Not Getting Away With Murder in the 1840s — the Intrepid Victorian Coroner

Sorry for my absence. My husband was away on a business trip, and I was a single mother for two weeks. So my blog suffered. On a brighter note, I’ve been researching Victorian murder. Fun! Turns out if you’re writing a Victorian book with a murder in it, the coroner may need show up and investigate.  And he was a clever one. I found this lovely little resource A treatise on the law of coroner: with copious precedents of inquisitions, and practical forms of proceedings by Richard Clarke Sewell and published in 1843. It’s filled with all sorts of grizzly details. I’ve only excerpted the overview sections here, but for more detailed descriptions of what a Victorian coroner looked for in a drowning, hanging, shooting or poisoning victim, you should definitely read the book. 

I’ve pulled images from The chronicles of crime; or, The new Newgate calendar, a series of memoirs and anecdotes of notorious character  by Camden Pelham and published in 1841

Without further adieu, I give you A treatise on the law of coroner:


The authority of the Coroner is twofold:

1. Judicial.

2. Ministerial.

In his judicial capacity he has to inquire when any one comes to his death suddenly or violently;  how and by what means such death was caused; to pronounce judgment upon outlawries; to inquire of lands and goods, and escapes of murderers, treasure trove, wreck of the sea, deodands, &c.

In his ministerial capacity he has to execute the Ministerial king’s writs, when the sheriff is a party to the suit, or kin to either of the parties, or on default of the sheriff.

Coroners are conservators of the king’s peace, and become magistrates by virtue of their election and appointment. This privilege, independently of magistrates their mere official duties, they are entitled at this day to exercise; and empowered to cause felons to be apprehended, as well those that have been found guilty after inquisition, as those suspected of guilt, or present at the death, and not guilty; as also burglars and robbers, in respect of whom no inquisition can be taken. And this, says Lord Hale, appears evidently by the statutes 3 Ed. 1. c. 9. and 4 Ed. 1., Officium Coronatoris; and with this agrees the common usage at this day; for many times the inquest are long in their inquiry, and the offender may escape, if the Coroner stay until the inquisition is delivered up.   And the Coroner may now bind any person to the peace who makes an affray in his presence.


Whenever an unnatural and violent death happens, it is the duty of the township to give notice thereof to the Coroner; otherwise, if the body be interred in his absence, the township shall be amerced. And Coroner not need not go ex officio to take the inquest, but ought to be sent for.

When the Coroner receives notice of a violent death, casualty or misadventure, which regularly ought to be from the proper or peace officer of the parish, place, or precinct where the body lies dead, having satisfied himself that it is within his jurisdiction, he is then to issue his precept or warrant to summon a jury to appear at a particular time and place named, to inquire when, how, and by what means the deceased came by his death; which warrant is directed to the peace officers of the parish, place, or precinct “where the party lies dead,” and to others of the next adjoining parishes, &c. pursuant to the stat. 4 Ed. 1. st. ii., called the Statute de Officio Coronatoris, which enacts, that the Coroner, upon information, shall go to the place where any be slain, or suddenly dead or wounded; and shall forthwith command four of the next towns, or five or six, to appear before him in such a place; and when they are come thither the Coroner, upon the oath of them, shall inquire in this manner, that is, to wit, If they know where the person was slain; whether it were in any house, field, bed, tavern, or company; and who were there.

Likewise it is to be inquired who were culpable, either of the act or of the force; and who were present, either men or women, and of what age soever they be (if they can speak, or have any discretion).

And how many soever be found culpable by inquisition, in any the manners aforesaid, they shall be taken and delivered to the Sheriff, and shall be committed to the gaol; and such as be founden, and be not culpable, shall be attached until the coming of the justices, and their names shall be written in the and written Coroner’s rolls.

In pursuing these inquiries there are many minute circumstances to which the attention of the Coroner and Jury should be directed. Sudden death may often occur from causes pre-existing, and sometimes of long standing, of which the deceased himself was unaware. Of this nature are internal organic diseases, the breathing of noxious gases, the use of improper aliments, or of unhealthy water. The passions ailments also, if highly excited, or a purely accidental cause, may respectively have occasioned the sudden death. Again, the violent destruction of life may have caused by the person himself. In all cases therefore of sudden death, before it is referred to a criminal tribunal, the Coroner ought to feel perfectly convinced that death has not originated from one of the three following causes : — 1. Some internal cause. 2. Some external accidental cause; and, 3. Suicide. On each of these a few observations will be necessary.


It will be readily understood that every case of violent death requires an investigation peculiar to itself; and, for the purpose of rendering such investigation more easy and satisfactory, it is proposed to consider the principal causes and phenomena of sudden unnatural death, separately; and, first, of persons found dead with wounds or bruises.

Definition In Legal Medicine, the word “Wound” is used in a much comprehensive sense than in Surgery. In the latter it means a solution of continuity; in the former, injuries of every kind that affect either the hard or the soft parts: and accordingly, under it are comprehended bruises, contusions, fractures, luxations. In order to be a wound in Law, the continuity of the skin must be broken, or, in other words, the external surface of the body. But if the skin be broken, the nature of the instrument is immaterial.

On the other hand, it is necessary, in order to the whole constitute a wound, that there should be a separation of the whole skin; and a separation of the cuticle or upper skin only is not sufficient.

The first inquiry will be, whether or no the wounds which appear have been the cause of death were inflicted on a living subject.

In ascertaining whether the wounds or violence was inflicted on a living subject, much information may  be derived from the appearances on the body, and it is most important to know whether they belong to Haemorrhage, Ecchymosis, or Sugillation.

But it must be always borne in mind, that there certain phenomena observed on the bodies of the dead which may be mistaken for the effects of violence, and yet are only the consequence of previous maladies; while others are by the ignorant deemed  proofs of murder, which are the natural results of the extinction of life.

“Hemorrhage” is supposed by many to indicate an existence of the circulation when it commenced, and accordingly is generally held to be prima facie evidence that life was present when the supposed violence was offered. This, though true to a certain extent, is not universally so. It is frequently observed by anatomists, on opening the bodies of those malignant dead from apoplexy or malignant fever, that blood flows from the mouth, nose, or ears. The blood in these instances is of a black colour, and apparently more fluid than in its natural state. Hemorrhage then of itself is no proof that a lesion was inflicted on the living one; and in order to warrant an opinion of this kind, the large vessels should be found empty, and the blood of a florid red colour.

“Ecchymosis ” is a Greek term, and is equivalent to effusion or spreading of blood into the cellular tissue. It is present whenever a contusion is sufficiently violent to produce the rupture of a blood vessel, and it communicates a colour more or less livid to the skin. Ecchymosis is a subcutaneous haemorrhage, the consequence of Contusion, and generally, but not always, originates from external causes.

“Sugillation” is applied to those livid spots of various sizes, which are noticed on the bodies of the dead generally after they are become stiff and cold. They are of a uniform colour, and, according to Chaussier and Renard, consist in a congestion of blood in the capillary tissue alone, and notextending to the subcutaneous; and the appearance described under this name is to be ascribed to the laws of gravitation.

In order to arrive at an accurate distinction between Ecchymosis and Sugillation, the celebrated Zacchias has suggested the following test: — “When the discoloration is the consequence of external violence,  a congestion of thick concrete blood will be found; but in the spontaneous spot, (or Sugillation,) the blood on incision will be seen fluid. There is probably, according to Dr. Beck, considerable truth in this, but he adds, “I should not recommend an implicit dependence on the test of Zacchias, though it certainly deserves attention. When Sugillation is supposed to be present, it should be particularly noticed whether it appears in a depending part. The time that has elapsed since the death of the subject, and the pre valence or absence of putrid epidemics, also require consideration. On one point, however, we should place a strong reliance, and that is, where marks of this kind have a distinct impression of the instrument of murder. Thus on a person hung, an Ecchymosis marking the course of the rope is a certain proof and again, similar marks of cords on the extremities indicate that these injuries have not been inflicted on a dead body.”

Wounds received before death are marked by red, signs of bloody, and separated edges. Those inflicted afterwards are livid, and their edges close to each other. Similar appearances characterise contusions or blows in which there has been no solution of continuity; on dissection, they are, if inflicted on the living, found to be subcutaneous wounds: vessels are seen torn and fluids extravasated, and the whole exhibits the marks of tumour in its elasticity and circumscribed shape. Violence to the dead body can only produce livid flaccid spots, unattended with engorgement or tumour.  Gangrene also is marked by its being surrounded with a red edge: putrefaction is not, and the spots caused by the latter are of various colours. Dry gangrene cannot take place on the dead body, since there is no heat or action of vessels to produce it, but the disorganisation observed is of a humid nature.

On the other hand, a man may die of a wound before inflammation commences; and according to Orfila a wound inflicted with a cutting instrument immediately after death is with difficulty discriminated from one during life. Others are so debilitated, that wounds on them have livid and dry edges, and, after death, can scarcely be distinguished from those inflicted on the dead. These circumstances should be kept in mind.

The signs which seem to indicate pain, or spasms, should be observed, but never greatly depended upon, since a natural death is often preceded by them.

Dr. Beck gives the following rides as to the primary examination of the body and before proceeding to dissection: Before proceeding to the dissection, it is proper first to examine the external situation and appearance of the body;  death be apparently caused by a wound, the body should be first viewed, if possible, exactly in the position in which it was found. By moving it, the attitude of the extremities may be altered, or the state of a fracture or a luxation changed, since the internal parts vary in their position with one another, according to the general position of the body. If it is absolutely necessary to remove it, it should be done with great caution. 2. The clothes should clothes to be removed, as far as is necessary, and it should be noted what compresses or bandages (if any) are applied to particular parts. 3. After these preliminaries, we must examine the colour of the skin, the temperature of the body, the rigidity or flexibility of the extremities, the state of the eyes and of the sphincter muscles, noting at the same time whatever swelling, ecchymosis, wound, ulcer, contusion, fracture, or luxation, may be present; also, any fluid flowing from the nose, mouth, ears, sexual organs, &c, and indeed everything varying from the natural state. The above cavities should be inspected, and particular attention must be paid to the state of the skin, so as not to mistake that bluish-brown tinge which indicates the commencement of putrefaction, for ecchymosis.

The next inquiry will be whether the wounds arc Points of the result of suicide, of accident, or homicide. The following circumstances demand great attention, and are of great importance with this view : —

1. The situation in which the wounded body is found.

2. The position of its members, state of its dress.

3. The expression of countenance.

4. The redness or suffusion of the face, (o)

5. The marks of violence, if any, on the body.

6. The quantity of blood, if any, on the ground or on the clothes should be noticed.

7. The nature, depth, and direction of the wound.

8. In case of supposed suicide by means of a knife or pistol, the course of the wound should be examined, whether it be upwards or downwardsand the length of the arm should be compared with the direction of the injury.

9. Ascertain whether the right or left arm has been used, and whether the direction of the wound corresponds with the arm used.

10. In cases of death by fire-arms, the direction of the wound is of great importance. It may be taken for granted, says Dr. Smith, that if the weapon has been introduced into the deceased’s mouth, and there discharged, it has not been done by another.

11. Authors have also mentioned the discoloration of the fingers, from the combustion of the powder in the pan, as a mark of suicide in cases of death by fire-arms. A variety of circumstances, however, occur, which render this a very unsatisfactory test.

12. In suspected cases it is highly necessary to ascertain the previous history of the deceased—his state of mind and worldly situation.


A Georgian Murder Most Foul

The following images and descriptions of gruesomeness come from 

published in 1795

Circumstantial Account of JAMES HALL, who was hanged in the Strand for the Murder of his Master.

This malefactor, according to the account given by himself, was descended of honest parents, of Wells in Hampshire, who gave him such an education as might qualify him for any ordinary rank of life.

Being unwilling to remain in the country, he came to London, and lived some time with a corn-chandler; and after a continuation in this service, he married, and had several children; but not living happily with his wife, articles of separation were executed between them. After this he married another woman, by whom he had one child, and who visited him after his being in custody for the murder.

At the sessions held at the Old Bailey, in August 1741, he was indicted for the murder of John Penny, gentleman, and pleading guilty, received sentence of death.

Mr. Penny had chambers in Clements Inn; and Hall had lived with him seven years before he committed the murder; nor had he formed any design of being guilty of the horrid deed till within about a month of its perpetration; but having kept more company than his circumstances could afford, he had involved himself in difficulties, which made him resolve to murder and rob his master.

On the 7th of June, 1741, he intoxicated himself with liquor, and then determined to carry his design into execution. Mr. Penny coming home between eleven and twelve at night, Hall assisted in undressing him in the dining-room; and while he was walking towards the bed, the villain followed him with a stick which he had concealed for the purpose, and struck him one blow with such force that he never spoke afterwards; and continued his blows on the head till he was apparently dead.

Willing, however, to be certain of completing the horrid tragedy, and to avoid detection, he went into the dining-room, and stripping himself naked, he took a small fruit knife belonging to his master, and returning to the chamber, cut his throat with it, holding his neck over the chamber-pot. Mr. Penny bled very freely; for when the blood was mixed with a small quantity of water, it almost filled the pot five times; and three of the pots thus mixed the murderer threw into the sink, and two in the coal-hole. He then took his master’s waistcoat, which was lined with dussil, and bound it round his neck, to suck up the remainder of the blood.

This being done, he took the body on his shoulders, carried it to the necessary, and threw it in head foremost; and flying back immediately to the chambers, under the most dreadful apprehensions of mind, he took his master’s coat, bloody shirt, the stick that he had knocked him down with, and some rags that he had used in wiping up the blood, and running a second time naked to the necessary-house, threw them in at a hole on the opposite side of it.

The body being thus disposed of, he stole about thirty-six guineas from his master’s pocket, and writing-desk; and such was the confusion of his mind, that he likewise took some franks, sealing-wax, and other articles for which he had no use; and then he employed the remainder of the night washing and rubbing the rooms with cloths; but finding it no easy matter to get out the blood, he sent for the laundress in the morning to wash them again, telling her that his master’s nose had bled over night.

On the following day the guilty wretch strolled from place to place, unable to find rest for a moment any where; and all his thoughts being engaged in concealing the murder, which he hoped was effectually done, from the place in which he had secreted the body.

On the Friday following he went to Mr. Wooton, his master’s nephew, on a pretence of enquiring for Mr. Penny, who he said had quitted the chambers two days before, and gone somewhere by water; so that he was afraid some accident had happened to him.

Mr. Wooton was so particular in his enquiries after his uncle, that Hall was exceedingly terrified at his questions, and knew not what answer to make to them. After this the criminal went twice every day to Mr. Wooton, to enquire after his master, for ten days; but lived all the while in a torment of mind that is not to be described.

So wretched was he, that finding it impossible to sleep in the chambers, he got his wife to come and be with him: and they lay in Mr. Penny’s bed: but still sleep was a stranger to him.

At length Mr. Wooton had Hall taken into custody, on a violent suspicion that he had murdered his uncle. On his first examination before a magistrate, he steadily avowed his innocence: but being committed to Newgate he attempted an escape: this, however, was prevented; and a few days afterwards he confessed his guilt before some relations of the deceased.

He was hanged at the end of Catherine Street in the Strand, on the 15th of September, 1741 and his body afterwards hung in chains at Shepherd’s Bush, three miles beyond Tyburn Turnpike, on the road to Acton.