When someone dies in a violent, unexpected, unexplained, or otherwise mysterious manner, their case may be referred to the local coroner for investigation. While the coroner wasn’t called for every death, inquests were more common than you might expect, including not only for violent deaths such as accidents, murders, and suicides but also to investigate any sudden death of a person in apparently good health or someone who was relatively young and not under the care of a licensed physician at the time of death. The coroner may also have gotten involved for workplace deaths, the death of someone in police custody, or any death involving unusual or suspicious circumstances. The records of these inquests conducted by the local coroner or medical examiner can be a great source of clues for building our family tree.
What You Can Learn From Coroner’s Records
Since they are created as part of the process of investigating a particular cause of death, coroner’s records can often provide information beyond what is found on the death certificate. Necrology and pathology reports, for example, may include details on the health of the individual and the exact manner of death.
Inquest testimony may point to family relationships, as friends and family often provided sworn statements. Witness statements may provide information on a wide variety of community members—local business owners, bystanders, neighbors, etc. Police statements and jury testimony and verdicts may also be available, leading to research in court records, or penitentiary or prison records. In some cases, ephemeral material such as photographs, bullets, suicide notes, or other items has been retained with the original files. Inquest records may also predate the recording of official death records in some jurisdictions.
How do you know if the death of an ancestor may have required the assistance of a coroner? Death certificates in many locations may provide a clue. In many localities, the death certificate will have been signed by a coroner. In England, from 1875, death records include details of when and where the inquest took place. Newspaper reports of a violent, accidental, or suspicious death may also provide clues that the death was further investigated by the coroner, as well as the date of death necessary for tracking down coroner’s records.
How to Locate Coroner and Inquest Records
Coroner’s records in most localities are considered public and open for research. They may, in many cases, be protected by the same privacy laws that cover death or health records, however. Many coroner’s records in England, for example, are protected for a period of 75 years.
Coroner’s records may be found at various jurisdictional levels. In many places, including the United States and England, records of coroner inquests will generally be maintained at the county level, although larger cities may have their own medical examiner’s office. Many of these records are not indexed or digitized, so you will need to know the approximate date of death before starting research. The Family History Library has microfilmed and/or digitized coroner’s records from a number of localities—search the Family History Library Catalog by location, or use a keyword such as “coroner” to find sources.
In some cases, such as in the examples highlighted below, inquest records (or at least an index to coroner’s records) may be found online. In other cases, online research, using keywords such as [your locality] and coroner records can point to how and where to access such records, such as this helpful guide from the Pittsburgh Archives Service Center on how to access copies of coroner case files.
Examples of Coroner’s Case Files Online
Missouri Digital Heritage: Coroner’s Inquest Database
Search for abstracts of coroner’s inquest case files available on microfilm at the Missouri State Archives, including records from a number of Missouri counties, plus the City of St. Louis.
Cook County Coroner’s Inquest Record Index, 1872–1911
The 74,160 records in this database were extracted from the Cook County Coroner’s Inquest Records. The site also provides information on how to request copies of the original files.
Ohio, Stark County Coroner’s Records, 1890–2002
Explore digitized records of over a century of coroner’s records from Stark County, Ohio, available online for free from FamilySearch.
Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania: Search Coroners Dockets
Access digitized copies of the coroner’s docket page for investigated Westmoreland County deaths from the late 1880s through 1996.
Australia, Victoria, Inquest Dispostion Files, 1840–1925
This free, searchable collection from FamilySearch contains digital images of court inquest records from the Public Records Office of Victoria in North Melbourne, Australia.
Ventura County, California: Coroner’s Inquest Records, 1873–1941
The Ventura County Genealogical Society hosts this free PDF index of case files available from the Ventura County Medical Examiner’s Office. They also have a second, very helpful, index of other names they have abstracted from these files (witnesses, family members, etc.