Coroner Inquests, 1786-1915
RECORD GROUP: County Clerk
RECORD SERIES #: 300
SERIES: Coroner Inquests
VOLUME: 41.5 cubic feet
Forms part of the repository's County Clerk's Office subgroup. Office of Coroner replaced by Monmouth County, County Physician in 1913. Coroner certificates; inquests containing cause of death and statements of family members and witnesses; and death reports (1885-1890).
Transferred to the repository by Jane G. Clayton, Monmouth County Clerk. Partially restricted; access to records relating to suicide require judicial permission. Finding aid, index, and statistical analysis in the repository.
||Monmouth County (N.J.). County Clerk|
||Coroners--New Jersey--Monmouth County|
|County government--New Jersey--Records and correspondence|
|Death-Proof and certification|
|GENRE OR FORM:
||Registers of births, etc.--New Jersey--Monmouth County|
|Public records--New Jersey--Monmouth County|
I. LEGISLATIVE HISTORY
Coroners, elected annually, played an important role in county government from the 18th century to the early 20th century. Although their primary duty was to investigate cases of death under suspicious circumstances, their position required no training or medical knowledge.
On March 8, 1796, the General Assembly approved an Act entitled, "An Act Respecting Coroners," establishing guidelines and procedures to be followed by the coroners. The Act directed the coroner "to view the body and take inquests of deaths in prison, and of all violent, sudden and casual deaths within the county and the manner of such death."
If the coroner, after viewing the body, had any suspicions of foul play surrounding the death, he could then issue a notice to any constable directing him to summon a jury of twenty-four "good and lawful men to appear before him at a specified time and place." Of the twenty-four men, twelve or more would be sworn in as jurors. It was the jurors' charge to determine whether the death was "by murder, manslaughter, misadventure, misfortune, accident, or otherwise." The coroner also had the authority to call witnesses. If the jury decided the death had been caused by one of the above mentioned reasons, the coroner would submit the findings to the next court of Oyer & Terminer for a hearing.
If the death was from natural causes, the coroner simply filed the coroner certificate, stating that "no guilt attaches to any person or persons by reason of the said death and that inquisition was not necessary." The inquest or certificate was filed with the County Clerk, accompanied by a list of fees for services rendered by the coroner in each reported death. The list of fees would later be referred to as the "taxed bill of cost."
It was not until the Constitution of 1844 that minor changes were made to the coroner's office and duties. Under the new Constitution, the term of office increased to a three year term and the coroner was required to take an oath before the County Clerk that the taxed bill of cost submitted was only for the services rendered in the death. The coroner was also required to sign the back of the taxed bill of cost as affirmation.
Monmouth County's famous coastline may have been a wonderful haven for sunbathers, even as early as the 1850s, but it also was known to be treacherous and deadly for ships and passengers aboard those ships. Hundreds of lives were lost in numerous shipwrecks off the County's coastline. After some debate between the County and the State, it was decided that the State, rather than the County, should bear the cost of coroner's fees with respect to shipwrecks. By 1855, through an act of legislation, coroner's fees for deaths related to shipwrecks were submitted to the Treasurer of the State, accompanied by a report. The report included the name of the ship, date of wreck, and the place where the shipwreck occurred with a full description of the body or bodies. The report also included the time and place of burial. Although the coroner's fees were paid by the State, he was required to return a copy of his report to the County Clerk's office.
The next major change to the role of the coroner was not made until 1876. Through the "Act Respecting County Physicians, approved April 21, 1876," any Board of Chosen Freeholders within the State was given the power and authority to "elect, if they determined it best to do so, at any regular or special meeting, a county physician, from the number of licensed physicians residing in said county." The county physician would assume all the duties of the coroner. The Act also stated, that if the County did not have a county physician, the coroners within the county were to continue in their duties, as before.
The Monmouth County Board of Chosen Freeholders did not choose to elect a county physician until 1913, when they named Dr. Harry Neafie as the first County Physician for a three year term. As stated in the minutes of the Board of Chosen Freeholders of January 8, 1913, the Board felt "that the increase in coroners' fees during the past four years is unwarranted and that the appointment of a County Physician, in accordance with the Statute in such case made and provided, would result in providing more economical control over the expenditures of such office."
To date, there is no explanation as to why the county's coroners continued to file their inquests and coroner certificates with the County Clerk until 1915, two years after the election of Neafie.
II. SCOPE AND CONTENT
The Coroner Inquest series consists of three different interfiled forms used by coroners to report a death. The three forms used were:
A. Coroner Certificates
The Coroner Certificate is a brief statement by the coroner naming the deceased and, in some instances, the deceased's place of residence. The certificates were used in the case of death due to natural cause or accidents and stated that no guilt was attached to the death and that an inquest was not necessary.
From 1802 until 1908, the certificates were handwritten. Preprinted forms were used from 1908 until 1915. Occasionally, the certificates include names of the parents of the deceased, and the age of the deceased. Early coroner certificates (1802-1908) state the reason for death, such as natural causes, misadventure, misfortune, or accident. Certificates issued from 1908 until 1915 only include the name of the deceased. In many cases in the later certificates, the date of death given is the date the certificate was filled out by the coroner, rather than the actual date of death.
Inquests were conducted for deaths of unknown causes or deaths under suspicious circumstances. As noted above, once the coroner determined the death was suspicious, he could, by law, call a jury together to decide if the matter should be referred to the Oyer & Terminer Court for hearing. The Inquest contains the cause of death and statements from family members, friends or witnesses who may have witnessed the death. By 1880, the inquest became more formalized and contains rough transcripts of witness testimony concerning any circumstances surrounding the death. The testimonies on file range from one page to three hundred pages.
C. Report of Death, 1885-1890
The Report of Death form was used for a very short period but contains valuable information, such as name, age, town, and birthplace of the deceased. The forms also give the date and cause of death. Parents' names and, in some cases, their birthplaces are mentioned.
The Coroner Inquest series is grouped chronologically by year and, within the year, arranged alphabetically by name of the deceased. The three different forms used by the coroner, namely the Coroner Certificate, the Inquest, and the Report of Death, are interfiled throughout.
The Coroner's Inquest series may be used by researchers on a partially restricted basis. Requests to see death records of non-suicide cases will be honored on a routine basis. Access to records for suicide cases or requests to see quantities of records that include suicide cases requires judicial permission. Researchers needing to see restricted records must provide a written request, stating the reason(s) why the records are needed, to an Archives staff member. The Archives will forward the request to the appropriate authorities.
A computer index is also available by name of the deceased person. The index includes the following information:
||SUBSER Coroner Certificate, Inquest or Report of Death|
||NAME Name of deceased|
||PLACE residence of deceased, unknown in many cases|
||DATE Date of death|
||CAUSE OF DEATH Unknown in many cases|
Cause of Death is not included for suicides, but there are also non-suicide cases for which cause of death is left bank because they are unknown.
A statistical analysis providing totals for different types of known causes of death is also available, as is a tally by year.
revised July 2006
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