Why Do We Vote for Coroners? (And Why Call Them Coroners..?)

About 1,300 counties across the US elect coroners—Why? And just where did the office come from..?

Yes, there was an election the other day—though of course you already knew that. Because we live in a time when even races for county commissioner and school board can become mud-slinging, dark money-funded death matches whose results are calculated in real time, hashed out live by drooling analyst armies on the news then devoured on social media. Of course, paying close attention to politics is vital to the democracy, and great for TV ads, but there is one spot on the ballot that often goes unnoticed: coroner.

In fact, few Americans have any idea why it is there at all. “The office of coroner is a forgotten position in America,” explains data consultant Matthew Isbell, in a lengthy post he published a few weeks ago on the topic on his site MCIMaps. “Most Americans don’t even know it’s still elected.”

Just why do we elect coroners? And where did the practice originate? And why do we call them coroners? Digital Dying investigated. As it turns out, like so much in death-history, the story involves murder, and the British Crown.

HISTORY OF THE CORONER

Back in Mother England the office of coroner was formally established in 1194, according to the Coroners’ Society of England & Wales. There was a lot of money in death, and the coroner’s job was to collect the loot left behind after certain deaths occurred and pass it on to the Crown.

“Suicides were investigated,” explains the Society’s webpage, “on the grounds that the goods and chattels of those found guilty of the crime of felo de se or self-murder would then be forfeit to the crown. As were wrecks of the sea, fires, both fatal and non-fatal, and any discovery of buried treasure in the community.”

So, think of an early coroner like part IRS agent, part repo man. One imagines they carried a satchel of antiquated weapons—spiked-ball-on-a-chain, dagger—to help them execute their assignment. As for the origin of the word: Coroner, working for the Crown—We also get the word sheriff from this time, the shire reeve was a judge who presided over a Saxon court.

The modern iteration of the office of coroner appears to have developed in Britain during the 1830s, over concerns in the accurate recording of deaths arising from epidemics such as cholera, the uncontrolled access to poisons, and a rash of unresolved homicides. These events led to a series of death registration acts, and the transformation of the coroner into an agent formally tasked with investigating cause of death. America mimicked the concept.

CORONERS IN AMERICA

“The death of any human being is too important to be left merely to the police, the prosecutors, the judges, and the physicians,” states an official Indiana document about the Office of the Coroner. “In Indiana, we elect a public official to supervise the process of determining the cause of death.” The idea being, apparently, that an elected official is less likely to be crooked.

“The coroner does not do the autopsy,” says Lisa Barker, executive director of the Indiana State Coroners Association. “The forensic pathologist does the autopsy, people get that confused. The forensic pathologist is a medical doctor, the coroner does not have to have a medical degree.”

To become a coroner in Indiana one must: Take a 40-hour training course, assist a forensic pathologist in one autopsy (either a homicide or suicide), and pass a 200-question test. One particularly difficult part of being a coroner is that they must report findings to the family of the deceased. “You need compassion,” says Barker. “We always say it takes a special type of person to do this work, it’s not for everyone.”

Other states have coroner requirements similar to that of Indiana, though the role has a lot of ambiguity. In Washington state, for example, in counties with less than 40,000 people the prosecuting attorney acts as the coroner, explains Dan Blasdel, Vice President of the Washington Association of Corners and Medical Examiners. “Most of the prosecuting attorneys I know wish they didn’t have to do that,” says Blasdale. “They ran to be a prosecuting attorney, not a coroner.”

These lawyers will often put the job off to a death investigator, or local law enforcement. In large metropolitan areas, such as big cities in California, the sheriff’s department is responsible for the position of coroner. Which brings on a new set of problems. “This is not always a good way to go,” says Blasdel, “because, what if there is an officer-involved shooting in that department—they can be influenced.”

Blasdel himself is something of a coroner extraordinaire. His background is in sales and marketing, and in the early 1990s his home county of Franklin, Washington had less than 40,000 people. “In 1992 there was a guy doing death investigations for the prosecuting attorney and he offered the job to me,” says Blasdel. “I said what the heck, I’ll give it a try.”

“I found the job to be really fascinating,” Blasdel says. “It is like solving a mystery.” In 1994 the population of Franklin County surpassed 40,000 people, which meant coroner became an elected position, and Blasdel successfully ran for the office. He has held the post ever since. “In my 24 years as coroner I’ve had three people run against me,” says Blasdel. “One was a nurse, one was a sheriff’s deputy, and the last guy was an 80-year-old man named Howard Hughes.”

Certification is not required for coroners in Washington, but Blasdel has helped lead an effort to ensure coroners in the state are well-informed about their role. The Washington Association of Coroners and Medical Examiners, he says, gets two dollars for every death certificate, marriage certificate and birth certificate handed out in the state, moneys which go to run a 160-hour training course for newly elected coroners and death investigators. Still, Blasdel says that the lack of uniform coroner legislation from county to county and state to state is “a very big problem.”

A 2011 story by NPR and ProPublica states that a National Academies of Science panel has issued a report recommending an overhaul of the country’s death investigation systems.

CORONER CELEBRITIES AND CORONER CHANGES

But coroner changes could well come slowly, death is sticky. And it’s something Americans often try and avoid. Though new movements are afoot. “I want to show the world the truth about death, and life, and diseases,” says Nicole Angemi, a pathologist’s assistant with over one million Instagram followers who was recently declared by VICE to be “The Internet’s Most Famous Coroner.”

The VICE video shows Angemi at work dissecting and inspecting organs, and also at home with her family, seated on the living room couch with skulls, jaw bones and pickled items in jars on the mantle. Many of her more graphic photos have been removed from Instagram. “I try to show people it’s not that big of a deal and this stuff happens to everyone,” she explains in the VICE video, defending her controversial account. “Everyone should be interested in what’s going on in their own bodies.”

Angemi’s efforts are part of a trend in America to de-stigmatize death, and at the front line of this movement are women. As Digital Dying first reported in an April 2009 article on the rise of female morticians, “In 1971, 95 percent of students entering mortuary schools were male, and the majority of them were sons of funeral home directors…Now, nearly 60 percent of enrollees are female.”

That article featured Caitlin Doughty, a University of Chicago medieval history student who had moved to San Francisco to produce theater before deciding to enter mortuary school. Eight short years later Doughty may well be the most famous mortician in America. “The hipster-philosopher of a nascent death-positive movement,” the New York Times declared last month, in reviewing Doughty’s new book, From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death.

Lisa Barker, the Indiana State Coroners Association’s executive director, has noticed more and more women entering the coroner profession too. “I’ve done this job for full on 30 years, and when I first started it was a lot of men and maybe a handful of women,” says Barker. “Now out of 92 counties in Indiana, 25 have women coroners, and I would say at least half of the more than 500 deputy coroners across the state are women.”

CORONERS AND CURSES

There is one more twist to the American coroner’s tale. Lisa Barker happens to be deputy coroner in Tippecanoe County, Indiana. It was here in 1811 that occurred the Battle of Tippecanoe, a well-organized attempt by Native Americans from numerous tribes, led by Shawnee leader Tecumseh, to resist the westward expansion of the United States and hold Indiana Governor William Harrison, loathed among Native Americans, accountable for a crooked treaty he had negotiated in 1809. According to a Wikipedia entry on the Curse of Tippecanoe, “Tecumseh’s brother Tenskwatawa, known as the Prophet, supposedly set a curse against Harrison and future presidents elected during years with the same end number as Harrison.”

In 1840, William Harrison was elected the ninth president of the United States and on March 4, 1841 he was sworn into office. Thirty days later he was dead, of “pneumonia of the lower lobe of the right lung,” although a 2014 investigation revealed the cause of death was actually typhoid. On July 9, 1850, Zachary Taylor died in office, reportedly from acute gastroenteritis, though in 1991 his body was exhumed under the suspicion that he had been poisoned with arsenic—results showed this not to be the case.

And the curse, apparently, continued. Abraham Lincoln, first elected in 1860, was assassinated in 1865. On September 19, 1881, newly elected President James A. Garfield was assassinated by Charles J. Guiteau. Nearly twenty years after that, President William McKinley died from complications after being shot by Leon Czolgosz. President Warren G. Harding suffered a heart attack and died on August 2, 1923. On April 12, 1945, Franklin D. Roosevelt collapsed and died as a result of a cerebral hemorrhage. John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963.

“Ronald Reagan, elected in 1980, was wounded by gunshot but survived,” reads the Curse of Tippecanoe Wikipedia entry. “George W. Bush (2000) survived his terms in office, despite a close assassination attempt and a ‘shoeing’.”

Autopsies and the office of coroner or medical examiner played a significant role in all of these deaths. And this office will play a role in any future presidential deaths. “The death of a high-ranking government official would become the jurisdiction of the medical examiner in the county where they die in,” explains Blasdel, the longtime Washington state coroner.

“I don’t know of anyone who would not do an autopsy,” he says. “Because they are so high in government, you’d want to make sure there are no questions on what their cause or manner of death is.”

And what about the coroner calling for an autopsy of another coroner? This seems like a fitting place to end an essay on coroners in America, but I could not dig up any examples. Happy Election Day~

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