Taming the Wild West: A History Through Death Records
Written by Amanda Cairo
Sifting through death records may be considered morbid by some, but Kelly Stout, from Kimberly, Idaho, is fascinated by the brief glimpse into the past.
Stout, a justice studies and sociology major, is helping Melanie-Angela Neuilly, assistant professor of sociology, to study the wild west to see just how “wild” it really was.
“The data are so interesting and fun,” says Stout. “There are some great anecdotal stories and a lot of fascinating stories. This project really gives the reality of the Old West.”
Stout sifted through 1,982 coroner records from 1902-18 for Spokane County in Cheney Wash., recording names, ages and causes of deaths. Not only did she record information, including narratives, but she also had to decipher 100-year-old handwriting.
“She’s doing the grunt work, but it’s important research,” says Neuilly. “What she’s learning now will help her go far.”
From Stout’s research, she says she found fewer deaths caused by other people than she expected, and was surprised to learn many deaths resulted from train accidents, suicides and dynamite explosions. She also noted several murder/suicides and saloon shootings. Change of life (menopause) and shock were also listed as causes of death.
The stories behind the records also brought a personal note to the project. A story of a well-loved piano teacher from Sprague who was pushed by a mob in front of train during a visit from President Theodore Roosevelt, really resonated with Stout.
“Through the death record and her obituary, I saw she was such a beloved member of the community,” says Stout. “I came across several stories that I wanted to know more about, stories that really catch your eye.”
Neuilly says there are two schools of thought on the Wild West, some saying it was more violent than settled areas and others say it had about the same rate of violence. In addition to the coroner ledgers Stout recorded, Neuilly and Stout will compare them with death certificates for the same period. While all deaths are accompanied by a death record, only suspicious, sudden or unknown deaths have a coroner’s report.
Stout says another interesting facet of the research is looking at who the coroner was and what their occupation was – the doctor, sheriff, butcher or another profession. Stout came across a couple of women who acted as coroners in Spokane County.
As Stout looks ahead to the possibility of graduate school, her undergraduate experience helping Neuilly with research will be invaluable. In addition, Stout and Neuilly are writing an article on their research to present at the American Society of Criminology annual meeting in San Francisco this November. The paper focuses on a sample of coroner reports compared with death certificates from 1903-07.
“It’s a great experience, and I’ve learned a lot,” says Stout. “It will be interesting to see how the data look after it is compiled.”
Neuilly and Stout are hoping to do further research in Walla Walla and Boise for further papers and eventually Neuilly’s book project.
“This is only the beginning,” says Neuilly. “Hopefully Kelly can stay involved in the project, wherever she ends up.”
Stout and Neuilly were able to conduct their research through the John Calhoun Smith Memorial Fund Grant – which funds research on territorial and pre-statehood Northern Idaho and the Northwest.