“Using Coroner’s Records,” by Mary Penner

Remember those famous lines by poet Dylan Thomas? “Do not go gentle into that good night/Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Addressing the poem’s lines to his dying father, Thomas urges him to challenge death, to fight to the end, and to not go quietly or gently.

Some of our ancestors did just that. Their earthly ends came with a flourish, although it may have been a tragic flourish. Farm accidents, gunshot wounds, stabbings, drownings, even lightning strikes–some of our ancestors met death in a stunning, anything but gentle, manner.

If your ancestor had an untimely end, check for details in the local coroner’s records. Dating back some 900 years, the coroner’s system traces its beginnings to medieval England. Death was serious business in merry old England. Strict and complex rules governed death, its circumstances, and the handling of corpses. The coroner imposed hefty fines on community residents who side-stepped the rules regarding dead persons.

It was particularly bothersome when strangers to a community turned up dead in their midst. The responsibilities and potential financial consequences for those who discovered stray dead people could be so great that villagers sometimes dragged a dead body to a nearby village and left the unfortunate soul on someone else’s doorstep.

The coroner’s position evolved over the years from fine collector to its current primary responsibility, which is investigating suspicious, violent, sudden, or unattended deaths.

The death investigation systems in the United States today vary from state to state. Some states still have coroners who may not have any medical training. Coroners typically coordinate the investigations into suspicious deaths, hiring physicians to conduct autopsies if necessary.

Other states have medical examiners who must be physicians with pathology training. Other states have a combination of the two systems. Check online at the Center for Disease Control website to find links to summaries of each state’s current system.

If you have a twentieth-century relative whose death resulted in a medical examiner’s report, you’re apt to find a large amount of medical information. You’ll find a complete physical description at the time of death, including external evidence of injuries. If an autopsy was performed, you’ll learn about the deceased’s medical conditions. The medical examiner will summarize the cardiovascular, endocrine, respiratory, and musculoskeletal systems. The examiner will offer an opinion on the cause of death. There will also likely be pictures of the deceased. (Not something for the faint-hearted.)

For earlier records, you may not find as many details. You might simply find a one page summary of a coroner’s report. The report generally identified the deceased, the location of death, and the cause of death. One nineteenth-century New Mexico coroner determined that a man’s death resulted from a “fractured skull caused by blows with a billiard cue.”

For murdered people, reports might identity the likely culprit. One report noted that death resulted from a stab wound “by an unknown person, but circumstantial evidence points strongly to a man currently being held” for the crime.

Sometimes a jury convened to examine the deceased and hear testimony at an inquest. Inquest juries were often headed by a justice of the peace. If you’re lucky, you might find a transcript of the testimonies given at the inquest. The transcripts of an inquest for an 1893 death revealed that six different people had been with the deceased in the hours before his murder. None claimed to be eyewitnesses, but they each gave their own version of the events leading up to his death.

Ancestral relatives who died young populate our family group sheets. But, don’t just assume they died from diseases or medical conditions known to plague previous generations. Check for coroner’s records for anyone who died young, in addition to those who died accidentally, violently, or suspiciously.

Finding coroner’s records can be a challenge. Start at the county level and work your way up to the state level. Coroner’s records could be at the county clerk’s office, among probate records, justice of the peace records, or in the local court system records. Some coroner’s records have been transferred to state libraries or archives.

While coroner’s records aren’t generally overflowing with genealogical clues, you might discover the next of kin, read testimony from relatives, or learn about an ancestor’s residence or occupation. If the case involved murder, the coroner’s report can point you toward the criminal case files and other court documents related to the perpetrator of the crime. Finally, investigate coroner’s records to help solve family mysteries and add depth to the lives and deaths of your ancestors.

Genealogist Mary Penner writes “Lineage Lessons,” a weekly genealogy column, for the Albuquerque Tribune (http://www.abqtrib.com/staff/mary-penner/). She can be reached through her website (http://www.marypenner.com).

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6 thoughts on ““Using Coroner’s Records,” by Mary Penner

  1. I was investigating a 1926 suspicious death that occurred in Santa Cruz County, CA. I inquired about a coroner’s report at the County level and was told they didn’t have records that early. Do you have an idea in what State office or department such records might be filed? Have they been found in Depts. of Health in any state or where?

    Thanks.

  2. While Coroner’s records may work, for years in the distant past, it may not work for us today. There is the privacy act for starters. I had a aunt who died in Florida back in the 1970′s. It took me several tries to get a copy of her Death Certificate as Florida is a closed state. They would not list the cause of death. Here in Michigan, they tell all on the Death Certificate-at least on ones I have obtained a few years ago.

  3. I live in New York City. My grandmother’s death certificate led me to the Coroner’s Office. On May 2, 2001, I received in the Coroner’s Office a copy of a “Notice of Death from the City of New York Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.” This March 1942 Coroner’s Report stated my grandmother was “colored,an unemployed dressmaker,a widow,born 1848, and she died at age 94,when she fell out of a window. Her causes of death were “Fractures of Skull” and she is buried in Georgia. Prior to this report, I knew very little about my grandmother. What a great find for me.

  4. Am I doing something wrong? I used to be able to print off an article without all the right side data on it. Our genealogy group use these newsletters as help to all our members.

    It seems now I cannot make a copy of just one section at a time.

    Please let me know what I am doing wrong and do not have a computer answer my inquiry.

    Thank you

  5. I sought to do just that when I personally went to the Coroner’s Office in Washington, DC in 2000. I requested a copy, or at least an opportunity to read the report on my grandfather’s death from December 1937.
    I was instructed that all Coroner Cases over 40 years old are destructed,
    Sincerely,

    Laura J. Irby

  6. Reading this article prompted me to research the May 1969 murder of a first cousin’s wife in Chicago. Although I wasn’t quite 11 years old when it happened, I still recall the whispers of relatives as bits and pieces of the story were revealed. Unfortunately, no one that I talked to years later could agree on what was truth and what was family legend.

    I first acquired the death certificate which provided the correct date, time and location the body was discovered. It also confirmed that she died from strangulation and that her husband (my cousin) found her in their basement apartment. The hard part, though, was getting copies of her file from the Cook County (IL) Medical Examiner. Because the murder occurred 38 years ago, the records were held off-site in a warehouse.

    I sent in my initial request for a search of the Medical Records department old case files in early February 2007. After not receiving or hearing anything for several weeks, I called them in March and was told my request hadn’t yet left the supervisor’s locked desk drawer. By the end of April I sent a letter to the supervisor asking for the current status of my request. When I didn’t get a response to my letter to the supervisor by late June, I wrote a letter to the Chief Medical Examiner. Success!

    The Chief Medical Examiner passed my letter on to the Executive Officer of the Medical Examiner’s office who in turned assigned someone to oversee the Medical Records office in handling my request. I finally received copies of the autopsy, pathology and inquest reports nearly six months after I made the original request.

    While the reports were informative and very much appreciated because I had nothing concrete about the murder prior to their receipt, I was disappointed that they did not include anything about the police investigation nor the suspect who was eventually caught, convicted and imprisoned for the crime. I was told that I need to check with the Chicago Police Department to see if they have records available. I hope they not only have this old case file, but that they work a little more quickly than the Medical Examiner’s office in expediting my request!

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