Mortal Measurements: Appraising the Value of the Dead in the Nineteenth-Century South

Endorsed by the Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era (SHGAPE)

Thursday, April 2, 2020, 2:30 PM - 4:00 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Crime and Violence; Science, Medicine, and Public Health; Social and Cultural

Abstract

Inequalities not only shaped the lived experiences of Americans during the nineteenth century, but it also impacted their deaths. Three presentations drawing from coroner’s inquests, burial records, and writings of social scientists reveal that various lives were measured in similar unequal terms. Jamie Warren examines inequalities that were present in ideas about death, particularly white Southerners’ racist ideas about African American mortality. Warren’s paper will examine the intellectual history of the "black disappearance hypothesis," a theory that emerged among late nineteenth-century social scientists and statisticians who claimed that recently freed African Americans were on the path toward extinction. While most scholarship situates the black disappearance hypothesis in the context of Gilded Age professionalization, the rise of statistical knowledge and methodologies, and Progressive Era racist reform, Warren’s paper will analyze this concept in the broader intellectual traditions of the slave-holding elite. While this theory was clearly rooted strongly in white supremacist naturalist traditions, she will demonstrate how such intellectual traditions were uniquely shaped by the supra-nationalist political visions produced by white southern Planters. Decades before racial mortality rates were used to bolster social Darwinist claims about black inferiority, whiles elites of the antebellum South used death and morbidity as means to articulate their racial ideologies and philosophy of history.
Inequalities also shaped burial practices, as Lynn Rainville will demonstrate. Rainville analyzes the material and archival clues that reveal the location of poor farm cemeteries in Virginia. For over two centuries, Virginian counties sponsored “workhouses” or “town farms” that housed a wide range of dependent people. The goal was to provide room and board for individuals who were deemed socially or morally “unworthy” by their peers. Most of these facilities were closed by World War II; today, most of these sites lie in ruin. But the attendant graveyards are usually discoverable. In this paper, Rainville analyzes the material and archival clues that reveal the location of poor farm cemeteries. And she concludes with an analysis of the grave markers and mortuary rituals that were used in the last rites and final resting places of the poor and the inmates of this public institution.
The final paper examines the ways in which inequalities shaped death investigations. Sarah Lirley McCune argues that race, class, gender, and character shaped investigations into and prosecutions of alleged homicides in late-nineteenth-century St. Louis. Drawing on coroner’s records, newspaper accounts, and court records, Lirley McCune’s essay will examine how inequalities impacted coroner’s inquests as well as prosecutions, convictions, and sentences. Unsurprisingly, black men and women often faced harsher sentences and were tried more quickly than their white counterparts, which is especially evident in cases of domestic violence. The press celebrated these convictions, often using racist language and stereotypes. Domestic violence cases also reveal gender inequalities, as some women (those with questionable reputations) were blamed for their own murders, at least by the St. Louis press.
While these papers rely on diverse sources, they share similar findings. Southerners’ lives were valued differently in legal systems, social practices, and scientific discourse.

Papers Presented

Unjust and Unequal: Death Investigations into Homicides in St. Louis, Missouri, 1875 to 1885

The justice system has often been unjust to women, African Americans, the poor, and other marginalized groups. This was just as true in late-nineteenth-century St. Louis as it is today. Race, class, gender, and character shaped investigations into and prosecutions of alleged homicides in that midwestern city. Drawing on coroner’s records, newspaper accounts, and court records, this paper will examine how inequalities affected coroner’s inquests and verdicts as well as prosecutions, convictions, and sentences. Unsurprisingly, black men and women often faced harsher sentences and were tried more quickly than their white counterparts, especially in cases of domestic violence. The press celebrated these convictions, often using racist language and stereotypes. Domestic violence cases also reveal gender inequalities, as some women (particularly those with questionable reputations) were blamed for their own murders, at least by the St. Louis press.

Presented By
Sarah Lirley, Columbia College

A Proclivity toward the Grave: Mortality, Morbidity, and Lost Cause Fantasies of Death

This paper will examine the intellectual history of the "black disappearance hypothesis," a theory that emerged among late nineteenth-century social scientists and statisticians who claimed that recently freed African Americans were on the path toward extinction. While most scholarship situates the black disappearance hypothesis in the context of Gilded Age professionalization, the rise of statistical knowledge and methodologies, and Progressive Era racist reform, my paper will analyze this concept in the broader intellectual traditions of the slave-holding elite. While this theory was strongly rooted in white supremacist naturalist traditions, I will demonstrate how such intellectual traditions were uniquely shaped by the supranationalist political visions produced by white southern planters. Decades before racial mortality rates were used to bolster social Darwinist claims about black inferiority, white elites of the antebellum South used death and morbidity as means to articulate their racial ideologies and philosophy of history.

Presented By
Jamie Warren, Borough of Manhattan Community College, City University of New York

Paupers and Lunatics: Inequality in Death as in Life

For over two centuries, Virginian counties sponsored “workhouses” or “town farms” that housed a wide range of dependent people. Their goal was to provide room and board for individuals deemed socially or morally “unworthy” by their peers. Most of these facilities were closed by World War II, and today most lie in ruin. But the attendant graveyards are usually discoverable. In this paper I analyze the material and archival clues that reveal the location of poor farm cemeteries. I conclude with an analysis of the grave markers and mortuary rituals that were used in the last rites and final resting places of the poor and the inmates of these public institutions.

Presented By
Lynn Rainville, Washington and Lee University

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Kami L. Fletcher, Albright College
Dr. Fletcher is an Assistant Professor of African American History at Delaware State University. She received her Ph.D. in History from Morgan State University in 2013. Her research centers on African American burial grounds and late 19th/early 20th century Black male and female undertakers. She has published work in journals, anthologies, and scholarly blog sites. She frequently blogs for the African American Intellectual History Society at www.aaihs.org. Currently she is co-editing a volume, *Till Death Do Us Part: Ethnic Cemeteries as Borders Uncrossed*, which centers on the internal and/or external drives among ethnic, religious and racial groups to separate their dead. She is also working on a forthcoming book which positions African American cemeteries as the point where life and death meet arguing that this meeting point is a symbol of Black freedom from White control. She has taught courses on African American history, U.S. History, American studies, slave plantations, Black migration, and women and gender studies.

Presenter: Sarah Lirley, Columbia College
Dr. Lirley McCune is an Assistant Professor of History at Columbia College in Columbia, Missouri. Dr. Lirley McCune specializes in the history of women and gender as well as the history of death and death investigations. She has published several articles on those topics and is currently working on a manuscript, tentatively titled "An Arc of Death: Suicide, Alcoholism, Murder, Accidents, and Other Early Deaths in St. Louis, Missouri, 1875 to 1885." She has also published two articles.

Presenter: Lynn Rainville, Washington and Lee University
Lynn Rainville is an author, public historian and anthropologist, and teacher. She has served as a professor and in a series of leadership positions at Dartmouth College, the University of Michigan, the University of Virginia, John Tyler Community College, and Sweet Briar College. During her time at Sweet Briar she served as the Dean and chief academic officer (2018-2019), a research professor in the humanities (2008-2019), as the founding director of the Tusculum Institute for local history, public outreach, and historic preservation (2008-2017), and as an archaeology and anthropology professor (2001-2008). She received her B.A. from Dartmouth College and her M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Michigan. Although her PhD is in Near Eastern archaeology, she has spent the last two decades studying historic American cemeteries, segregated schools, enslaved communities, poor farms, and World War I. Her work has been supported by grants from the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, and numerous internal grants from Sweet Briar College. She shares her research through online databases, crowdsourced site inventories, and dozens of websites dedicated to local and African American history, as well as talks at a variety of public venues. She has held fellowships at institutions including the University of Virginia (for digital history), the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities (to work on a book manuscript), and at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (to work on a book manuscript). Her grant-funded research has produced numerous articles and books, including Hidden History: African American Cemeteries in Central Virginia (University of Virginia Press, 2014); Sweet Briar College (Arcadia, 2015); Virginia and the Great War (McFarland, 2017); Invisible Founders: How Two Centuries of African American Families Transformed a Plantation into a College (Berghahn Press, 2019). Her personal website, www.lynnrainville.org, lists additional publications and research interests.

Presenter: Jamie Warren, Borough of Manhattan Community College, City University of New York
Jamie Warren is an Assistant Professor at the City University of New York, BMCC, where she teaches courses in American History and Women’s Studies. She earned her PhD from Indiana University’s Department of History. Her research focuses death and dying on antebellum slave plantations. Her recent publications include, “To Claim One’s Own: Death and the Body in Antebellum Slavery,” which appeared in Death in the American South, published by Cambridge University Press. Currently she is working on a her book, “’They are Merely a Decaying and a Death’: Ideologies of Slavery and the Undying Metaphor of Death,” and is co-editing a volume on female deathways in the American South.