Twigs and Trees, September 21, 2000
As genealogists we are obsessed with the dead. Let's face it, the majority of the individuals we are searching for are in fact dead. And while we automatically look for death records, we seldom think to look for other records that may be generated by the death of our ancestor. One of the overlooked records is coroners' records.
Perhaps it is because we hate to think of anything bad happening to our ancestors that overshadow our thoughts when it comes to these records. However, there are some cases where the cause of death of an ancestor may indeed have generated a coroner's inquest.
Coroners records may exist even if your ancestor didn't die a brutal death.
What Brings the Coroner
We tend to assume that the coroner was involved only when the death was of a violent nature. However, this is a faulty assumption on our part. The coroner could also have been called in when the death was of a mysterious or accidental nature as well.
Another faulty assumption on the part of us as present day researchers is to assume that these records are of a more recent invention. Coroners have existed for hundreds of years, and in some localities those records of long ago still exist.
What Types of Records
There are many different types of records that you are likely to find in a coroner's report, including:
- Pathology reports
- Necrology reports
- Toxicology reports
- Testimony offered at the inquest
- Police reports
- Jury reports
Like other records, the coroner's records can be found at a variety of levels of jurisdiction including city, county, and state. Most places will have a county examiner, however larger cities will have medical examiner offices.
Finding the Records
Finding these records requires that the researcher first determine the jurisdiction for the locality where the ancestor died. In some cases the death record may give you the clue that there is a coroner's investigation. I have seen death certificates that indicate they are temporary pending the results of the coroner's report. And usually attached to such a certificate is the final answer in a revised form from the coroner. This is especially true in Illinois.
Some localities have allowed their coroner's records to be microfilmed by the Family History Library. This should be one of the first places you check unless the ancestors died locally in which case you can contact the local coroner's office to find out where those records are now housed.
The next time you discover an ancestor who died under questionable circumstances, follow up by trying to track down coroner's records. Just remember though, that you may not always like the answer to the question.
Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is an award-winning author of several genealogy how-to books, including The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, The Genealogist's Computer Companion, and Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
See more advice from Rhonda in her columns Expert Tips, Tigs and Trees, and Overheard in the Message Boards.