I’m heading to the North American Conference on British Studies this weekend in Portland (or perhaps I’m heading to weird and wonderful Portlandia* where there just happens to also be a conference…). I’m giving a paper on mid-nineteenth-century coroners on Saturday (program here), but thought I’d share an interesting tidbit here on the blog.
I came across the topic while researching murder investigations and discovered that after 1829 the police began to infringe on what had traditionally been the coroners’ purview: investigating murder. As a result many local coroners felt deeply marginalized when the police and local magistrates cut in on their turf. To make matters worse, with the advent of England’s new police forces, no legislation was ever passed delineating how the two groups were meant to investigate murders in tandem.
Once a suspicious death was reported, the coroner (if he decided an investigation was necessary) would empanel a jury and investigate the circumstances of the death by viewing the body and hearing the testimony of witnesses. The police also had an interest solving murders, however, and often undertook their investigations concurrently with the inquest. If a coroners’ jury found a verdict against a suspect, the coroner could have that individual bound over for trial at the next assizes. If the police identified a suspect, they had that person charged before a magistrate. If the magistrate felt that there was sufficient evidence to go forward, they too could bind suspects over for trial.
These overlapping jurisdictions became problematic, especially when both coroners and the police wanted to interview the same people. This was not usually a problem unless an inquest wanted to examine a suspect, but if the police already had the individual in custody it was difficult for a coroner to get hold of them. Middlesex coroner John Humphrey described it as a sort of race: “It depends,” he said, “upon who gets possession of the prisoner first.” Although coroners routinely appealed to the Home Office for help, it was nearly impossible to extract a suspect from pretrial custody for them to be brought before an inquest. Humphrey felt that it was important and “right that a prisoner should be before the jury that is trying him.”
In testimony before an 1860 Select Committee on the Office of the Coroner, coroners portrayed themselves as the wronged parties. It was policemen and magistrates, they claimed, who rode roughshod over their ancient privileges. But not all were pitiable bystanders. In January 1855 Thomas Wakley, one of the Middlesex Coroners, had had enough. Wakley was, at best, a confrontational man with an “unfortunate tendency to act abrasively.” And act abrasively he did. While a murder suspect was convalescing in the Middlesex Hospital under police custody, Wakley took possession of him and brought him before his inquest. The jury finding a verdict against him, Wakley had the man committed for trial and placed in Newgate. Wakley had successfully – or so he thought – circumvented the police investigation. The police, however, were able to have the prisoner’s trial delayed to allow for a proper police investigation. While, as usual, the police investigation took priority over the coroner’s wishes, the case does demonstrate that not all coroners felt themselves powerless in the face of jurisdictional wrangling.