Coroner’s inquests were very common in 1880s in New York City. Any unusual death or questionable death had to pass by the coroner (or one of his deputies or assistants) and sometimes an inquest was empaneled.
In the case mentioned below, the coroner was Richard Croker, a life-long politician with no medical training whatsoever. This was the primary problem with the coroner system: as an political position it was especially prone to corruption. Corruption was so extreme that eventually the coroner was replaced with a medical examiner who was (according to the guidelines) a medical doctor. There’s an interesting post at The Brownstoner on corruption in the Brooklyn coroner system in the 1890s, here which provides some insight into the temptation facing coroners.
The coroner did not receive a salary. Instead, he billed the city by the case. In 1897, each inquest netted the coroner $8.50. In today’s money, that would work out to about $240. Not bad, as ten cases a week could fetch about $2,400 in today’s money. Surely there were ten people dying a week under suspicious circumstances in 1897 Brooklyn.
As one might imagine, this system was ripe for corruption on several levels. Many a suicide of a prominent person was reclassified as an accidental death, erasing scandal and allowing for a church funeral and burial in sacred ground. In more extreme cases, a murder became something less.
More often, though, it was just plain ripping off the taxpayers. A coroner could submit bills for inquests that never happened and pad his salary. Easy enough to do, and in the chaos of the waning days of a city government that was not going exist in a year, why not?
Richard Croker may have been entirely ethical and honest while he was coroner, but many were not.
I don’t know what kind of paperwork a suspicious death warrants in the here-and-now, so I was really at a loss trying to sort this out for The Gilded Hour.
Little by little old legal cases are becoming available online. But if you were looking for a fully documented series of events around the death of (for example) a thirty year old woman, you’d be hard pressed to pull it all together. A truly full set of documents would include the original request for a coroner, the coroner’s initial report and order for a formal inquest, the notification to potential jury members, the transcript of the inquest and the formal decision and finally the death certificate.
Here’s one document reporting the conclusion of a coroner’s jury (click for a larger image):
… came to his death by compression of the brain due to injury of the head received at the hands of some person or persons unknown to us. August 15 1875 on Chrystie St. between Grand & Hester Sts
Trial transcripts were typewritten by the 1880s, but they are still very difficult to decipher. This thumbnail will take you to a larger image of a page from a trial that took place in 1893, a woman accused of poisoning her husband.
I love working in archives with old documents, but it takes a lot of concentration and dedication to find anything useful.
In some jurisdictions in Canada, coroners are still not medical doctors – including Nunavut, where the coroner (who is a nurse) has to investigate a high rate of suicides.
Laura — that’s actually quite shocking. But they do autopsies, no?
Huh. I had no idea coroners weren’t always medical professionals. That puts a whole new (and fascinating) perspective on things.
These days they are medical professionals, of course. But that wasn’t always the case.
Part of this is the difference between coroners and medical examiners. Coroners were, and sometimes still are, an elected position. In those places, they may have some medical training, but are not doctors or pathologists. They may also send cases to medical examiners which are not elected positions and have strict requirements for competency before they are hired. Most cities have gone to the medical examiners “way” of structuring death investigations, but retain the coroner name on buildings or as a head to the department.