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 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 -- we set 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 than what we were looking for -- we find something we hadn't been looking for at all.

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

Staring into that 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 itself looking gigantically down. Everyone in the reading room, including me, was making their mortal way to the grave. Maybe we wouldn't end up in a cardboard coffin like this one; we'd be reduced to bits and bytes by the NSA for the digital historians of the future who would allow us to wash over and through them. But just as surely we'd be history.

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

The six counties in the current CSI:D sample are drawn primarily from the piedmont region of the state. The next update will include Chesterfield, Fairfield, Horry, and Laurens Counties.

CSI: Dixie collects 1583 coroners reports from six South Carolina counties for the years 1800-1900. Reactions to these records will vary widely by personality and professional interest. A historian will want first to know the context in which they were created. A demographer will want first to start counting. A journalist will want first to tell a story. I didn't want to have to choose between these impulses because I share them all and more. At CSI:D these 1583 records are examined variously from the perspectives of a historian, demographer, statistician, social worker, psychologist, documentarian, criminologist, activist, and artist in a constant reworking and re-seeing of the same material.

CSI:D is intended as an experiment in form. These inquests could have been disciplined to the forms I know best -- an academic book or an academic monograph. But something would have been lost. There is a relentlessness to an archive of sad endings, a sense of history as it truly is -- a great succumbing to the forces of inequality and chance. Nothing I could ever write would be more important than what these people lived, and the ends of those lives should be laid bare on their own terms. And yet something would have been lost if I had presented this 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 try to take about context; our determination to render summative judgment about a set of records under review; our reflexive desire to make an argument about how, precisely, large historical structures come into being and change over time.

I call CSI:D an "archigraph" -- a set of records (an archive) married to a set of judgments about those records (a monograph). Behind it all is a desperate urge to draw from the past something useful for the present. Presentism -- turning the dead into political sock puppets that spout a party line -- is a historical sin. But present-value? Our work should better have that. "The Earth belongs to the living," Jefferson said.

For all its focus on the dead, then, CSI:D is a living project, inviting users to contribute photos, documents, leads, and details in the cases of 1,583 unfortunate souls. Unlike a book, which seeks to be the last word on a subject, CSI:D is just the first word; it is an appeal to the public to join an ongoing investigation. Those who want to jump right in should click the magnifying glass at the upper right. You can search the entire archive for people, places, and key terms. Those who want deeper background can read CSI:D 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 to put coroners’ reports in a comparative perspective.

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 demise.

Exodus explores the racial dynamics at play in the sources. Slaves 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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