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Created under William Penn’s “Frame of Government” in 1682, the office of the Coroner was one of the earliest elective offices in Delaware.1 Under the “Frame of Government,” two persons were elected for the office of Coroner in each county, however, only one was selected and commissioned by the Governor to serve as Coroner. In cases where the Governor did not select a person to fill the office within six days, the candidate that received the most votes become the Coroner.2 It was not until the 1831 constitution that the electorate directly chose the Coroner, although the Governor continued to commission each and fill any vacancies that occurred in the office.3 Terms of office were originally for a one year term but were increased to three years by the 1792 Constitution and reduced to two years by the 1831 Constitution.4 If the Coroner was unable or unavailable to perform his duties, a Justice of the Peace acted in his stead.5 After 1837 the Coroner was permitted to appoint a deputy to assist with his duties.6
The primary responsibility of the Coroner was to investigate all cases in which a person died while in prison, was killed, died an unnatural death, or the circumstances of the death were unknown. The coroner was to be informed of such cases immediately, and he was required to summon at least twelve men (later reduce to less than seven men) to appear as a jury. These jurors and the Coroner formed an inquest to view the body and determine the cause, manner, and circumstances of the death. Deliberations of New Castle County inquests after 1879 were aided by the expertise of a physician.8 The Coroner had the authority to summon witnesses and could issue subpoenas or attachments for contempt to compel their attendance. All witnesses and suspected persons were examined and their voluntary declarations were written down. These examinations and depositions, upon the inquisition reaching an unanimous decision, were certified and signed by the Coroner and delivered, along with the inquisition findings, to the Attorney General on the first day that the Court of General Sessions or Oyer and Terminer was held.9 After 1923 the Attorney General was permitted to prevent coroners from making investigations on cases in which the Attorney General determined could be done more effectively and economically by his office. He could stop a Coroner’s investigation and assume jurisdiction.10
It was the duty of the coroner to arrest a person believed to have committed murder or manslaughter. The suspect was not bailable unless the inquisition determined it a case of excusable homicide or manslaughter. The Coroner could issue warrants to constables for the apprehension of any person accused of a crime. He also had the power to commit any person for trial and to take recognizance of bail. He could require witnesses to enter into recognizances to appear at court and give evidence.11
In some inquisitions, an autopsy had to be performed to determine the cause of death. After 1945, the Coroner was required to order an autopsy in eleven specific cases: all anesthesia deaths; deaths by criminal violence, accident, suicide, abortion, agranulocytosis (a blood disease), and poisoning or suspicion of poisoning; sudden deaths when in apparent health or if when unattended by a physician; deaths in a suspicious or unusual manner; deaths in institutions less than twenty-four hours after admission where a diagnosis could not be made; and unclaimed bodies.12 In cases where the body on which the inquisition was to be held had been buried, a reasonable cause had to be shown that death had been the result of violence, poison, or another criminal means, before the body could be disinterred.13
After 1921 the Coroner had the authority to give certificates of death to undertakers and to the local Registrars of Births, Deaths, and Marriages. The cause of death stated on the certificate had to be certified by a physician.14
After 1911 the Coroner was required to keep a record book of his activities called the “Record of the Coroner of ________ County.” This record was to contain entries for each official action that gave the name or description of every deceased person investigated, time and place the deceased was found dead, name of witnesses and jurors if an inquest was held, date of inquest, verdict of the jury, and the reason why no inquest was held. An index was also required to be kept, and the record had to be transferred to the Coroner’s successor,15 upon his appointment. Additional duties of the Coroner involved cremations and burials. Bodies could not be cremated until a certificate stating that there was not medical or legal reason why cremation should not take place was signed by the coroner, one physician, or the Attorney General’s office.16 In cases where it was the responsibility of the county to pay for a person’s burial, it was the responsibility of the Coroner to procure an undertaker and approve the undertaker’s bill before it could be paid by Levy Court.17
In addition to conducting inquests, another major responsibility of the Coroner was to perform the duties of the sheriff when the office was vacant or the sheriff was unavailable, incapacitated, or legally prevented from doing so. These duties included selecting, drawing, returning, and summoning juries;18 presiding over the Board of Canvass and other election responsibilities;19 as well as executing the death sentence.20
The office of the Coroner was abolished in 1969, and its responsibility for determining the cause of death was given to the Board of Post-Mortem Examiners.21 In the governmental restructuring of 1970, the Board became the Office of Medical Examiners in the Department of Health and Social Services (RG 1500).22
1 Work Projects Administration, Delaware Historical Records Survey, Inventory of the County Archives of Delaware: No. 1, New Castle County (Dover, Public Archives Commission, 1941), pg. 195.
Staughton, George; Benjamin M. Nead; and Thomas McCamant, eds. Charter to William Penn and Laws of the Province of Pennsylvania…(Harrisburg: Lane S. Hart, State Printer, 1879), pp. 97, 159.
2 1 DL, ch. 212.
3 1831 Constitution, Art. VII.
4 Staughton, Nead, and McCamant, pp. 97, 159. 1972 Constitution, Art. III. 1831 Constitution, Art. VIII.
5 9 DL, ch. 85.
6 7 DL, ch. 149.
7 Ibid. 27 DL, ch. 81.
8 16 DL, ch. 148.
9 7 DL, ch. 149.
10 33 DL, ch. 88.
11 7 DL, ch. 149.
12 45 DL, ch. 136.
13 7 DL, ch. 149.
14 32 DL, ch. 78.
15 26 DL, ch. 69.
16 40 DL, ch. 96.
17 16 DL, ch. 148. 34 DL, ch. 94.
18 1 DL, ch. 94. 4 DL, ch. 152.
19 4 DL, ch. 152. 6 DL, ch. 257.
20 6 DL, ch. 362.
21 57 DL, ch. 140, 291. 58 DL, ch. 110.
22 57 DL, ch. 591.
rlg; September 12, 1988; January 4, 1989
Related Topics: coroner