Did your ancestor meet a tragic or untimely death? Perhaps you tracked down his or her death certificate and it included a notation about an autopsy, and/or a medical certificate of death, with the signature of a coroner or medical examiner.
Death certificates are staples of genealogy research, but many times there is more to the story. Coroners investigated all types of unexplained deaths from drug overdoses to drownings, mishaps to murders, making their records useful for learning more about an ancestor.
A coroner is a public official whose primary function is to investigate by inquest any death thought to be of other than natural causes or occur under unusual circumstances. Sometimes an elected position, the Office of the Coroner dates back to the Anglo-Saxon Common Law system of government, making it the oldest administrative office. This is sometimes an elected position, and the individual may not have a medical background. The powers and responsibilities have changed over the years.
In general, coroners look at all available information to determine the cause of death (natural or not), decide whether to order a post-mortem examination (autopsy) if there are questions around the cause of death, and hold an inquest if the post-mortem shows the death was due to something other than natural causes. The purpose of an inquest is to find out the facts not for judging who was to blame. In many areas, the Office of the Coroner was abolished and replaced with the office of the Medical Examiner. Medical Examiners are appointed to their position and almost always are physicians (learn more here).
In addition to detailing specifics about an ancestor’s demise, coroner's records can also reveal plenty of genealogy research clues. Typically, a coroner used a standard pre-printed form. The contents and format will vary by locality and time period may include some or all of the following:
Inquest form (details on deceased). If the coroner determined the cause of death was criminal negligence or murder, he held an inquest.
• Testimony/ies: During an inquest, the court appointed jurors and called witnesses to testify.
• Affidavit (testimony/deposition). Some of these witnesses may have been relatives, and in addition to their names and relationships to the deceased, the records might include their addresses.
• Postmortem findings (autopsies).
• Necrology report; Pathology Report, Toxicology Report
• Proof of identity
How to Locate Coroner’s Records
Coroner and medical examiner files generally are open to the public. If the ones you need are not, family history research may be a legitimate reason for access (check the local laws). Here are a few suggestions for starting your search.
First, check home and family sources (documents, photographs, etc.) and ask relatives if they can remember details about any unusual or suspicious deaths.
A quick Google search on the county and state, plus “coroner case files” or “coroner records” will usually turn up a website for the coroner or medical examiner office in the jurisdiction where the death occurred. Use online databases provided by the county or other government office. Sites such as Cyndi’s List and USGenWeb are also great resources for finding other websites. Also, the Online Searchable Death Indexes and Records site by Joe Beine offers a quick glance at different types of death records available online for free or in subscription databases. The site is organized by state and under Indiana has a link the Monroe County Indiana Obituary Index, which includes a downloadable PDF file of The Monroe County Coroner’s Reports (1896 – 1935) in a summarized table format. Below is a sample page.
For older records, consider searching at state, regional, local or university libraries and repositories, or genealogical and historical societies. For example, I have had success with locating coroner case files for several ancestors in the Allegheny County Coroner Case Files housed at the University of Pittsburgh. You can view samples of their case files here.
Also, consult the FamilySearch Wiki online (do a keyword search for “Coroner’s Records”) to find digitized records now available online, or links to other FamilySearch Historical Records Published Collections. And don’t forget to check the Family History Library (FHL) catalog for microfilm available for viewing at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City (do a place search for the locality and look under vital records. For example, this digitized image from Coroner's records, Waterbury District, 1917-1931 (New Haven, Connecticut) on Family Search offers details about Irving Webster, who died on 1 January 1931 in New Hartford, from “a saw wound of the skull by being struck by a flying fragment of a circular saw.”
Scour historical newspapers for articles about your ancestor. Check websites such as GenDisasters.com to learn about disasters or tragic events, or search for blogs that discuss murder, suicides and other suspicious deaths in a locality. Google Books can turn up unusual record sets or books. For example, I found an eBook History of Pittsburgh & Environs and in it there is a photograph of, Samuel L. Jamison the Coroner for Allegheny County in Pittsburgh, whose signature appears on reports I located for two separate ancestors.
Researching Coroner's records may take some extra time and effort, but if you are lucky to find a file or report for your ancestor, there may be useful genealogy clues included to help you solve some of those family history mysteries.
To learn more about this record set, you may wish to check out my webinar on “Cause of Death: Using Coroner's Records for Genealogy” (available for subscribers in the Legacy Family Tree Webinars Library).
For over two decades, author and instructor Lisa A. Alzo has been educating and inspiring genealogists around the world to research and write about their ancestors. She has presented 45 webinars for Legacy Family Tree Webinars. Lisa coaches aspiring family history writers through her online courses at Research, Write, Connect https://www.researchwriteconnect.com