Remember those famous lines by poet Dylan Thomas? â€œDo not go gentle into that good night/Rage, rage against the dying of the light.â€
Addressing the poemâ€™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 coronerâ€™s records. Dating back some 900 years, the coronerâ€™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 elseâ€™s doorstep.
The coronerâ€™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 websiteÂ to find links to summaries of each stateâ€™s current system.
If you have a twentieth-century relative whose death resulted in a medical examinerâ€™s report, youâ€™re apt to find a large amount of medical information. Youâ€™ll find a complete physical description at the time of death, including external evidence of injuries. If an autopsy was performed, youâ€™ll learn about the deceasedâ€™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 coronerâ€™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 manâ€™s death resulted from a â€œfractured skull caused by blows with a billiard cue.â€
For murdered people, reports might identity the likely culprit. One report noted that death resulted from a stab wound â€œby an unknown person, but circumstantial evidence points strongly to a man currently being heldâ€ 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 youâ€™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, donâ€™t just assume they died from diseases or medical conditions known to plague previous generations. Check for coronerâ€™s records for anyone who died young, in addition to those who died accidentally, violently, or suspiciously.
Finding coronerâ€™s records can be a challenge. Start at the county level and work your way up to the state level. Coronerâ€™s records could be at the county clerkâ€™s office, among probate records, justice of the peace records, or in the local court system records. Some coronerâ€™s records have been transferred to state libraries or archives.
While coronerâ€™s records arenâ€™t generally overflowing with genealogical clues, you might discover the next of kin, read testimony from relatives, or learn about an ancestorâ€™s residence or occupation. If the case involved murder, the coronerâ€™s report can point you toward the criminal case files and other court documents related to the perpetrator of the crime. Finally, investigate coronerâ€™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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