by Sarah Lirley McCune, PhD
In late-nineteenth-century St. Louis, white, middle-to-upper-class, college-educated men conducted death investigations to determine how and why someone came to an unexpected or suspicious death. A similar practice was carried out in many other American cities. Although they had professional training as physicians and followed statutes regarding the Office of the Coroner, these men carried with them assumptions about race, class, and gender. How, then, can the records they left behind de-center whiteness and highlight the intersections of race, class, and gender? Because coroners interviewed witnesses to render their verdicts—often poor-to-working class men and women, immigrants, prostitutes, people with addictions, and others whom society deemed “other.”1 Women, African Americans, and immigrants who were not yet citizens could not serve as coroners, but their testimony helped determine a coroner’s decision—that a friend, neighbor, or loved one died from suicide, homicide, accident, or a natural death. Their statements mattered historically and still matter because they offer a rare glimpse into the lives of people who often did not leave behind written records.
The Office of the Coroner in St. Louis operated much like other coroner’s offices in major cities across the country. While Missouri law mandated only that a coroner be a law-abiding white male citizen, St. Louis elected physicians to this office, far surpassing the state requirements. St. Louis voters elected the city’s coroner every two years, although several served multiple terms, sometimes consecutively. Coroners went to scenes of unattended or suspicious deaths, viewed the bodies, investigated the scene of death, and interviewed witnesses. Witnesses included relatives, friends, treating physicians, and literal witnesses to these deaths. Coroners were assisted by deputy coroners who often did not have the same kind of training that their supervisors did. Some were physicians, some were attorneys, and others worked in unrelated professions before their appointments.2 While some states moved to a medical examiner system in the nineteenth century to ensure that those who investigated deaths were trained professionals, this shift happened slowly. Despite calls for a medical examiner system in Missouri in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, St. Louis maintained the coroner’s office until the 1970s.3
St. Louis coroners based their investigations and verdicts on several factors: whether or not they had family members to testify, whether or not they believed that someone else could be responsible for a death, and the reputation of the deceased. For example, when looking at verdicts of suicide, coroners decided that some men and women were insane or temporarily insane when they died by suicide. Mothers frequently received such verdicts. Women who worked as prostitutes did not. Coroners’ verdicts offer insight into the belief systems and practices of coroners, but also those of the witnesses they interviewed. Witnesses told coroners that men and women were “respectable” or “rough,” whether they drank or used morphine, and whether they had threatened to die by suicide. Members of a community contributed a great deal to coroners’ investigations and verdicts.
Take, for example, the inquest into the death of Catharina Lielich, a German-born woman who died by suicide on June 13, 1880. On the evening of her death, Lielich tucked her six-year-old son, Gottlieb, into bed and waited for him to fall asleep. She then went into her backyard, ripped loose several boards that covered a well, and threw herself in. Her son woke a neighbor at 4:30 the next morning by crying for his missing mother. Gottlieb told the neighbor that he heard a splash of water at some point during the night, which led police to search the twenty-three-foot deep well. They found Catharina’s body at the bottom.4
The inquest into Catharina Lielich’s death reveals far more than the facts surrounding her death. The neighbor who called the police, Edward Jacobsen, gave Coroner Hugo Auler a great deal of personal information. He told the coroner that she felt distraught about her abusive husband the day of her suicide. Her husband, Henry, was away with the couple’s oldest son, Conrad, harvesting crops in Illinois to support the struggling family. Catharina was upset because Henry “always treated her bad and took away all the money that she earned, leaving nothing for her to live on.”5 She drank beer most of the day of her death and complained to her neighbor about her troubles. Jacobsen testified that it was unlike Catharina to drink at all, much less a great deal throughout the day.6
Coroner Auler interviewed other witnesses, even though Jacobsen’s testimony was probably enough to establish that Lielich had died by suicide. Coroners often interviewed between two and five witnesses to understand the circumstances surrounding a death as well as its cause. Auler recorded Lizzie Lielich’s testimony first in his inquest, which was typical since Lizzie was Catharina’s next-of-kin: her daughter. Lizzie no longer lived with her parents, as she worked as a domestic servant nearby. She told Coroner Auler that her mother had told her that she would take her own life because her husband, Lizzie’s father, “ill-treated her, often striking her, and going after her with a knife.” Lizzie insisted that her father was kind to her mother when he was sober. She did not tell the coroner how often he was sober, however.7
Other witnesses were friends and they corroborated the testimony of Catharina’s neighbor and daughter. They told the coroner that she was “a nice, respectable woman” and that while “she was not a hard drinker, her husband was.” In addition to providing information about the circumstances surrounding Catharina’s death, they provided information about her age, place of birth, and children.
After hearing the testimony of Catharina’s friends, neighbors, and daughter, Coroner Hugo Auler rendered a verdict of suicide by drowning, but added: “Also that ill treatment by her husband was the cause which drove her to the act.”8 The addition is significant. In most cases, coroners simply wrote “suicide” or that someone acted “with the intention to take his/her life,” without any explanation. Auler likely sympathized with Catharina, however, given that she was described as a kind woman, she was a mother, and she was evidently a victim of domestic violence. His sympathy is further evidenced by the fact that he made no mention of her drinking. In many cases, coroners added “while intoxicated” to deaths that occurred when someone had been drinking, as Catharina had been.
The inquest into the death of Catharina Lielich provides a great deal of information that can be useful for radical death studies. She was a poor immigrant, a mother, someone who likely experienced domestic violence—all topics that are often difficult for historians to study because of a lack of sources. Her daughter worked as a domestic servant. Her husband and son traveled to work the harvest. Her husband was possibly an alcoholic. Her neighbors described their residences and occupations—all rich opportunities for social historians, particularly those who are interested in race, class, and gender.
And whatever happened to Catharina’s family? Her inquest provides enough information to discover that as well. Her husband, Henry, died of a sunstroke in 1897. Her oldest son, Conrad, married three times and was widowed in 1920. But it is her youngest son that had the most tragic ending. In 1928, Gottlieb walked into the basement of his estranged wife’s home and shot her. He then shot himself. He died by suicide (after committing a murder) nearly fifty years after his mother died by suicide. Gottlieb’s case provides an opportunity to study violence and suicide in families—perhaps an interdisciplinary study.9
Coroner’s inquests are often avoided by American historians because they are sporadic—containing records of only a few years or perhaps decades at a time for a given city. In St. Louis, there are inquests for 1840 to 1900, but the records really do not begin to be rich in numbers and content until the 1870s. And yet there are tens of thousands of records. Other cities have similar overlooked records. Many have stories like Lielich’s with information that can lead to other sources: military records, the census, newspaper stories, immigration records, asylum records, prison records, court cases, and sometimes even paper collections. Coroners investigated the deaths of people from all walks of life, including many people who left behind few or no written records. By finding their stories and doing our best to tell them as accurately as possible, historians can radicalize death studies and social history.
Historian Stephen Berry has an excellent website that illustrates just how fruitful and exciting coroner’s inquests can be: https://csidixie.org/
Want to research coroner’s inquests and radicalize death studies? Here is a database to get started. Other cities have similar databases: Index for Coroner’s Inquests from St. Louis as well as other cities and counties in Missouri: https://s1.sos.mo.gov/records/archives/archivesdb/coroners/
1. The term “prostitute” will be used throughout this essay because it is the historical term for the occupation that we today call “sex worker.”
2. Information regarding coroners and their deputies was found using census data, death certificates, and city directories, which listed few as physicians by trade. U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1850, 1860, 1870, 1880, 1890, 1900, 1910, 1920; Missouri Death Certificates, Missouri State Archives, Jefferson City, Missouri, accessed online: http://www.sos.mo.gov/archives/resources/deathcertificates/default.asp [accessed July 2011].
3. Oscar T. Schultz and E.M. Morgan, “The Coroner and the Medical Examiner,” in Bulletin of the National Research Council Nos. 64-66 (Washington, D.C.: July, 1928): 24; Herbert S Breyfogle, “The Laws of Missouri Relating to Inquests and Coroners,” Missouri Law Review 10 (1945), 38-39, 43; McIlroy, Jr., 221; Leisure, Baxter, 2015. Interview by the author. St. Louis, Missouri, August 13, 2015.
4. Catherina Lielich Inquest, June 14, 1880, Case No. 2077, Folder 28, Box 22 (Missouri State Archives microfilm roll C31280), St. Louis City Office of the Coroner—Inquests 1845-1900, Missouri State Archives, Jefferson City, Missouri; “Suicide of the Mother of a Family, Caused by Poverty and Hunger,” St. Louis Daily Globe-Democrat, Tuesday Morning, June 15, 1880, 4.
5. Lielich inquest.
6. Ibid; “Suicide of the Mother of a Family, Caused by Poverty and Hunger,” St. Louis Daily Globe-Democrat, Tuesday Morning, June 15, 1880, 4.
7. Lielich inquest.
9. “Man Dies by Own Hand After Killing Estranged Wife,” St. Louis Daily Globe-Democrat, Tuesday Morning, July 10, 1928, 3; “Man Kills Wife, Shoots Her Son, Tries to End Life,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Monday, July 9, 1928, 1; Gottlieb is a lodger in 1910 and listed as divorced in the 1920 census. Ancestry.com. 1910 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2006 [accessed December 10, 2014]; Ancestry.com. 1920 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2010. Images reproduced by FamilySearch [accessed December 10, 2014]; St. Louis Genealogical Society, comp., St. Louis City Death Records, 1850-1902 [database on-line], Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2001 [accessed December 5, 2014].