The Coroner - A Historical Origin

The specialized field in which the skills of medical science are applied to serve the needs of law and justice is called legal or forensic medicine.

Legal medicine is so intimately associated with human conduct that its development may be considered contemporary with that of the social development of man. And particularly with the recognition or punishment of crime. Biblical laws made a distinction between mortal and dangerous wounds and had laws relating to the subject of public medicine. The laws of ancient Greece and Rome demonstrate evidence that some of the more important medical problems were recognized. Suetonius recorded that the body of Julius Caesar was examined by a physician named Antisius, who declared that out of 23 wounds inflicted, the one which penetrated the thorax was the cause of death.

The Justinian Code (529-533 A.D.) required the opinion of physicians in certain cases and is often credited as the origin of recognition of the correlation of law and medicine in effecting legal justice. In a penal code formulated by the Bishop of Bamberg in 1507 A.D., it was stipulated that a medical examination was to be made in all cases of violent death. In 1532, the Diet of Ratisbon under Charles V designated in the Constitution Carolina that in all cases where medical testimony could enlighten the judge or assist in the investigation of personal injury or murder, such evidence was to be required. Thus, on the European continent the specialty of legal medicine developed as a specific function of government.

In England and Ireland at the time, we find a somewhat different approach to the legal problems of criminal violence. There the investigations were made by a representative of the King. The full title of this official was: "Custos Placitorum Coronae, more popularly the "Coronator". Eventually this title became Coroner. The exact date of the origin of this office in England is not know. Some believe that it originated under the Saxon Kings, perhaps as early as 958 A.D. Other dates of origin are presumed to be "soon after the conquest by William the Conqueror" (1066 A.D.) or under "Henry the First" (early in the twelfth century). Article 20 of the Articles of Eyre (1194) provided for the election of one clerk to act as custodian of the please of the Crown. His relation to deaths by violence was secondary to other functions.

When death resulted from violence, it was customary to seize the property of the victim. Objects producing accidental deaths were confiscated also. These were sold, and the receipts distributed as alms. It was supposed to mean that these alms, known as deodands, would serve as a means of appeasing God's wrath for the shedding of blood.

It is believed that William Penn, founder and Governor of Pennsylvania, was appointed the first Coroner in the American colonies. This appointment was made when a dead body was found on the banks of a river in Pennsylvania. The Coroner was instructed to investigate the facts concerning the death, proceeding in the same manner as was customary in England except that the property of the dead man was to be held in trust for the heirs.