An view of a coroner’s inquest, 1826. (Wellcome Library, London, used under creative commons)
Thanks to a reader of this blog, Sherry, who asked me if I could recommend any books or publications that look at 19th century autopsy procedures, I thought I’d do a short list this week of resources for those wanting to know more about historical autopsies and also the role of the coroner.
The autopsy – also known as the postmortem – is the dissection and examination of a dead body, to establish a cause of death. The role of the coroner is aligned to this in that his or her role is to inquire (with the help of a jury) into any death that appears to be unnatural, through the means of an inquest. In Victorian times, the autopsy might be carried out either in operating theatres or in private homes – and coroner’s inquests might be held in a local pub.
Many stories I have covered on this site originate with a report of a coroner’s inquest, and, in fact, one of my own family history mysteries relates to my great-great-grandfather, who died in the 1890s.
An inquest was held to see whether he had died through neglect or as a result of manslaughter – irritatingly, the inquest records for West Sussex, where he died, have not survived, and the newspapers don’t seem to mention him, so it looks like I’ll never find out what the coroner said about this case (although the death certificate duly recorded a verdict of ‘neglect not amounting to manslaughter’, so I know what the coroner’s jury decided!). But anyway – onto my list.
1 . The Victorian Medico-Legal Autopsy, by Karyo Magellan
This fascinating article first appeared in Ripperologist magazine, but is now available on the Casebook website. It looks at autopsies and forensic examinations as they existed in 1888, the year that Jack the Ripper was wreaking havoc in east London.
2. Short History of the Autopsy, by Jack Gulczyński, Ewa Izycka-Świeszewska and Marek Grzybiak
For an academic discussion of the history of the autopsy, try this (English language) article in the Polish Journal of Pathology. This is actually the second of two articles, and focuses on the period between the 16th and 21st centuries. It’s free to download as a pdf, which is a novelty with academic journal articles. 🙂
3. A Bite Into the History of the Autopsy, by Julian L Burton
This is another academic article, this time from the journal Forensic Science, Medicine and Pathology (1(4), December 2005, pp.277-284). Part of it looks at the development of the autopsy during the 17th to 19th centuries, although its focus is limited to Europe.
4. The Coroners’ Society
The website for The Coroners’ Society of England and Wales has a page on its history, and that of the duty of coroners throughout history. It links to the inaugural minutes of the society from 1846, and refers to legislation such as the Coroners Act of 1887 (and if your interest is well and truly piqued, elsewhere on the site, you can learn how to become a C21st coroner…).
5. The National Archives
Although The National Archives (TNA) does not have any coroners’ records available to view on its own site, it has a useful research guide as to where you can find information about coroners’ inquests. These include records held at TNA (such as CHES 18 and ASSI 66), and those found in local archives as part of Quarter Session records (coroners being required to file their inquests there until 1860).
And also, remember that historic newspapers can also shed a surprising amount of detail on the process of Victorian postmortems, particularly in prominent murder cases. In the UK, you can try the British Newspaper Archive and Welsh Newspapers Online; or in the States, Newspapers.com.