Death records today include case folders with documents such as police reports, photographs and toxicology results. That wasn’t the case in the early part of the 20th century.
Back then, each person’s death was detailed in cursive writing, a few paragraphs at most. Some records left out the victim’s age or hometown, and they often simply listed a woman’s occupation as “housewife.”
Page by page, researchers at the Hennepin County medical examiner’s office are getting a rare look this summer at handwritten death records kept in thick leather-bound books from the early 1900s, as they track the ancient homicides for the first time.
It’s the second year of a project that has students sifting through data from the past 110 years to add the homicides and suspicious deaths to electronic records.
“You have all these records that may help us prevent homicide, and we should put it to good use,” said Dallas Drake, who heads the Center for Homicide Research, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit organization that is doing the work.
To record the deaths on an electronic spreadsheet, the center’s 12 student interns go behind the scenes of a high-security records vault at the medical examiner’s office. The work is tedious, but it already has resulted in the indexing of 15,000 deaths from 1906 to 1931 that will now be searchable in Hennepin County, the state’s leader in homicides.
“It’s very eye-opening,” said Hailey Johnson, 24, a University of Minnesota graduate.
Minnesota didn’t start keeping homicide data until 1935, though the Minnesota History Center keeps individual older death records.
And no one has tracked homicide trends, which is why the center also is working on a longer-term project of running down statewide homicides that occurred before 1935 by scouring old newspaper articles, death records and data at other medical examiner offices around the state.
“We’ll have a much better picture of [homicide trends] than we’ve had so far,” Drake said. “It’s a huge undertaking.”
Results will be released in late August. The work is funded in part by a $5,000 grant from the Alan Braun Fund of the Minneapolis Foundation and the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe.
Helping future research
The research could help analysts and policymakers better understand how, why and where homicides happen, and what things might be done to help prevent them.
And unlike the past, when data collected for research projects typically was tossed out afterward, Drake said that county and state homicide data could be used for many other projects.
In fact, students are looking specifically into American Indian deaths from 1850 to 1930 in Minnesota, scanning journal articles, oral interviews and other records.
The goal is to see how much a person’s access to food contributed to homicides over the years. Homicides clustered in north Minneapolis from 1957 to 1969 occurred in a “food desert” — areas where a person must travel more than a mile to buy fresh produce or meat.
“The basic question is, is there a connection between food scarcity and homicide?” Drake said.
For the Hennepin County medical examiner’s office, which has records dating to 1897, the research will benefit not just officials but the public. For the first time, people doing genealogy research or other work will be able to search digitally for a death record from 100 years ago.
“It was just so novel,” Medical Examiner Andrew Baker said of the project. “No one has ever looked at this data.”
Needle in a haystack
Deaths from long ago that now appear to be suspicious may not have gotten the same scrutiny back then. For instance, the death of a housekeeper who was pregnant with the head of the household’s baby — and died when his wife was home and he was out of the town — was ruled a suicide.
“It’s fascinating,” Johnson said.
The students, who completed background checks and confidentiality agreements to use the valuable records, have tagged every homicide and suspicious death from 1906 to 1931, which total about 3 percent of all deaths.
Inside the records room, which is gated off like a jail cell, they spend 40 hours a week scrutinizing the records.
“Studying the past can give us a clear perspective of today,” said University of Minnesota sophomore Leo Loza, 19.
While other kids grew up watching cartoons, Loza was watching “Criminal Minds,” intrigued by the lessons death can impart.
“Sometimes it’s overwhelming,” he said of the records.
The work, while tedious, is worthwhile to the researchers.
“It gets messy; not all homicides are called homicides,” Drake said. “We’re looking for the needle in the haystack.”