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Social Science History 25.1 (2001) 93-100
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Getting away with Murder?
Homicide and the Coroners in Nineteenth-Century London
Mary Beth Emmerichs
The contentions in this paper arose tangentially from a study of London coroners I began in the summer of 1998. I had intended to examine the verdicts from nineteenth-century coroners’ courts in order to assess the differences in verdicts that might arise depending on whether the coroner was a doctor, a lawyer, or neither. Was a physician more likely to detect murder as a cause of death than a lawyer or a "civilian?" Instead, as I read hundreds of inquest reports and explored the history of the coroners’ courts, I began to realize that [End Page 93] no matter who the coroners were, it was rare for any of them to bring in a verdict of "wilful murder," even in cases that seemed very suspicious to me.
Evidence suggestive of the inaccurate reporting and underprosecution of homicide in England in the nineteenth century can be found under at least three different headings. The first heading would have to be structural problems in the coroners’ offices of England. Until 1860 coroners were under the complete control of the local justices of the peace (JPs), who made the decisions about which sudden deaths would be examined at an inquest by controlling the payments to coroners (Forbes 1979). Since inquests were expensive, the JPs wanted inquests on bodies only when there were signs of violence or a real mystery about the cause of death. Any coroner who held an inquest deemed unnecessary by the justices of the peace did not get paid for his time or travel. Even after 1860, there seems to have been continuous conflict between coroners and JPs about this matter until 1888, when justices of the peace lost their last bit of control over coroners’ salaries (Knapman and Powers 1985). According to J. D. J. Havard’s The Detection of Secret Homicide (1960), this dispute led to the proliferation of such crimes as the "secret" murders of children by poisoning in order that their parents might collect insurance money. In Manchester during the period June to October 1846, for instance, only 87 inquests were held on the deaths of people of all ages. During that same time, in just one district of Manchester–Deansgate–279 children died, fewer than half having been attended by doctors. Havard argues that, by their reluctance to pay for inquests, the justices were almost complicit in the murder of children.
The second heading under which homicides could be concealed was the inability to convict women of murder for neonaticide1 and the subsequent substitution of prosecution for concealment of birth, the secret disposal of a dead neonate after the birth. In 1860, in all of England, 126 dead babies had been found but only 81 women were charged. In 1865, 221 were found (88 in Middlesex, generally contiguous with London) and only 120 women charged.2 Few women whose dead babies were discovered and who appeared before the courts in the last part of the century were charged with murder. Instead they were charged with concealment of birth, a much easier charge on which to convict. Though there was always suspicion that a dead newborn was a homicide, few juries (made up mostly of middle-class men) were willing to convict a woman for such a crime, preferring to believe that temporary insanity [End Page 94] had been the cause or that the baby had been born dead. The verdict of "concealment of birth" became a common one in the coroners’ courts in the last third of the century, partly owing to the inadequacy of forensic medicine,3 and partly because of the difficulty of making homicide charges stick.4
The third heading would be the inadequacies of the coroners themselves. Until 1926 the only qualification for election or appointment as a coroner was the possession of property. In the London records, most coroners identified themselves as "gentleman," though there were ironmongers, builders and other prosperous tradesmen sitting as coroners in the other counties. Thomas Wakley, a London...