Local government records are frequently dismissed as the less than useful paperwork generated by a bureaucracy at the county or municipal level; and such documents rarely receive the serious attention of historians and other scholars as they seek to reflect upon the social structure and- cultural mores of an earlier urban community. But as academicians slowly recognize their potential with it comes the recognition that local government records provide a real window, for those of us who are about to enter the new millennium, to peer and see our nineteenth century predecessors as they lived, worked and raised their families.
I. Wills and Estates
Thus, in a county like Cuyahoga, home to the City of Cleveland, world-class museums and cultural institutions, and mighty sports franchises, we cannot underestimate the value of these records in documenting our collective memory and identity as an urban community. As examples, some of the records series preserved by the Cuyahoga County Archives, a repository for the inactive records of county government preserved because of their continuing value, are real historical gems. For example, the files of wills and estates, circa 1813-1918, frequently include inventories of personal effects and household goods, ranging from featherbeds to frying pans, and furniture to farm implements, bringing us a sense of the material quality of life. Probate records can also bring to light the existence of family feuds," as noted by the names of individuals left out, or purposely excluded, from the will penned by the head of the clan; and some of the final testaments include special stipulations that bind those who receive a bequest. One Irish Catholic patriarch, for example, admonished his children that should they fail to take the temperance pledge, be disobedient to their parents, or prove disloyal to their Church, their inheritance would be denied to them. And, occasionally, a will packet may include an unexpected treasure, as illustrated by an exchange of letters between two sisters, one in Ireland, and the other in Cleveland, that spoke about the abiding strength of loving family ties, reflected upon life in the siblings, hometown, and commented, with regret, on the hard circumstances of life on the Emerald isle. Such documents offer us, then, the unique opportunity to share in the lives of ordinary people.
Another series of documents preserved by the Archives, divorce case files, 1876-1882, provide insights into the dissolution of nineteenth century marriages, some tragic and others of a somewhat humorous nature. For example one case file alludes to the difficulties experienced by a woman in pro-Civil War Cleveland abandoned by her spouse and forced to raise the family without her husband's economic support (the original deadbeat dad), while another reveals that a man charged his wife with cruelty for chasing him around the barnyard with a hatchet. And yet other documents return us to the day when Cleveland was not a large urban area but rather a frontier community, as the entries from the Commissioners JOURNALS suggest that bounties were being paid for wolf scalps.
III. Coroners' Reports
A final series of documents that perhaps reflects the clearest images of nineteenth century social values, urban problems and dislocations, and the state of American medical knowledge and practice, is the Coroners' Case Files, 1833-1900, not inclusive. The office of county coroner is usually linked in the popular imagination with sensational murders, tragic disasters, and the acts of serial killers. In Cuyahoga County the coroner is linked in the popular imagination with that officials participation in the investigation of events like the 1929 Cleveland Clinic fire, the East Ohio Gas Company explosion in, 1944, the Sheppard trial of 1954, and the murder of Tammy Seales in 1980. The coroner's office, however, is not an innovation introduced by modern public administrators to serve the needs of twentieth century American society, and the coroner's daily duties and responsibilities are often far removed from the headlines of the daily newspaper. In fact the office of Cuyahoga County coroner can be traced to the laws of the Northwest Territory, when an ordinance passed in 1788 called for the appointment of a coroner in each county within the territory. When Ohio attained statehood the sixth article of its first constitution (1802) provided for the election in each county of one sheriff and one coroner by those citizens qualified to vote for members of the General Assembly. In 1805 the Ohio General Assembly enacted legislation defining the duties of the county coroner, but a law passed in 1824 repealed the act of 1805; and section nine stated that whenever the coroner received information that the dead body of any person, "supposed to come to his or her death by violence," had been found within the county it was his duty to issue his warrant to any constable in the county where the body was discovered directing him to summon a jury of twelve men of the county to meet at the Place where the body was resting and at the time specified by the warrant. The coroner also had the power to subpoena all proper witnesses. The jury, once empanelled and duly sworn, might then begin, with the coroner, to inquire in what manner the deceased met his or her death. The 1824 legislation also made certain provisions for the preservation of any written documents created during the coroner's investigation of a death. The law directed that the testimony of all witnesses should be "reduced to writing" and ordered the coroner to return the witnesses' accounts, in addition to the finding, and any necessary recognizances, to the clerk of the court of common pleas of the proper county. The coroner's records now in the collections of the Cuyahoga County Archives are those documents which were filed with the county clerk in. compliance with the law.
III. A. Organization of Reports
The coroners, case files maintained by the Cuyahoga County Archives date from 1833 to January of 1901 and document investigations into the deaths of individuals in the county. For the sake of convenience the staff of the Cuyahoga County Archives has organized the case files into two separate chronological series; 1833 to 1893, and 1893-1901. While the coroners' case files are of great interest to the family historian and can assist in providing needed data about an individual in the absence of death or cemetery records, these documents can also transcend the immediate interests of the genealogist. Thus the nineteenth century coroners, records serve to reflect the social conditions and mores of a nineteenth century industrial community and suggest for the historian other areas or topics worthy of more careful inquiry. Perhaps a few examples will help to highlight the value of the coroners' files in documenting nineteenth century urban life.
Although the coroner only had the legal responsibility to investigate those cases in which individuals were thought to have met their deaths through violent means, in certain instances the coroners' juries concluded that some persons, rather than being victims of violence, had actually died from disease, natural causes, or by accidental deaths including falls, burns from contact with fire or hot water, unintentional poisoning, an overdose of medication, or by drowning. And considering the contemporary debate over the need for more effective gun control, it is important to note that many accidental deaths, as recorded by the Cuyahoga County coroner, stemmed from the improper use of firearms. The death of William Murry and Andrew Marguard were precipitated by the "accidental discharge of guns. An article in the September 7, 1840 Cleveland Herald also described a "fatal and distressing accident from the careless use of firearms." The incident involved a youth who fired a bullet at a marked target on a fence that passed through the board and struck and killed a neighbor. The article editorialized that the "melancholy catastrophe should be a warning to all who are in the habit of discharging firearms in the city."
III. B. Determination of Causes of Death
An analysis of the first 1000 coroner's case records also reveal that fifteen percent of the deaths under scrutiny were the result of accidents involving the railroads. The railroad era dawned in Cleveland at the middle of the nineteenth century and rail lines soon crisscrossed Cuyahoga County through the valley and along the lake shore. The rails set down in Cuyahoga County were part of a vast network which covered thirty-one thousand miles of railroad track nationally by 1861. Thus the high percentage of railroad deaths in the county between 1833 and 1877 should not be surprising. It is impossible to determine, without a careful reading of each case involving a railroad accident, how many deaths might have been avoided if higher safety standards had been enforced by railroad Companies, but the local press clearly indicted them for their lack of concern for the loss of life. In 1856 a Cleveland Leader editorial proclaimed that the "loss of life by accident is something to demand attention." The editorial continued that the "fearful amount of human life sacrificed yearly upon the great thoroughfare of land, and ocean, should convince every one that some measures must be adopted to render our steamers, and railroads more safe." Such rhetoric is reminiscent of our current concerns regarding unsafe conditions on our nation's highways.
Interestingly enough, while an analysis of the first 1000 coroners, cases revealed that 56 percent of the deaths examined by the coroners' juries were the result of accidents or disease, and eight percent were alcohol related, only twenty-seven percent represented deaths by violent means. These deaths included crimes of violence that involved individuals not related by family ties and also included violent acts committed by husbands against wives and wives against husbands, the abuse of children by parents and of elderly parents by children, abortion, or violence directed at the unborn,, and acts of suicide, or the taking of one's life by violent means. Of particular relevance, considering that modern sociologists have only recently brought to the public's attention the physical abuse many elderly parents endure at the hands of their children, is the fact that two verdicts in the nineteenth century coroners' records reveal such mistreatment was not uncommon in an earlier American society. In case 165, for example, the jury ruled that Margaret Hanibald's death was caused
partly by the infirmity Of old age and partly by the gross neglect of her children, and more particularly by that of her son-in-law..... the constant ill treatment and abuse received of him during a stay of seven weeks in his house, scarcely receiving sustenance enough at his hands to sustain life and lastly from a severe contusion received of him.
Finally, that violence and abuse were directed not only toward those persons in the difficult last stages of the life cycle is reflected by the fact that seven of the first 1000 coroners' records involved abortion, here defined as violence brought against the unborn or as those actions that resulted in the death of the mother. In most cases it was the death of the woman that the coroner's jury was called upon to investigate. And contemporary newspaper accounts also shed light on those cases where the cause of death was recorded as from the complications or from the effects of an abortion. For example a physician was implicated in the case of Barbara Wilson when the coroner's jury ruled that her death resulted from the effects of an abortion at the hands of Dr. Coss. The Leader reported that Coss, reputedly a "quack," was being held for the grand jury while an Andrew Peters, identified as Miss Wilson's seducer and employer, was released on bail. Thus the issue of the "right to life," a question that continues to be debated nationally as we enter the 21st century, was also a matter of controversy a century earlier. In 1875, for instance, a Cleveland Leader editorial referred to a letter in which the correspondent clearly defined abortion as murder and viewed the person charged with the abortion as a murderer.
Thus this brief consideration of the coroner's records should make it clear that issues such as gun control, the right to life, safety on the nation's transportation system, and the mistreatment of the elderly were nineteenth as well as twentieth century concerns. The verdicts should also provide useful as valuable social barometers which can serve to reflect the attitudes and mores of Americans, living during an era of change and transition, while they attempted to cope with increasingly complex moral, social, and economic dilemmas; and perhaps serve as a prophetic voice, and powerful witness, for a generation that stands of the brink on the new millennium.