Autobiography of a Thief (1903):

A week later [after his arrest] Del was found dead in his cell, and I believe he did the Dutch act (suicide), for I remember one day, months before that fatal night, Dal and I were sitting in a politician's saloon, when he said to me:

"Jim, do you believe in heaven?"

"No," said I.

"Do you believe in hell?" he asked.

"No," said I.

"I've got a mind to find out," he said quickly, and pointed a big revolver at his teeth. One of the guns in the saloon said: "Let him try it," but I knocked the pistol away, for something in his manner made me think seriously he would shoot.

The part of Autobiography of a Thief containing this vignette appears in the September 1902 issue of Frank Leslie's Popular Monthly, justifying the 1902 date in given Lighter. This instance certainly suggests criminal underworld use of the slang term. But why the connection between suicide and anything "Dutch"? Is this simply an anti-Dutch or anti-German ethnic slur? How far back in the print record does "the Dutch act" go, and in what context did it first appear? And finally, what antecedents, if any, did the expression have?

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The earliest instance I've been able to find of the expression used in the relevant sense is from "Did the Dutch Act: A Newark Newsboy Kills himself from Fear of Arrest for Stealing Papers," in the [New York] Sun (February 7, 1893):

"Monk Fisher did the Dutch act," was the word which was passed around among the newsboys at the corner of Broad and Market streets, Newark, early yesterday afternoon., but few of the boys were willing to believe the story until they saw it verified in the afternoon papers. ... ...He was found dead in bed at noon and County Physician Elliott, who was called in, said that he the lad had taken a dose of Paris green.

The next occurrence I've found is again from the New York Sun, but almost six years later. From "Sinkers Has Typhoid Ammonia: Doesn't Like the Milk Diet and Thinks Lena Was After the Insurance, Maybe," in the [New York] Sun (December 26, 1898):

"Oi niver had it [namely, "typhoid ammonia," according to Sinkers, who is evidently a German immigrant] in me life," said Reilly.

"Den happier you should be as vhen ten million dollars you had," remarked Sinkers. "For my part, I vould not ketch it again for all der beer in Wallenweber's saloon. Ach my, how you get such pains! Such a headache in your head! Such a stomache in your stomach from hungryness, und varmness too varm to be varmer. ... Den you get vorser medicine like Paris greens und such tings like dot. Vhen he gives me carbolics to drink I believed to myself dot Lena vanted der life insurance money. But I got better, so I tink dem doctors first squeezed der poison out of der carbolics: vhat?"

"No." answered Reilly. "Carbolic acid is a regular Dutch drug. Whinniver anny one wants ter do th' Dutch act—commit suicide—they just drink carbolic, which is the standard Dutch pisen."

And from "Five Cards Told the Story: A Suicide's Sufficient Explanation of the Final Act of His Life," in the [New York] Sun (February 5, 1899), reprinted from the Washington [D.C.] Post:

I was dealing a game out of the box in Kansas City back in '84 when a man killed himself in the upstairs part of the establishment," said a man with short gray hair and a pair of piercing eyes. "I was the first man upstairs after the shot was fired, and when I looked the man over I remembered him as a young chap of rather dissolute habits who had struck Kansas City with apparently plenty of money only a few weeks before. There were five or six four-handed poker games running in the room. I asked the three men—cattlemen from Kansas, they were—what had ailed their table mate. The passed it up.

"'He just hauls out his gun sudden and does the Dutch act," said one of them. 'Maybe he was a hard loser.' I believe we were into him for a few hundred.'

This last item presents recollected use of the expression in 1884 in Kansas City—but I have found no similar instances from that part of the country prior to the date of this story (which was reprinted in a number of newspapers from New York to Los Angeles. Consequently, I suspect that this claimed instance is anachronistic and either misremembered or misrepresented.


An improbable origin link

The expression "Dutch act" appears fairly frequently in U.S. newspapers starting about 1870 and continuing through the early 1900s, but the term refers to a type of comical variety show act involving actors using Dutch or German accents. For example, from "Variety Halls," in the New York Clipper (April 15, 1871):

At Wild's Opera House, Syracuse N.Y., Miss Millie Turnour in her daring acts upon the trapeze, has been greeted nightly with applause. G.S. Knight and Harry Watson, in their Dutch act, create plenty of mirth. The songs of Penny Archer and Lizzie Sherman are popular and are encored every evening.

And from "Amusements, Etc." in the [San Francisco] Daily Alta California (September 12, 1871):

Alhambra Theatre.—One of the most amusing of all the many good things presented by the Emerson Minstrels is the Dutch act of Sheridan and Mack, the character dancers; it is a gem.

And from "Variety Halls," in the New York Clipper (October 28, 1876):

J.H. Brown has written a Dutch act, containing songs and a dance, entitled "Katrina's Little Game." It has been published by Robert M. De Witt, No. 33 Rose street, in this city.

A Google Books search turns up a copy of "Katrina's Little Game: A Dutch Act, with Songs and a Dance," which turns out to be a an eight-page script for a one-act playlet/farce with four brief songs embedded in it. Although the chief characters are named Katrina and Hans, and the action includes Hans wooing Katrina with a present of sausages, there is very little in the dialogue that depends on the ethnicity of the characters. Rather, the point of framing the piece as "a Dutch act" seems to have been to tap into audience expectations about a genre of mirthful comedic situations that include, either primarily or tangentially, playing off ethnic stereotypes.

Dozens of instances of "Dutch act" in the variety show sense appear in Elephind search results. As late as April 14, 1910, the New York Clipper published this want ad:

CALL—All people engaged with Lowery Brothers New Olympia report at Gilberton, Pa., April 17. Show opens April 19. Can use a few more musicians for No. 2 Band and good, useful people for big show. Must be able to join at once. Wanted, working and cook house people and good single Dutch act for concert. Must be able to do clowning. No R. R. [railroad] fares advanced.

But the only rationale I can see that might form a link between "Dutch act" as a variety show set piece and "Dutch act" as underworld slang term for suicide is the possibility that the slang term represented an intentional distortion of the (at the time) benign show-biz term—an unlikely possibility, in my opinion.


A more likely origin link

Alternatively, the notion of "Dutch act" may be related to two other pejorative terms (or borderline slurs) that include the word Dutch: "Dutch courage" and "do a Dutch."

Lighter defines "Dutch courage" as "false courage instilled by liquor; (hence) liquor." Lighter's reports an earliest occurrence date for the term of 1809, citing Merriam-Webster's Tenth Collegiate Dictionary as authority. MW's source is, in all likelihood, Washington Irving's A History of New York (published in 1809), which mentions at one point, "a little sturdy stone pottle, charged to the muzzle with a double dram of true dutch courage, which the knowing Van Corlear always carried about him by way of replenishing his valour."

However, the following instance appears in "Song, Robin Hood and Little John Forever" reprinted in The Poetical Remains, with Other Detached Pieces, of the Late F[rancis] Gibson, Esq. (1807):

Let the rashness of France with Dutch-courage combine. / While we all pull together, they'll ne'er break our line; / For from their own shoals should those dog-fish once stray, / They'll never reach Whitby we'll keep 'em at Bay. / Derry down.

Gibson died in 1805, so the reference to "Dutch-courage" here is at least that old and probably somewhat older. The same song appears under the title "Kit Codling, The Loyal Fisherman" in T. Meadows, Thespian Gleanings; A Collection of Comic Recitals, Songs, Tales, &c. (1805).

Even earlier is this suggestive instance, from "Dutch Accounts of the Late Battle," The Political Magazine (September 1781):

In another part of the same letter, the writer in the true stile of rhodomontade says, "our Captain showed himself a hero and a lion in the midst of the fire; and the crew were so full of zeal, that it was with great difficulty they were kept from firing, in their fury, into their own vessels." If this story is true, it is very probable the Dutch sailors were drunk. Dutch courage has been long proverbial.

As for "doing a Dutch," Lighter explicitly ties that expression to the slightly later "Dutch act" in citing this instance from Barrere & Leland, A Dictionary of Slang, Jargon & Cant (1889):

Dutch (military) to "do a Dutch" to run away, to desert. Probably an allusion to "Dutch courage."

Lighter goes on to link the desertion sense of "do a Dutch" to "Dutch act":

Dutch n. ... 3. Dutch act. {First three cited occurrences:] {1889 Barrere & Leland Dict. Slang I 341: Dutch ((milit.), to "do a Dutch," to run away, to desert.} 1915 Howard God's Men 391: "Doing the Dutch"—Archie's favorite topic during the past few months. 1943 in Ruhm Detective 361: She did the Dutch after they found him in the river.

The problem here is that I haven't been able to find any nineteenth-century instances (aside from the one in Barrere & Leland) of "do a [or the] Dutch" in the military sense of desertion. So If "do a Dutch is indeed a bridge between "Dutch courage" and "Dutch act," it is a fragile and inconspicuous one.


Conclusions

All in all, the notion that a line of pejorative characterizations of "Dutch" valor, stretching from "Dutch courage" in the late eighteenth century through "do a Dutch" by the late 1880s to "the Dutch act" by the early 1890s seems more plausible than any alternative hypothesis I've been able to identify.

The view expressed in Lighter's Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang that "the Dutch act" originated as "underworld slang" is not unreasonable, but I note that the earliest newspaper instance of the expression (from 1893) involves New York—or rather Newark, New Jersey—newsboy slang, and the next-earliest newspaper instance (from 1898) involves an imagined conversation between stock comic Irish and Dutch (or German) immigrant characters with no hint of an underworld connection. That "the Dutch act" may have been an accepted and perhaps even common phrase in American underworld patois for several decades doesn't conclusively establish that it began there.

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The derogatory usage of the term Dutch, from which a number of different idiomatic expression derive, dates back to the 17th century according to Green’s Dictionary of Slang:

Dutch adj.:

a derog. racial stereotype, meaning stolid, miserly, dour and bad-tempered, and used as such in the combs. below.

  • 1672 [UK] J. Phillips Maronides (1678) VI 17: To come and go, sound as a bell, / And view that hideous place, call’d Hell / [...] / For scarce without thy helping hand, / Would I embark in that Dutch land.
  • 1837–8 [UK] ‘The Dutch Women’s Duffs’ Cuckold’s Nest 30: The women all were Dutch built, we find, / And each had got such a large behind, / Such jolly big rumps were never seen.
  • 1867 [UK] Stirling Obs. 7 Feb. 8/3: My waicht is aboot fyfteen stane, / And my build is what critics ca Dutch.

As for “Dutch act” meaning suicide, GDoS notices that “Dutch route” is an equivalent expression which dates back at least to early 20th century:

Dutch act n. (also Dutch route):

take the Dutch route (v.) (also go the Dutch route) (US prison) to commit suicide.

1909 [US] Morn. Examiner (Ogden, UT) 9 May 8/1: Life in the penitentiary would kill me in a week or ten days and rather than submit to this, I would take the ‘Durtch route’.

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    Interesting answer. I was not aware of the "Dutch route" variant on "Dutch act," but an item in the June 19, 1907 New York Tribune has this: "'Well, seeing you've a family, I guess I won't kill you for their sake,' Combes then said reflectively, 'Guess I'll have to take the Dutch route myself, though, after this.' So he shot himself."
    – Sven Yargs
    Feb 15, 2021 at 18:46
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OED

4. Slang phrases (originally U.S.): (a) in Dutch, in disfavour, disgrace, or trouble; (b) to do a (or the) Dutch (act), to desert, escape, run away; also, to commit suicide.

1904 H. Hapgood Autobiogr. Thief (U.K. ed.) vi. 112 A week later Dal was found dead in his cell, and I believe he did the Dutch act (suicide).

1909 J. R. Ware Passing Eng. Victorian Era 120/2 We did a dutch with everything—even down to the coalhammer.

The OED gives the origin of “Dutch” in this sense: ;

C2. Characteristic of or attributed to the Dutch; often with an opprobrious or derisive application, largely due to the rivalry and enmity between the English and Dutch in the 17th cent. Often with allusion to the drinking habits ascribed to the ‘Dutch’; also to the broad heavy figures attributed to the Netherlanders, or to their flat-bottomed vessels. Sometimes little more than = foreign, un-English.

Dutch foil(imitation gold leaf); Dutch nightingale (a frog); Dutch wife(a bolster pillow) Dutch bargain (made when drunk); Dutch comfort/ consolation (ironic consolation); Double Dutch (gibberish); Dutch concert (more than one tune played at the same time); Dutch auction/auctioneer(where the price starts high); Dutch courage(gained through drink); Dutch defence(betraying friends to save yourself); Dutch palate(tasteless behaviour); Dutch reckoning(vague and approximate details); Dutch uncle(someone who punishes you severely); Dutch widow(prostitute).

  1. With each person paying for his own food, drink, etc.; esp. in to go Dutch (cf. Dutch lunch, feast/supper/dinner/treat, etc., (as in We'll go Dutch)

All of which have some insulting or disadvantageous nuance. The adjective was productive from the 17th century until the 19th century in the UK and early 20th century in the USA. I suspect that it persisted longer in the USA as Dutch settlers brought with them their own culture.

16/02/21: Edit to add

There is a credible and researched answer at "Beerhistory.com" but this does not fit with the timeline of the first recorded written use (thanks Sven Yargs).

THE DUTCH ACT. By Donald Roussin & Kevin Kious

Suicides by prominent St. Louis German-Americans, which included a number of brewers, became so notorious that their affliction became known as the "Dutch Act." The phrase was coined by the St. Louis Police Department who had to investigate all the untimely deaths. Four members of the Lemp family took their own lives. William Lemp Sr. was the first.

Daughter Elsa, son William Lemp Jr. and Charles Lemp also committed suicide. Other suicides notable in St. Louis brewing history include P. H. Nolan, Otto Stifel, and August Busch.

The use of "Dutch" for German was a little old-fashioned but was accepted, the word "Dutch" being a corruption of "Deutsch" (the German of "German")

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  • Thank you for this useful answer. It raises a further puzzle, however: "the Dutch act" seems to have arisen exclusively in the U.S., in the late 19th century, as though by inheritance from broader pejorative usage of "Dutch" in British antecedents. As far as I know, there has never been any direct hostility between the U.S. and the Netherlands, so the prejudicial attitude embedded in "the Dutch act" is at arm's length from any jingoistic propaganda purpose. There has also been in the U.S. (perhaps to a greater extent than in the UK) some confusion between "Dutch" and "German" as ethnicities.
    – Sven Yargs
    Feb 15, 2021 at 19:00

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