Sudden Deaths in St. Louis by Sarah E. Lirley

Southern Illinois University Press

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Sudden Deaths in St. Louis: Coroner Bias in the Gilded Age by Sarah E. Lirley

A social history of death investigations in the urban Midwest

The scene of myriad grisly deaths, late nineteenth-century St. Louis was a hotbed for homicide, suicide, alcoholism, abortion, and workplace accidents. The role of the city’s Gilded Age coroners has not been fully examined, contextualized, or interrogated until now. Sarah E. Lirley investigates the process in which these outcomes were determined, finding coroners’ rulings were not uniform, but rather varied by who was conducting the inquest. These fascinating case studies explore the lives of the deceased, as well as their families, communities, press coverage of the events, and the coroners themselves.

Sudden Deaths in St. Louis is a study of 120 coroners’ inquests conducted between 1875 and 1885. Each chapter analyzes the typical versus the atypical in verdicts of death. At the time, inaccurate findings and cursory investigations fueled criticisms of coroner’s offices for employing poorly trained laymen. The coroners featured in this book had the power to shape public perception of the deceased, and they often relied on preexisting reputations to determine cause of death. For instance, women who worked as prostitutes were likely to be ruled as suicides, whether or not that was actually the case, and women who were respected members of their communities, particularly mothers, frequently received rulings of suicide caused by insanity. Verdicts also depended in part on availability of witnesses, including family members, to determine whether another person could be held liable for the death. Lirley’s book highlights the stories of ordinary men and women whose lives were tragically cut short, and the injustice they received even after death.

About the Author

Sarah E. Lirley is a historian who specializes in the history of women and gender, nineteenth century history, and the history of death and death investigations. Lirley is an assistant professor of history at Columbia College (Columbia, Missouri). She has published articles in the Missouri Historical Review and has written peer-reviewed blog articles, encyclopedia entries, and book reviews in a variety of historical journals. She has presented her research at more than twenty professional conferences.

Product Specifications

Published by Southern Illinois University Press, 2024. Paperback, 196 pages.