Analysis Of Coroner Reports: Life In Cleveland, Ohio 1875-1885
Eric Meany

Cleveland was profoundly affected in the late Nineteenth Century by the Industrial Revolution. By 1885, Cleveland was deeply involved in a transformation from a "small, predominantly Yankee commercial city to a large, multiethnic industrial city." (Wheeler, 1990, p.77) The rapid expansion, brought about by the Industrial Revolution, created a new labor force and urban population. Consequently, the city also experienced a rough, maturation process up to this point in time. The immigrants and transients who came to oil the cogs of the Industrial Machine manufactured new social and economic problems in the city. Industrial expansion and its "darker side" (Wheeler, p77) ultimately accounted for a significant number of deaths in Cleveland between the years, 1875-1885. The city was "booming" during this time span to such a point that, by the year 1877, the basic blueprint for Cleveland and its surrounding community had been well established (Wheeler, p.78). The coroner's reports for Cuyahoga County, between the years 1875-1885, reflect these trends, These primary sources also give one a palpable sense of the culture and society of this time period. The 313 reports and the stories that surround them are a truly valuable historical tool. The coroner reports for Cuyahoga County (1875-1885) document the blood, sweat and tears of progress during the Industrial Revolution and provide us with a unique view of Cleveland during this industrious decade.


It is prudent to note that the following discussion will revolve exclusively around the coroner reports for Cuyahoga County between 1875-1885. These reports generally give the location of the death, the deceased person's description, the cause of death and any accompanying interviews or statements (from police, coroner, jury, etc.) which were deemed appropriate to the case. The cases are numbered in ascending order from #873 (1/12/1875) to #1191 (12/2/1885).

A large number of the deaths during this time period occurred on the railroad tracks of Cleveland and its surrounding areas. The railroads carried the abundant raw materials of the Great Lakes region and "provided the foundation for CSU Library Special CollectionsCleveland's rise as a national industrial center." (Wheeler, p.79) This foundation was built on the bodies of many men (almost never women) who died in the wake of this mammoth rise. Some railroad employees, such as John W. Jones, were crushed linking cars together (#915, 10/30/75) while others, like John Perkins, died as a result of losing their balance (#1011, 11/7/77). Other men, not associated with the railroad companies, were hit while walking on or near the tracks (Charles M. Port, # 1046, 3/8/79).

In addition to the railroad fiascoes, other types of industrial accidents occurred. For example, John Boch (#935, 4/27/76) fell into a tank of boiling acid at the Sullivan Works Plant, while poor Robert Murch (#945, 5/27/76) got caught in the machinery of the Cleveland Rolling Mills resulting in (according to the coroner) fractures to his lower extremities, jaw, and skull. Such unpleasant demises were the darker effects of the Industrial Revolution. Interestingly, a witness in the Murch report specifically points out that Murch was a sober, industrious man. As will often be seen in this discussion, liquor played a significant role in the lives and deaths of many Clevelanders. Some men lived sober lives, like Mr. Murch and Mr. Boch, while others became drunk on the job (#1012, 1/7/77) and may have facilitated their death through their reckless ways. After reviewing these reports it is clear that Cleveland's railroad and industry were in motion and those in its way had better be careful.

In addition to industrial related deaths, disease and health problems claimed a significant number of lives in Cleveland during the years in question. Ed Welch died from a stomach inflammation due to Bright's Disease on 2/18/75 (#876). There were several cases of heart disease including, J.W. Louter (#895, 6/26/75) and Morris Oviatt (#934, 4/19/76). In one case of heart disease the coroner mentioned excessive food and drink as a cause of death leading one to believe that Clevelanders may not have had the healthiest diets. This could possibly have led to health problems like heart disease. Case #970 documented a death due to liver disease while Louis Kroha (#1015) died from typhoid (disease). Some of these deaths could have been to due to liquor abuse as liver ailments and excessive drinking were mentioned sporadically throughout the reports. There was also an ailment called apoplexy (stroke) that was mentioned in case #1107 and elsewhere.

In spite of the presence of all of these diseases it is interesting to note that there was no lung disease mentioned. This leads me to believe that the substances that people were ingesting in their lungs were not cancerous. Incidentally, tobacco was certainly popular during this time period as evidenced by the mentioning of cigars (#957), pipes and chewing tobacco in the reports.

A perennial Cleveland "curse", the ague, was mentioned in the cases of Barbary Adin (#917, 12/7/75) and James Muleaky (#937, 5/4/76). This disease festered in the swampy section of the Cleveland lowlands and was shrouded by mystery and legend during this time period (Wheeler lecture). The ague illustrates the adolescent state of medicine and disease control in the late Nineteenth Century. The breakthroughs of the Twentieth Century were not yet forged and the average American (Clevelander) occasionally suffered as a result. For example, Alexander Humbel suffered head injuries in a saloon on the evening of 4/22/82. He attempted to work the next day but was sent home in agony. Two days later he woke up, had breakfast and keeled over. George Ainger (#1042, 12/23/78) was shot by a jealous man (even though he was innocent of any indecencies) and suffered for a day and a half. He eventually scripted a note in which he wrote "I expect to die in an hour." This unbearable suffering seems barbaric today considering that these men died of flesh wounds. Such was life in The Forest City before the days of 911 (or telephones for that matter). People in dire need of medical assistance usually had to rely on family, neighbors or local shopkeepers. The reports often document people going to one of these people for help with their emergencies. Also of interest, is that in the absence of "traditional" medicines, people improvised and some used homeopathic remedies such as, Mary Jane Burns (#947, 6/7/76) who received a treatment of mustard and water for an illness. Several reports mention similar homeopathic remedies.

These two types of death, industrial related and health related, form the loin's share of casualties during this time period. This trend reflects the hustle and bustle of the burgeoning industrial city and the rustic quality of its medical care and life in general.

The Coroner Reports for Cuyahoga County (1875-1885) provide a unique view of Cleveland's culture and society. This culture and society was deeply influenced by the immigrants who came to Cleveland looking for employment. In 1870 "42% of the city's 92, 829 immigrants were foreign born ... [including]... 15,855 from Germany, 9,964 from Ireland and 4,530 from England" (Wheeler, p.82). The coroner reports bring these figures to life with documentation of immigrants like Barb Adin (#917). She was born in Ireland and moved to Cleveland with her husband and four kids. Her story illustrates the close ties that these immigrants often had with the communities in their mother land. Before she died, Barb's husband had gone back to Ireland in the Spring to "conduct some business ... see family and... get healthy from an illness." These particular immigrants were not abandoned or isolated in America but instead kept in touch with their homeland through friends and relatives. The same can be said of Joseph Boch from Germany (#935) and Samuel Sallows (#1086) from England.

As mentioned earlier, many people were employed by industry during the decade (1875-1885). Laborer was a common occupation for most of the men who worked in these industries and ended up a subject of a coroner report. There were, however, many other occupations that offer insights into this time period. Several peddlers tell their stories in the reports. They spent a lot of time on the streets and could be seen as the eyes and ears of life on the street in Cleveland during this time span. The peddlers accounts prove useful in understanding streetcar or omnibus accidents. Several of the peddlers' appeared to have fairly comfortable lives complete with families and multi-room living quarters. Blacksmiths, butchers and milkmen were also mentioned in the reports. The presence of these occupations exemplified the rustic quality of life mentioned earlier. This quality of life is apparent in report #1052 which describes a group of teenage boys shooting (pistols) down by the docks of the Cuyahoga's East Bank (The Flats). This is no longer a legal activity in the Flats and thank heavens for that! Several people mention purchasing their guns at the corner hardware store. Mary Dubuque (#1036, 10/l/78), the cigar smoking brawler, and the "saloonfly" John Masterson (#1029), who regrettably slurred, "I dare you to kill me!" to a man with a revolver, support this theme of rusticity. Prices in the reports, such as, eggs-25 cents, gun-$4.25 and medicine- 10 cents, indicate a simpler time. The lives of shopkeepers including, saloon, hardware, laundry, pharmacy, pawn and many others were woven into the reports. Their frequent presence in the reports (ex. questioned in a case or assisted a victim) reflects the strong commercial past of Cleveland prior to its industrialization.

The coroner reports depict a relatively fast paced society that was in "perpetual motion". In addition to the railroad related deaths discussed earlier, there are many accounts of accidental deaths involving other forms of transportation. For example, William McCarty died getting on a streetcar (#997, 7/27/77), Eliza Theaubette was struck by an omnibus (#1114, 7/3/82) and an unknown man was knocked around by a mule-driven wagon. Several children were also reported to have been struck by these types of moving vehicles. These deaths reveal an abundance of motion and commotion in downtown Cleveland at this time. This disputes the statement that Cleveland was strictly a "walking city until... 1890..." (Wheeler, p.79). It is interesting to note that although these vehicles move nowhere nearly as fast as today's vehicles, they still caused many of the same transportation and road problems that we have today. These examples reinforce the semi-rigorous pace of society that existed during this decade.

The reports also document other social issues of the time. There is some evidence of child and spousal abuse in the reports. There were several cases of infanticide. In these cases the infants were found in a pail (#879, 3/19/75) or even the Sunday Plain Dealer (#943, 5/18/76). It should be noted that there was not a single case reported of infant mortality due to improper medical care, It could be the case that the ancient mid-wivery tradition was proving efficient for many lower and middle-class Clevelanders.

Suicide occurred at a fairly high rate. Victims took their lives by gun (#1055), razor, rope (hanging-#899) and a variety of other means- One man (#986, 6/13/87) left us a note that read "may God forgive as I forgive... this is terrible." More than one case pointed to unemployment as an impetus for these "terrible" decisions. There were also several drug overdoses in the reports (ex #939morphine). Some of these were accidental but more than one was intentional, according to the coroner's analysis. These suicidal casualties of the Industrial Revolution add a dark veneer to life in Cleveland (1875-1885).

According to the coroner reports, alcohol abuse was rampant and destructive in Cleveland (1875-1885). Liquor ordinances (#993) are frequently mentioned and it appears that the coroner inquests include questions regarding the victims sobriety or lack of it. People attempt to make it clear if the victim was a "sober, industrious man" (#935, #945 and others) or "addicted to drinking" (#946 and others). The number of cases that mention a saloon or drinking is staggering (no pun intended). Alcohol abuse was responsible for railroad accidents, drowning, murders, suicides and other types of deaths, It seems clear that alcohol abuse was probably the biggest social issue in Cleveland during this decade.

Abortion, a hot topic for debate in 1999, was also evident in the coroner reports. When discussing this issue in this context it is important to remember that no welfare or settlement institutions existed for women in Cleveland at that time. One woman (#999) aborted her six month old child by herself in order to leave her abusive husband. She did not appear to be punished in any manner in the report but because the papers were very faded and hard to read (as were several other reports) this can not be stated conclusively. Not all of the women in the reports were forced to carry out the procedure on their own. Another woman, (#1137, 5/24/83) for instance, had her husband's assistance in aborting a two month old baby. One can only imagine the repercussions this would have in our society today. It appears that in this time of rugged independence abortion carried a less intense stigma than it does today. It would be interesting to analyze the views on this topic in America in the 1880's. Judging from the relative lack of paper work on these cases it appears that the government (and society) was not anxious to become too involved with this issue.

After reading the coroner reports for Cuyahoga County (I 875-1885) two characteristics emerge that do not fit neatly into any specific categories. Firstly, these reports seemed to document the lives and deaths of the lower, working classes of society. The people who bore the brunt of the Industrial Revolution. There were few opulent people mentioned in these reports. One reason could be that wealthier people took care of these matters in other more private ways. Still this does not fully account for the absence of the upper-class from these reports.

Secondly, big business and government are almost never blamed for any of the deaths. Every single railroad death included the phrase "no blame attached to the driver or his company". The railroad death reports almost started to look like form letters. It is curious that the companies were never to blame and were never sued. In this era before hyper-litigation this may be expected. The reports also failed to mention if any of the families received any compensation or support from the companies or the government after their husband/father died. This trend appears to be consistent with the tendency in the late Nineteenth Century for business and government to be in cahoots with each other.

In a final analysis, there is a consistency with contemporary trends and issues in these coroner reports that make them even more valuable. Report #1048 recounts the suicide of an 83 year old man from Bedford in deteriorating health. His situation is reminiscent of the current Kavorkien issue. The man wants to rest in peace and writes in his note "I am slowly dying... alone in the world ... hunting for a life."

Drunk driving was and still is a major issue. S. W. Poter (#1126) was an innocent victim of this unfortunate trend. The 76 year old man was run over by a sleigh driven by a drunken driver. Several other people were also the victims of a dilemma that has not seemed to change much over time. The racial tension that exists in America today is mirrored by the death of Hannah Stokes (#1186). She got in a racially motivated fight with another women in a saloon and plummeted to her death. These racial issues, of course, have refused to die. Crimes of passion and domestic violence have also persisted overtime with John B. Rice murdering George Ainger (# 1042) in an angry, jealous rage.

These Coroner reports document deaths that occurred throughout Cuyahoga County between 1875-1885. The reports ultimately expose the underbelly of the Industrial Revolution. They offer a counterpoint to Cleveland's and America's prosperity and growth from a New England style commercial town into a monster of the Midwest. By the end of this time period, the immigrant and transient work force had begun to erase the Connecticut Yankee facade from the city. In this time of "revolution" in Cleveland's history, bodies were found in mangers, newspapers, backyard graves, rivers, canals, brick ovens, railroad tracks and elsewhere. One place in particular, Hogan and Harris at 72 Bank Street, appears in the reports on a consistent basis. This was not a downtown business or drinking establishment. 72 Bank Street (undertakers) was the most frequent repository for downtown Cleveland's drowning and railroad casualties. Perhaps they are the best representatives of this transition.

These lost souls are reminders of the brutalities of rapid industrialization and the price of progress. People were caught in its tracks or drowned in its sorrows.