Origins of CSI: Dixie

I remember clearly the moment I lifted the lid on my first box of coroners’ reports. I had come to the South Carolina Department of Archives and History to try and figure out how exactly Boggan Cash (a distant relative of Johnny Cash) had been killed by a posse in 1884. Curious to see if the coroner had bothered to perform an inquest on a man killed in a hail of federal gunfire, I waited patiently while the archivist loped down to the stacks to return with a large bankers box and place it on the table. I removed the lid with a typical mix of boredom and hopefulness. We historians bull through a lot of paperwork, most of it hypnotically dull. Setting ourselves adrift in an effluvia of paper, we seem strangely comforted as the mundanities of another's daily life wash over and through us in a process at once intimate and remote. Sometimes we find what we're looking for. Sometimes we find something better—something we hadn’t been looking for at all.

And suddenly, as Poe would have it, I could feel Death looking gigantically down.

Staring into a jumbled mass of tri-folded little bundles, I was suddenly struck by the obvious: Each clutch of papers represented an ending; each would unfold to lay bare the story of how a single man, woman, or child went out of this world. I would know nothing of the noon of these unfortunate lives, but I would know everything about the midnights. And suddenly, as Poe would have it, I could feel Death looking gigantically down. Everyone in the reading room, myself included, was making their mortal way to the grave; some fast, some slow. None of us would end up in a cardboard coffin like this one; but just as surely we'd be reduced to bits and bytes by the NSA for the digital historians of the future to allow us to wash over and through them. Just as surely, we’d be history.

How many people were buried in this box? 200? 400? How many boxes did they have back there?

CSI: Dixie is an experiment in form. These inquests could have been disciplined to the forms I know best—an academic book or an academic article, but something would have been lost. There is an inescapable relentlessness to an archive of sad endings, a sense of history as it truly is—a forced march into the merciless maw of inequality and chance. Nothing I could ever write would be more important than what these people lived; nothing but a reproduction of my own archival experience could capture the twin scales of human catastrophe—so many dead, each one a life. And yet I also knew something would be lost if I presented these materials only as an archive. At the very least I would have lost the opportunity to practice the values I admire most about academe—the extreme care we take with context; our determination to render summative judgment about a set of records under review; our reflexive desire to make an argument about how things aggregate—how, precisely, large historical structures come into being and change over time.

I call CSI:D an “archigraph”—a set of records married to a set of judgments and arguments about those records. CSI: Dixie is everything a typical academic monograph could be—charts, tables, graphs, archival research, and thousands of words of original scholarship. But it has all been left slightly disaggregated and therefore more flexible. The project can be read around and through. You can check the text against the sources and vice versa. I can take criticism and make changes and then take criticism on the changes—because this is not just a self-published work but an endlessly republished work. CSI: Dixie is not just a snapshot of a work in progress but a work in progress forever, a ship always at sea. I also call it a “deconstructed” monograph, a book pulled apart and put back together in a form more conducive to the web—an argument bearing on its back the archive out of which it is being written and rewritten in a scholarly process left open, contingent, and exposed. Behind all this is an unvarnished desire to draw something from the past that is useful for the present. Such a project is more permissible on the web. I regard presentism—the turning of the dead into political sock puppets to spout a party line—an irredeemable historical sin. But present-value? Our work should better have that. “The Earth belongs to the living,” Jefferson said. “To the dead we owe only the truth,” said Voltaire.

For all its focus on the dead, CSI:D is a living project, inviting users to contribute photos, documents, leads, and details in cases of tens of thousands of unfortunate souls. Unlike a finished book, which is effectively frozen in amber, CSI:D is an appeal to the public to join an ongoing investigation.

For those who have something specific in mind, you might click on the magnifying glass at the top right and search the entire archive for people, places, or key terms.

For those who want to a quick look at the data, you might check out our visualizations after reading the data overview.

You can also be read CSI: Dixie as a book, which begins as all do, with a table of contents:

Genesis focuses on the origins of the coroner’s office and its records. An English export, the office is as old as death and taxes and related to both. This section takes readers into the evolution of the coroner from the medieval ages to modern times and explores the social context in which inquests were convened and taken.

Numbers takes a statistical approach to the records, presenting charts, tables, graphs, and maps that seek a both a summative sense of the records and a sense of how they compare to other early attempts to count the dead.

Acts explores the most common findings of a coroner’s inquest (homicide, suicide, infanticide, accidental death, and natural causes). What types of violent death were most common? Who were the typical victims, and who were the typical perpetrators? What can the coroner’s office reveal about life and death in the nineteenth century South?

Judges focuses on both the coroners themselves and the juries of inquest. Who typically served on juries; who served as coroner; and how did this change over time? What social and cultural role did these “judges” play in the nineteenth-century South?

Chronicles tells the stories of individual inquests, presenting each case as a deeply-written and photographed story of the peculiar circumstances of one human being’s unfortunate demise.

Exodus explores the racial dynamics at play in the sources. The enslaved were allowed to testify at inquests. Why? What can we learn from their testimony? How did emancipation impact the way people lived and died in the South? Why was the coroner's office one of the first government posts African Americans gained and one of the last they gave up during Reconstruction?

Revelation ruminates on the experience of bearing witness to so much death.

NEXT: Origins of the Coroner’s Office

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