Sarah Lirley McCune is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of History at the University of Missouri.
Sarah Lirley McCune is a Ph.D. candidate in History who spends her time studying her fellow Missourians from the nineteenth century. However, she doesn’t start by looking at the details of how they lived and went about their lives. Rather, she looks at how they died, then works backwards.
“I usually just tell people I study death, and that usually piques their interest,” she said with a chuckle.
Lirley McCune, who still calls Missouri home, has a full resume of degrees from higher education institutions in the state. After she began her college work at a community college, she transferred to Northwest Missouri State to complete her degree.
During her time as an undergraduate, she impressed her professors and was encouraged to pursue graduate work. Though she had plans to attend graduate school to study library science, one of her history professors, Dr. Joel Benson, encouraged her to consider history.
“I was thinking about going to graduate school for history, but I wasn’t sure I was good enough,” she explained, but professors such as Dr. Benson saw great promise in her work.
Sarah chose to begin her MA in History here at Mizzou, and came to Columbia as a package deal, as her husband was also planning to attend graduate school for physics.
“Mizzou was one of the schools we looked at, because we are both from Missouri. It seemed like a natural choice.”
Soon the University became a home for both of them. She found an advisor, Dr. LeeAnn Whites, who was supportive of her interests, and encouraged her to think outside of the box. “She was very supportive, and she would let me find my own way.” Her advisor gave Sarah the freedom to explore new projects and the guidance to look in new and unusual places to uncover history: coroner’s inquests.
In her current research, Lirley McCune studies coroner’s inquests from St. Louis City at the Missouri State Archives in St. Louis and Jefferson City in order to understand the larger picture of society and the family during the late nineteenth century.
“Studying death actually helps us to understand how people live,” she said. “Ordinary people, they don’t leave paper collections. They don’t leave diaries. There is not going to be a biography written about them. But, when they died suddenly, and in a way that was not immediately, apparently natural, a coroner is going to come and interview their friends, their family, doctors, police officers. You learn so much about working class people and poor people in particular. You learn a lot about their lives in a way you can’t in any other way. Their families and their neighbors know so much.”
In a sense, she is studying the working class from a different angle.
“I look at gender. I look at women’s history and I look at death, violence, addiction. All sorts of fun stuff,” she said. “Well, it’s fun to me.”
Lirley McCune came to this subject, because she wanted to study “the cult of domesticity.” Dr. Whites helped her to choose, but allowed her to freedom to explore.
“She said, you know, there are these coroner’s reports, and no one has used them. She said, go look at them and see what you find and connect it to domesticity.” So, she looked. “I really wanted to study women in the 19th century and this whole idea of domesticity that emerged,” she added.
With the help of her advisor, Lirley McCune researched the experiences of women during the nineteenth century from all regions of the United States before moving on to the study of feminist theory.
“Then we looked at changes in the household structure and changes in the economy that led to this idea that women were the ‘angels of the household’.”
Dr. Whites is now the Director of Research at the Filson Historical Society in Louisville, Kentucky, but she continues to advise and work with Lirley McCune from afar.
During her master’s degree, Lirley McCune started examining women’s lives by looking at how they died.
“I started looking at all of these coroner’s inquests, and I wanted to focus on women who committed suicide,” she said.
She begin exploring inquests from the later part of the 1800s because of the long and thorough details included in reports beginning in the 1870s. Up until that point, these coroner’s inquests, which began in the 1840s, did not provide enough information about the deceased person. The later inquests used the details of one’s life in order to determine cause of death.
Since completing her masters research, Lirley McCune has expanded her project to include both men and women, as well as different causes of death. In total, the study looks at 120 inquests from the years 1875 to 1885. The causes of death include suicide, alcohol and drug related deaths, abortion, homicides, accidental deaths, and natural deaths.
“There are thousands of inquests, and they are all on these reels at the state historical society in [Jefferson] City,” she explained.
Census data helped to determine the years of inquests that she researched.
“There is no 1890 census. It burned,” says Lirley McCune. “So I choose that ten year period, and then I looked at every inquest for every fourth month beginning with January 1875. That way, every month was covered, but I didn’t have to look at every month for every year.”
Her sample includes an equal number of men and women so that she can include a comparison based on gender that was missing from her first study.
By looking through each case, she was able to rule out inquests with a lack of information about their subject. “If they don’t have a name, or age, or race, then I can’t use their case.”
Additionally, she was able to search for different kinds of death.
“I also looked for domestic violence or any kind of family violence. Also, prostitution. Or suicide, where the coroner said that they were insane,” she explained. “Why did a coroner say that one person was insane and not another?”
Coroners went to great lengths to render a verdict about a death, if the cause was not clear. It does not necessarily reflect how they died. For example, Lirley McCune found one inquest in which the coroner ruled an accidental death, but it has all of the markings of a suicide according to her research. She believes this is because the family was Catholic.
She also found that respectability had an effect on how deaths were categorized. Lirley McCune finds that the death of women who were prostitutes were the easiest to solve.
“Even if she died of an accidental drug overdose, it was automatically a suicide,” she explained.
“There are more wealthy people who turn up from time to time,” said, Lirley McCune. “For example, there is a woman who is the wife of a former Lt. Governor of Missouri. There are tons of sources about him and her. She committed suicide.”
She read his diaries and was able to see the husband talk about his wife, and how they had lost a child.
“His paper collection had just been donated to the State Historical Society of Missouri two weeks before I started looking for it.”
In this source material, the subject’s husband even marked the anniversaries. But this amount of information on a case is rare.
Other cases that Lirley McCune has uncovered include accidental death from alcohol use.
“I include alcoholism, but it also includes a woman who fell down the stairs while she was drunk, got a concussion and died.”
She also explores cases that blur the line of intent.
“Somebody laid on the railroad tracks twice while he was drunk and ‘accidently’ died.”
Lirley McCune has also found cases of homicides.
“I’ve got one who was this guy who killed a police officer, he was a real notorious,” she said. “They called him Desperado Rande and he got far more attention, just like today, he got far more attention than his victims.”
For Lirley McCune, there is more to these inquests than just cause of death.
“I’m looking at to what extent these people are isolated or integrated into their communities and families. You see so much isolation when you look at suicides and alcohol related deaths and drug related deaths. I’m sure I will see that with homicides,” she explained. “There’s also this notion of responsibility, who’s responsible for a death? Is somebody responsible? So when you have an accident, you have some train cases and even a workplace death, coroners go to great lengths to determine if an employer is responsible or if a train conductor is responsible for somebody’s death.”
When looking at the past, there are still implications for society today.
“If we look at how [death] was treated in the past, we can definitely have implications for policy today,” she said. “We all know that there is a stigma towards mental illness. There is a stigma towards suicide. But I actually think that there is more of a stigma now than in the past.
She continued by explaining that looking to the past can help us to see patterns in violence and death. She cites the number of elevator deaths that occurred during the late 1800s as the reason there are so many safety regulations now. Perhaps uncovering more patterns in death, will allow us to understand how people live, and die, today.
“If a bunch of academics read my work and we all change our minds, that’s wonderful. But, I really want to help shape public opinion, so that people are better informed [about death and stigmas surrounding it].”
As this work continues, Lirley McCune wants to further examine how gender and gender roles contributed to these peoples’ deaths or to the interpretation of their deaths.
“Why is a woman a dipsomaniac and a man is a drunk?”
She will continue to study death as her career progresses. In the future, however, she wants to write about the history of pets. As a proud cat parent, Sarah is fascinated by the way animals became parts of the family.
Lirley McCune plans to defend her dissertation in the fall, with graduation in the spring. After graduate school, hopes to work as a professor at a small college or University where she can focus on teaching, but also pursue the research that fascinated her.
“I love teaching. I love working with students,” she said. “I love seeing that look they get when they learn something new and learn the skills to go out and do their own things.”