Coroner or Medical Examiner Records

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This article originally appeared in "Business, Institution, and Organization Records" by Kay Haviland Freilich, CG, CGL, and Ann Carter Fleming, CG, CGL in The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy

A coroner or medical examiner is contacted when an unnatural or unattended death occurs. This includes disasters, homicides, suicides, and accidents. When so many individuals perished after the Titanic sank, the recovered bodies were taken to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where the local medical examiner prepared a report on each victim. John Jacob Astor was one person whose body was found.

If a death certificate is available, look at the signature of the medical official. Was it the doctor, coroner, or the medical examiner? If it was either of the last two, other records may be available for research.

The coroner is a position that was brought to this country from England in the 1600s. The county sheriff worked with the coroner, and often the same person held both offices. The coroner may be appointed or elected to the county position. County court records may indicate that your ancestor was paid to be the coroner or served on the jury that made the official finding based on his evidence. Coroners’ records are available in most counties. Some records date back to the 1700s, while others are just a few years old. Unfortunately, this type of record has not been retained in all locations. Some counties have only a ledger book others have the complete file.

During the 1970s, the coroner in large cities was replaced by a medical examiner. The medical examiner must be an M.D., while the coroner may or may not be. A rural community probably has a county coroner who is also the local funeral home director, sheriff, or area physician. The official change from a coroner to that of a medical examiner eventually leads to a change in record access. While records created by a coroner are open to the public, medical examiner’s records are only available to the next of kin.

Coroner records (and perhaps some early medical examiner records) may be maintained at the morgue, local historical society, or state archives. Some have been microfilmed, while others are in the original packets. To locate a record in the Family History Library Catalog, search by location, then look under Vital Records or Court Records. Other libraries and archives catalog these records in a similar manner.

The Genealogical Society of Utah has microfilmed some of the early coroner records of metropolitan cities. The attached image is the first page of a five-page entry from the Coroner’s Evidence Book of Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania, recording Isadore Raimonda’s fatal stabbing of Dominic Raimonda in 1876. It does not contain extensive genealogical information, stating specifically only the deceased’s name, age, height, and date and cause of death, the hospital to which the deceased was taken, and the name of the attending physician. The jury’s verdict is given; Isadore Raimonda was convicted of manslaughter, suggesting a search of prison records.

The records of the coroner or medical examiner (if open) should be examined even when a government-issued death certificate is available. These records, particularly those dated after 1960, will usually contain more detailed information about the death and sometimes about the deceased, leading to clues for additional research; the information found in figure 4-14 suggests several possibilities:

  1. Names of the deceased and the defendant. Although not specifically stated, the record implies that Isadore and Dominic were cousins. Approach any further research with this possibility in mind.
  2. Translator. The police officer interviewed the wounded Dominic with a translator, so the dying man may have been a recent immigrant. Naturalization records may show if either Dominic or Isadore had petitioned for or received citizenship.
  3. Hospital. Check hospital records that still exist for more information.
  4. Verdict. The record concludes with the report that Isadore was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced, a notation made later after the appropriate court has dealt with the case. Prison records may contain additional biographical facts about Isadore Raimonda.
  5. The coroner also issues death certificates. This document generally provides the deceased’s name, age, sex, place of birth, race, occupation, marital status, place of death, date of death, and cause of death.

In contrast to the very full record on the fatal Raimonda quarrel is an entry in the Coroner’s Evidence Book of the New York City coroner in 1862.

Usually the records are on file at the office of the coroner or medical examiner. Early records may have been transferred to the city or county clerk’s office, the local historical society, or a state archive. The coroner’s office will probably know where the old records are located. Some offices will not release the records without proof of relationship to the deceased and a statement indicating how the information in the record will be used. Family history is usually considered a valid reason. Unless the witnesses at an inquest perjured themselves, the testimony should be factual, eliminating erroneous information about the deceased.

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