Today I welcome Nancy Herriman. A resident of Ohio, Nancy Herriman left a career in Engineering to take up the pen. She is seriously addicted to all things historical as well as dark chocolate and good food, not necessarily in that order. No Comfort for the Lost (NAL/Obsidian) was chosen as Library Journal’s August Pick of the Month. Find more at www.nancyherriman.com.
A Short History of the Role of the Coroner
When I began work on my mystery series, which takes place in San Francisco and opens during the year 1867, I decided to include a coroner as one of the characters. It seemed necessary as well as fun; I admit I enjoy the gritty details of sleuthing. My two protagonists—Celia Davies, a nurse operating a women’s clinic, and Nicholas Greaves, a city police detective—work with the coroner as they attempt to find who killed one of Celia’s patients, a young Chinese woman whose body has been found in the bay. When he concludes that the girl did not drown, but was killed by a blow to the head before being tossed into the water, Nick and Celia obtain a vital clue that will lead them to the identity of the murderer.
But when did the role of ‘coroner’ begin and what were they meant to do? Those who’ve researched the origin of the position believe it started during the 12th century at the latest, but the precise timing is lost to history. What is known is that the position became official in England in 1194.
Historians claim that the name originates from their post as Officers of the Crown, and you will sometimes find them referred to as ‘crowners’ as a result. Primarily elected (although occasionally appointed), they had to be men of good standing and own sufficient land or possessions in the county they resided in and would serve. The job was meant to be held for life and was an unpaid position up to the time of the Tudors. Their duties, as initially conceived, could be summarized as follows: examine the body in sudden or suspicious deaths (the coroner was the only person allowed to do so), including suicides; perform the inquest, summoning a jury to gather information on the victim and assign a cause of death; identify the primary suspect, if the death was deemed to have been murder, and put forth an indictment for that person; and—most importantly, according to some historians—to assess the value of goods (chattel) owned by the suspect, confiscate and sell them once the felon was convicted, and send the monies to the king. One last round of taxes.
It was this system that arrived in the United States with English settlers in the 1600s, a key difference being that the position was of limited duration, usually only a few years. But nowhere was there a requirement that a coroner be a medical person or have any understanding of forensic medicine, even in the most primitive form. Given the taboos and restrictions against autopsies, and the consequent dim understanding of the interior workings of the human body, it’s unlikely that, even if they had been a physician, their knowledge would’ve been sufficiently thorough.
As it was, most coroner examinations consisted of little more than looking at the body. They might not even touch it! In the 1800s, as poisons became a more popular method of committing murder, the serious flaw in this situation was revealed—if the man responsible for examining the body had no clue how to tell a death caused by illness from a death caused by poison, how many murderers were getting away with their crimes?
The world of forensic medicine was undergoing a rapid change, however, as laws restricting autopsies for research purposes began to be rolled back. Although there had been a smattering of forensic medicine treatises published in Europe prior to this time, by the mid-1800s, an increasing number of books teaching post-mortem techniques were being being published. They covered topics such as how to establish time and cause of death, identifying infanticide, and featured lengthy sections on recognizing the effects of poisons. Furthermore, starting in 1860 in the United States, requirements arose requiring the participation of a physician in death investigations. In addition, the position of medical examiner, intended to be held by a doctor, was first established in Massachusetts in 1877. To this day, however, most states that utilize coroners do not require the person holding the office to have a medical degree.
During the time my book, No Comfort for the Lost, is set, San Francisco’s coroner happened to be a local physician, Dr. Stephen Harris. As a matter of fact, all of the coroners in the city since 1857 have been trained physicians. The job then came with a salary of $2500 per year, plus compensation for each inquest performed and for any chemical analysis conducted during an investigation, and an office. It did not, however, come with a morgue. Dr. Harris was forced to utilize space in the building of a local undertaker, Atkins Massey, who was so proud of hosting the coroner that he included the fact in the advertisement he placed in the City Directory. This situation would be resolved in 1868, when the legislature finally took up a bill to establish a morgue (a ‘death house’) in San Francisco. Sadly for Mr. Massey, perhaps.
As to whether or not Dr. Harris was actually good at his job, I haven’t been able to discern. However, in my books he is a competent assistant to the work Detective Greaves has to do, utilizing the latest in forensic medical knowledge. What he might have been able to uncover was limited, compared to what is possible these days—estimation of the date of death was rough, but naming the cause of death and the type of weapon used was reasonably possible. Linking the crime to the perpetrator, though, still relied upon asking questions and hoping for witnesses. Detailed collection and analysis of crime-scene data, a la CSI, was still decades in the future.
Just two of the resources used:
Gross, Charles. Select Cases from the Coroners' Rolls, A. D. 1265-1413: With a Brief Account of the History of the Office of Coroner. London: Quaritch, 1895.
Rao, Dinesh. “History of Medicolegal System”. Forensicpathologyonline. Dr. Dinesh Rao’s Forensic Pathology, 2013. Web. 15 Oct. 2015.
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