In my latest post on the Julia Achard story, “Julia Achard and the Death of Sarah Ahern,” I quoted from some coroner’s inquest records. Are you using coroner’s inquests to fill in your family history? If not, maybe you should be.
If a decedent’s death was under “suspicious” circumstances, a coroner may have been called in to investigate. “Suspicious” could mean some sort of accident, a suicide, or an unattended or unexpected death. The coroner may eventually deem that the unexpected death was due to natural causes, but if the decedent had not been under a doctor’s care, or recently seen by a physician, there might be some question as to the cause of death and require a coroner’s investigation in the matter.
Where can you find coroners’ records? You can contact the county where the death occurred to see if there was an inquest. The coroner might be a branch of the sheriff’s department or might have an office unto itself. When in doubt, do a little digging on the internet, or contact the county sheriff and they can point you in the right direction.
Some coroner’s records are available on FamilySearch. Do a “Place search” in the catalog for the county and state of interest https://familysearch.org/catalog/search). In the catalog section under “Vital records” for that county, you might find “Coroner’s records” listed. Stark County, Ohio is one place that FamilySearch has made the coroner’s records available (https://familysearch.org/search/catalog/1922540?availability=Family%20History%20Library).
When looking at on-line records, you may find that some of the pages have been blacked out due to privacy restrictions.
What might prompt a researcher to look at coroner’s records? Sometimes the death certificate might indicate if there was an autopsy done. A coroner’s report might provide more details. Or maybe you found a newspaper article about the death which hints at an accident, a suicide or something otherwise suspicious. A newspaper article might even mention that a coroner's inquest would be held. Or maybe the only death “certificate” you can locate is a line item in a death register, where the “Cause of Death” column notes “blood poisoning” or “RR accident.”
Though the term "R.R. Accident" might seem self-explanatory following up with a coroner’s report can give you many more details of just what happened. And if you find a young woman died of blood poisoning, you'll definitely want to look for coroner's records - many of these cases, were similar to the story of Sarah Ahern, the result of an illegal operation to terminate a pregnancy.
Some coroner’s reports are more extensive than others. I’ve seen some one-page pre-printed, fill-in-the-blank forms and at the other end of the spectrum, some six-page or longer reports which include transcriptions of the testimonies of several witnesses. But with each one, I came away with more details about the death I was researching.
Here’s one example… I found a brief article on Newspapers.com in The Akron Beacon Journal of 27 January 1896 indicating Andrew McGowan and George Thorn were killed by a train on the Fort Wayne road near Massillon, Ohio.[i] I was able to find their death records on FamilySearch.[ii] For each man, the ledger-style death record showed the cause of death as “R. R. Accident.”
But from the coroner’s records, many more details come to light regarding the death of “George Thorn, whose dead body was found at Newmans Creek Crossing alonth The P. Ft. W. Railway track on the 26th day of January A.D. 1896…” Coroner T. C. McQuate states that after examining the body and heard the evidence “I do find the deceased…George Thorn in company with his friend McGugan were killed while intoxicated and trespassing on the P. Ft. W. R. track. Said Thorn and McGugan were on their way home, going westward on The P. Ft. W. Ry track. Said Thorn got close to a curve in the track about 100 yards above Newmans Crossing, he was struck and killed, said curve hiding view so they could not see east bout train, till it struck and accidentally killed him.”[iii] McQuate reports much the same regarding the death of “Auda McGugan.”[iv]
As you can see, the coroner’s report provides significantly more detail than the “R.R. Accident” noted in the death register. If you haven’t used coroner’s records in your genealogy research, it might be time to have a look at some!
[i] “Miners Killed,” The Akron Beacon Journal, 27 January 1896, page 3, col 1, from Newspapers.com, accessed 5 March 2017
[ii] "Ohio, County Death Records, 1840-2001," database with images, FamilySearch.org. (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3QS7-89ZR-VGKJ?mode=g&cc=2128172 : accessed 5 March 2017), Thornton, Geo. W, 26 Jan 1896; citing Death, Newman, Lawrence Township, Stark, Ohio, United States, source ID v 3 p 534, County courthouses, Ohio; FHL microfilm 897,621 AND "Ohio, County Death Records, 1840-2001," database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:F665-QQS : accessed 5 March 2017), Andrew Mcgougan, 26 Jan 1896; citing Death, Newman, Lawrence Township, Stark, Ohio, United States, source ID v 3 p 376, County courthouses, Ohio; FHL microfilm 897,621.
[iii] "Ohio, Stark County Coroner's Records, 1890-2002," images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:33S7-9GKR-X9N?cc=1922540&wc=SNB8-SPJ%3A218158301 : 21 May 2014), > image 172 of 209; County Records Center, Canton.
[iv] "Ohio, Stark County Coroner's Records, 1890-2002," images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:33SQ-GGKR-X51?cc=1922540&wc=SNB8-SPJ%3A218158301 : 21 May 2014), > image 174 of 209; County Records Center, Canton.
Mary Kircher Roddy is a genealogist, writer and lecturer, always looking for the story. Her blog is a combination of the stories she has found and the tools she used to find them.