Early Modern Coroners’ Inquests into Deaths in Custody

We are delighted to share this post by Krista Kesselring, Professor of History at Dalhousie University. It originally appeared on the Legal History Miscellany blog on July 9, 2017.

Legal History Miscellany

Posted by Krista Kesselring, 9 July 2017.

Hollar Tower

Deaths in gaol have long required investigation by coroners. In Canada, one provincial jurisdiction recently sought to end this practice to save time and money, but abandoned the proposal upon protests that the public had a duty and right to oversee custodial conditions.[1] The mandatory inquest into deaths of prisoners has a long history, dating back to the medieval origins of the coroner, when his duties centered on preserving the king’s rights and revenues. Looking at early modern inquests makes one wonder about their purpose and utility, in an era when gaol deaths were rife and the inquests typically perfunctory.

As one might expect, gaol deaths kept early modern coroners and their inquest jurors busy: J.S. Cockburn’s study of the assize court records extant for the five Home Counties between 1559-1625 noted inquests into no fewer than 1,291 deaths in custody, observing…

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