Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/A day with the coroner

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The life of a coroner in a mighty metropolis like London must be an odd one. His grim duty leads him day by day into palace and cottages, back-slums and noble mansions. In a certain sense he is a modern Charon, whose pass is required ere a company of corpses, some days more, some days less, can find quiet burial. They say ghosts listen for the sound of the crowing cock before they retreat to their narrow beds, so mortals, suddenly deprived of life, must have the permit of twelve good men and true, and the coroner’s signature, ere the sexton will lift a shovel in their behalf. Being desirous of having one day’s experience of the accidents and offences which pick out, as it were,—we will not say by accident, for there is a natural law in these cases as in all others—the lives of a certain per-centage of our population, I asked permission to accompany my friend, the able medical coroner for the central district. Permission being obtained, I was ready at the office at the appointed hour. “Now you must be prepared,” said my friend, “for a good hard day’s work. Here are nine cases,” said he, consulting an official paper as a gourmand would a bill of fare, “I don’t know what they are, or how they will turn out.” In short, it was a kind of invitation to take pot-luck. Our first visit was to Middlesex Hospital, and our first duty to visit the dead-house. Even to those accustomed to the presence of death there is something very startling in the sudden transition from the life and noise of a great metropolitan thoroughfare to the dead-house of a large hospital, tenanted by silent inmates such as these, who but a few days since moved in health and spirits amid the hubbub, dreaming not that they were on the edge of that bourne from which no traveller returns. Three blackened deal coffins, placed side by side, with their lids removed, revealed the subjects of the impending inquiry, after a glance at which the coroner returned to the inquest-room.

The importance of being able thoroughly to identify the features of the dead is of the last consequence. It will be remembered that in the Sadlier case, the very fact of the death was disputed, and it was asserted that the body found on Hampstead Heath was not that of the delinquent M.P. Indeed, to this moment it is believed by the Irish that he is still alive. Fortunately, the late Mr. Wakley was able to put the matter beyond dispute, as he knew the deceased, and recognised him when the inquest was held.

Conditions, however, are always arising under which it is exceedingly difficult to identify a body in consequence of the progress which decomposition has made. Such a case has just arisen. It will be remembered that a body was found floating in the Thames, which the police suggested might be the body of the supposed murderer of the poor girl who was stabbed in George Street. It was of great consequence, therefore, that the corpse should be identified. The features, however, from long immersion in the water, were so swollen and disfigured, as to be absolutely unrecognisable. At this juncture, however, Dr. Richardson suggested that science was able to restore the face of the corpse; and he succeeded in his efforts. Having reduced the face to its original size by the action of a principle known by the scientific terms of “exosmosis” and “endosmosis,” and its blackened colour having been bleached by the action of chlorine gas, so much of the face of the dead was made out as to prove that it belonged to a youth of twenty—a fact quite sufficient to prove it was not that of the murderer. Thus science once more has come to the aid of justice. But I must return to the story of my day’s doings.

The jury having assembled, the process of swearing them in commenced. It may be as well to observe that, in ordinary cases, the run of the jurors called by the coroner’s beadle seem to consist of the small householders and shopkeepers of the parish—certainly a very unlikely-looking lot to investigate any knotty case,—indeed, my experience gathered during the day was, that the chief labour of investigating the facts falls upon the coroner, and that scarcely one of the jurors sworn in seemed capable of drawing up a verdict. In important cases the better class tradesmen or the gentry are generally summoned, and a far higher amount of intelligence is thus at the service of the Coroner.

The first case gone into was rather complex. Alexander ——, a greengrocer, coming home drunk, fell down the stairs and broke his leg. He had been an habitual drunkard, so much so as to compel his wife, a poor crushed creature, to live apart from him, because “he was too poor to keep me,” said the poor woman, crying. “I suppose, if the truth were known,” said the coroner, “it was because he beat and otherwise ill-used you,”—a correction of her own statement to which she gave a tacit consent, but which the poor battered piece of humanity, bundled up in rags, would never have volunteered. The ultimate cause of death in this case was singular. The man being a toper, the shock of the accident, a fracture of the femur, brought on delirium tremens: to subdue this, opium was given by the hospital surgeon by what is termed subcutaneous incision; that is, a puncture was made in the skin, and a small quantity of the drug was injected beneath it, from the effects of which he died narcotized—a diseased kidney perhaps helped this unlooked-for termination of the case, but it nevertheless was an extraordinary example of peculiar idiosyncrasy in the man’s constitution, which could not stand an opiate which would scarcely have injured a healthy child. The primary cause of the death, be it remembered, was drunkenness.

Case No. 2 was that of Henry ——, a carman. Having been drinking freely, he managed, whilst walking beside his horse, to get his foot under the animal’s hoof; he was thrown, and the wheel of his car passing over his ribs fractured them, and he died from inflammation of the lungs. The verdict here was inflammation of the lungs brought on by an accident whilst in a state of intoxication.

Case No. 3 was that of William ——, a tailor. In reeling out of the doorway of the Red Lion, where he had been drinking, he slipped, and twisted and broke his leg. A “compound comminuted fracture of the tibia and fibula,” said the youthful house-surgeon, with strict professional accuracy. Amputation was performed, and the man died of delirium tremens. A verdict was drawn up to that effect, and the poor widow, bursting out into tears, sobbed out that she was left perfectly destitute. When death comes to members of the comfortable classes it is bitter enough;—to lose a loved husband, what in the whole world is apparently so overwhelming? Yet what is such a blow to that which falls upon the poor. A working man by some accident is hurried out of life, and the poor widow loses not only the companion of her life, but the bread of herself and helpless little ones. The reader will realise the horrible position of the poor widow; and yet the coroner sees such cases every day, and the poor creatures are left to sink back into that maelström of human suffering styled “the world,” and the sun shines day by day as though life was a bright festival.

St. Mary’s Hospital, Paddington, was our next destination. The hospitals generally furnish those cases for inquest which result from accidental death. In many institutions of this nature an inquest-room is provided in the building itself: but the authorities of St. Mary’s have not done so, and after visiting the dead-house, and inspecting the deceased, a woman and a boy, both evidently Irish by their physiognomy, the coroner and his beadle adjourned to a public-house, where a fresh jury had to be sworn in. After contemplating the face of the dead, it gives the mind a slight shock to have to wend one’s way through the crowd of a tap-room, and to have to sit in an apartment smelling of stale tobacco, and presenting all the disorder of the last night’s debauch. “We shall probably have some trouble here,” said the coroner to me, sotto voce, “as I see the witnesses are mostly Irish.” The deceased, Anne Gardner, was a charwoman, and had died in the hospital from exhaustion following an amputation of the foot. The first witness called was her sister, a gaunt Irishwoman with a face through which the skull seemed to protrude, if we may so speak. The poor woman kept a crooning noise, until called upon to give her evidence as to the cause of accident, which was confused enough to justify the coroner’s anticipations. In answer to the query, if the deceased had told her when in the hospital how the accident happened, she replied, “Her sister had told her that she ‘knocked at the door and it was not opened,”—that “the blood was all up the stairs, just as though a bullock had been killed.”

The woman knew no more than this, and she kept repeating her tale as though she were throwing valuable light on the matter. The next witness, a short, fat, red-faced, and determined-looking Englishwoman, told her story in a very different manner. She had gone out on Saturday night to buy provisions for the family, leaving deceased, who lodged with her, at home; the deceased having apprised her that she also was going out to get a bottle of gin. When she returned at 12 o’clock at night, having forgotten her key, she was obliged to ring her husband up, and on opening the door he remarked that the stairs were very wet; on getting a light she perceived that they were wet—but with blood, which was traced up to the woman’s room. On knocking, the deceased answered that she knew all about it, and would clean it up before her landlord was down in the morning. With this reply, singularly enough, the woman was satisfied, and went to bed. Having some misgivings, however, she demanded admittance to the room early in the morning, and the woman, apparently from the sound, shuffled to the door on her hands and knees, and opened it. “There was not a thing in the room,” said the witness, “but that was covered with blood.” The bones of her leg, near the ankle-joint, were broken, and through the night she had been bleeding most profusely. As the poor creature was too exhausted by the hæmorrhage to give an account of the accident she had met with, it could only be inferred from the appearances in the house. The door not being opened to her, and fearing to let her landlord know that she was out so late, and, but too probably, being drunk at the same time, she had attempted to step from the doorway across a low parapet wall on to the parlour window sill, a stride of four feet and a-half; in doing so, she fell into the area, for the blood was first observable at the kitchen door, through which she obtained admission. From this point traces of blood were observable up the kitchen stairs to the front door, which, it is inferred, she opened, to take in the gin bottle and a small basket which she had deposited there previously to attempting to get in at the window; from thence the life-blood of the poor creature doubled back through the passage, and was traceable up to her bed-room. It is not to be wondered at that the poor woman never rallied from the operation of amputating her foot, as, indeed, nearly every drop of blood was previously drained from her body. Since it was pretty evident that the poor creature never would have made an attempt to enter the house in the manner she did unless she had been intoxicated, and as, moreover, her landlady was obliged to confess that she was given to drink, the coroner suggested to the foreman of the jury that they should state in their verdict that the accident was the result of her intoxicated condition at the time; but the jury refused to accede to his wish; and he afterwards informed me, that when he held inquests at public-houses, he always found a disinclination on the part of the jury to notice the fact of intoxication playing any part in the death, even when the fact was but too evident! Having no teetotal tendencies, and believing that to take a pledge of total abstinence from alcohol is simply a piece of puritanical absurdity, which, if carried out in all cases where temptation presents itself, would result in an abnegation of the will itself, I, nevertheless, could not help being struck with the astounding fact, that in the first four inquests held promiscuously in one day, every case of death was clearly caused, either directly or indirectly, by the vice of intoxication. Mr. Gough might have lectured upon the subject for years, yet I will venture to say that he never would have made such an impression on me as did the faces of those four poor creatures, staring up at me from their coffins—not emaciated by disease and long-suffering, but perishing in the prime of life, and leaving behind them long trains of suffering children and helpless widows. There are many sayings that we use glibly enough, and none among them further from the truth than one we often hear, “Providence takes charge of drunkards and little children.”

The next case was that of a little Irish boy who had been killed by a cab running over him. The lad had been following an Irish funeral,—one of those noisy demonstrative affairs which are pretty sure to gather up all the loose Milesian element that lies in the line of procession. The lad was riding behind one of the mourning cabs, and falling off, the next cab in the line ran over him. The cab—according to the only intelligible witness who saw the accident take place—was loaded with six persons inside and six on the roof; it was not wonderful that the wheel passing over his body ruptured the liver, and killed him within two hours. He was the last of three children whom his mother, a poor widow, mourned.

The duties of a metropolitan coroner extend over a very wide district; from Paddington, accordingly, we had to hurry away to Islington, where a new beadle was awaiting his superior, with a fresh jury ready to be sworn in. Coroners’ beadles are characters in their way, and they have all their peculiarities in getting up their cases; but they all agree in one particular—a desire to make as much of each inquest as possible, not from any pecuniary advantage derivable therefrom, as they are paid only 7s. 6d. for each case, but simply for parade sake; thus they invariably put forward their weakest witnesses first, and in this manner often waste the time of the court in parading testimony of no importance whatever, whilst the only material witness is kept until the last. Unless the coroner is up to this little weakness, his time is often taken up in a very unnecessary manner.

The three following inquests were on children, two of which were illegitimate. The first, Ernest H——, an infant of two years old, “out quite beautiful with measles,” as his mother said, was seized with a fit, in which it died. As no medical man was present, and no medical certificate of cause of death could be given, the registrar refused a burial order, and hence the inquest. Coroners in the metropolitan district are more than usually critical in cases of illegitimate children, in consequence of the fearful amount of infanticide prevalent in such cases. I remember the late coroner giving it as his opinion that a fearful amount of children were cunningly got rid of at the moment of birth, by simply allowing the new-born babe to fall into a tub of water. The medical test of a child having been born alive is the inflation of the lungs: where this has not taken place, it is held to have been still-born, a fact taken advantage of by some mothers in the way we have mentioned. In the case of this poor child, however, there appeared to have been no foul play. In a second case, a child of two years of age—“a little come-by-chance,” as one of the witnesses phrased it—was allowed to run out into the road uncared-for; and, a cart coming by, ran over and killed it. The verdict might, with justice, have been “Went by chance,” for the little care that was taken of it.

Still another child called for the verdict of the twelve good men and true. It was a sad sight to see the little face placid as though it slept in its mimic coffin of blue, and still sadder to hear the young mother’s agonised recital of its death. It was alive and in her arms at three o’clock in the morning, when she gave it the breast, then she went to sleep with the child “on her arm.” When she awoke she kissed it, “as was her custom,” when she found it was cold. The child evidently had been either overlaid, or smothered with the bed-clothes. Scarcely a week elapsed, the coroner informed me, without his having to hold an inquest on a poor infant, put out of life, in some cases, perhaps, purposely; but in the great majority of instances by the over-fondness of the mother in covering the little one’s face up for warmth sake. The majority of women treat their tender little ones just as if they were so many hot rolls, smothering them in blankets, forgetting that the breath of life in their fragile frames is but too easily extinguished, and that they have not the power to struggle as older children would against the covering that is poisoning them with their own foul breath.

Our hard day’s work terminated with the case of an old sailor, who, after braving all the terrors of the ocean, came off a long voyage to die of diseased heart in his own bed. The body lay in a small dark room, next to the common living room, and the stench of decomposition was so great that the jury started back in dismay when it was opened for the purpose of his being identified. The practice adopted in this country, and in this country only, we believe, of allowing the dead to remain in the very apartments of the living, is certainly most revolting, and we hope the time is not far distant when the public will seek for the establishment of perfectly ventilated reception rooms for the dead, previous to interment. Those who have witnessed the arrangements in Munich, Frankfort, and other places abroad, for separating the lifeless clay from the living for the short time previous to burial, must see how we are sinning against the commonest hygienic rules, as well as against decency itself, in tolerating our national habit of hugging the dead until we are compelled to relinquish them by their very offensiveness.

Walking home, I wondered how the coroner lived, moved, and had his being without being terrified lest at every turn some little unforeseen occurrence might not bring a brother coroner to sit upon himself. Having seen how lightly accidents occurred, it was days before I could get the thought out of my mind, that we were continually within an ace of our life. In all probability, however, the coroner is the last person in existence to feel these foolish fancies, as death in his experience comes from so many and from such conflicting causes, that the one balances the other, and thus keeps his fears in a happy equilibrium. We are not all coroners, however, and I must confess that for days afterwards I looked much shyer at a crowded crossing than was my wont, and took especial good care to walk outside of ladders. If, however, accidents take place according to a regular law, and we all go out in the morning with a hundred thousandth chance of breaking our legs, a five hundred thousandth chance of being drowned, or say a sixty thousandth expectation of stepping upon a piece of orange-peel and fracturing our skull, we may at least be less nervous about these matters, for, do what we will, the statistician in estimating the number of annual accidents and offences, claims a certain right in us which we cannot avoid or dispute.

A. W.