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  • #16
    The coroner's wrath

    Few issues were more contentious than the controversy surrounding the removal of a deceased relative to a mortuary. It had been common tradition for the dead to remain in the home while awaiting burial. It was considered an essential part of the grieving process for Christian families. Mortuaries were often not trusted to provide proper care of a departed loved one, nor were they considered appropriate places for friends and relatives to gather to offer their condolences to the bereaved.

    With the introduction of the Sanitary Act of 1866, which authorized a justice - on the 'certificate of a qualified medical practitioner' - to order the removal of a body of a person who had died of an infectious disease or posed a health risk to the inhabitants of the same house, some conflagrations were inevitable. Justices were expected to exercise discretion in performing their duties in these matters and a physician's certificate was supposed to insure legitimate cause for such measures. But those in power have often assumed more authority than was actually intended.

    Enter Coroner Wynne Baxter and the case of Mrs. Caroline Banham, age 70, lately residing at 15, High Street, Whitechapel.

    Mrs. Banham had been knocked down by the pole of a pair-horse van while crossing the street on March 19, 1891. She subsequently died from congestion as a result of her injuries on March 23. Coroner Baxter gave verbal instructions to his officer to have the body removed to the mortuary in anticipation of an inquest without any certification by a doctor. Furthermore, Baxter's officer took it upon himself to write the directive on a scrap of paper and present it to the woman's family without any written authorization by the coroner himself.

    Mrs. Banham's family were upset and sought the council of a Mr. Davis, one of the curates of the St. Mary's Parish Church, Whitechapel. The curate sympathized with the family and queried the opinions of a solicitor, two police inspectors and an official of the local government board. All, with the exception of one police inspector, advised that there was no authority to remove the body. Davis refused to let Baxter's officer take the body from the premises.

    Baxter convened the inquest anyway and summoned the curate, Mr. Davis, to appear. The coroner was relentless in his determination to make an example of Mr. Davis. Davis held his ground against the irascible coroner. He challenged the action of the coroner's officer, questioned the 'absolute power' the coroner presumed to have over a body when 'bodies were removed for no apparent reason' and cited the opinions of the professionals who he had consulted.

    Baxter replied that he did have authority to order the body removed to the mortuary and had made it a universal rule to do so. He could not see 'why twelve or fifteen men should be compelled to go into a house when there was a possibility of their spreading contagion.' Of course, this was presuming that a post-mortem and an inquest were necessary in the first place. The coroner told Mr. Davis that if he 'had communicated with him instead of going to a lot of irresponsible officials, he would soon have found out the law on the subject.' Baxter asserted that he was the rightful interpreter and enforcer of such laws.

    He also reminded Davis that persons had been indicted for obstruction in such matters and that if there 'was any other attempt at interference he should commit the person interfering.' The stalwart Davis invited the charge to be made against him and added that it would be a good way of bringing the matter to the public. Baxter arrogantly told him that 'the public had no option in the matter' and as a result of 'this clerical interference' a costly adjournment would now have to take place while a post-mortem was conducted.

    The post-mortem was conducted and at the reconvened inquest, the physician stated that the woman had died as a result of her injuries as expected all along.

    An article in the April 15, 1891 edition of the Sanitary Record remarked, "Mr. Wynne Baxter, the East London Coroner, has apparently a sufficient sense of the importance of his office; but we do not know from where he derives the autocratic powers which he assumes to exercise... Coroners are no more above the law than are magistrates or judges, and there is no excuse for their performing their duties in such a slipshod way.'

    The writer was mistakenly giving Mr. Baxter the benefit of the doubt, if 'slipshod' was to mean in a careless manner. There was nothing slipshod about Baxter's or his officer's actions here. It was an intentional and deliberate action undertaken without any discretion applied to the particular circumstances involved or the implementation of the law as it was written.
    Best Wishes,
    Cris Malone
    ______________________________________________
    "Objectivity comes from how the evidence is treated, not the nature of the evidence itself. Historians can be just as objective as any scientist."

    Comment


    • #17
      Cris,

      Do you think the timing of Baxter's Scandinavian vacation at the time of Tabram's murder was coincidental to his pay cut or that he was, in essence, going "on strike" from his duties in protest to the pay cut?

      Yours truly,

      Tom Wescott

      Comment


      • #18
        Hi Tom,

        I don't think so. Many of these officials took vacations at certain times during the summer months and Scandinavia or the Alps seem to have been popular vacation spots for them.

        I did read somewhere ( Law Times I think) that at one point Baxter threatened to resign, but it was probably a bluff. He had to know that Collier was more than capable to fill in if necessary.

        Baxter did what he was trained to do; bring forth a lawsuit. He just got derailed when there was a county reorganization and a restructuring of county governments while his suit was taking place.

        With the possible exception of John Troutback of Westminster, Wynn Baxter was one of the most controversial coroners of his day. He had a lot of sympathy for the plight of the people in his district on many issues, but he was not very compromising... unless pushed into a corner as a result of his own impulsive behavior. He knew how to play hardball against any opposition and was most effective in seeing his will carried out.

        He made some enemies and more than a few jurors who had to serve at his inquests literally despised him. The Pall Mall Gazette reported one time that a juror who was angry at being taken away from his wife and children to 'perform the duties of an Englishman' threatened to place a stick of dynamite under the coroner's seat and blow him up.
        Best Wishes,
        Cris Malone
        ______________________________________________
        "Objectivity comes from how the evidence is treated, not the nature of the evidence itself. Historians can be just as objective as any scientist."

        Comment


        • #19
          Hi Cris,

          Thanks for your account of the Banham inquest. I think Baxter's performing a legal maneuver there. It seems to me that in ordering that postmortem, Baxter is solidifying his authority over the body. He looks to be falling back on section 24 of The Coroner's Act 1887 (restating part of sec 143 of The Public Health Act 1875). It gives him a clear right to remove a body for the purposes of conducting a p.m.

          I think it's interesting that based on your account, this opposition drives him to adjourn and order an autopsy.

          Best,
          Dave

          Comment


          • #20
            I agree Dave. Here is the text of an opinion piece written in the Sanitary Record, Vol 12:


            REMOVAL OP CORPSE TO
            MORTUARY

            Mr. Wynne Baxter, the East London Coroner, has apparently a sufficient sense of the importance of his office; but we do not know from whom he derives the autocratic powers which he assumes to exercise. It is, of course, often to the last degree desirable that the bodies of persons who have died should be removed from too close proximity to the living; and this is especially the case where the relatives of the deceased occupy only one or two rooms, and considerations of health and decency cannot be observed unless the corpse is removed. But though such a course of proceeding may be desirable in many, if not in all cases, there appears to be no power given by our law to enforce it

            According to the report of the proceedings held recently on the body of an old woman named Caroline Benham, who lived and died in High Street, Whitechapel (see page 080, Mr. Baxter makes it a universal rule to order bodies, on which an inquest is to be held, to be removed to the parish mortuary for the purpose of being viewed by the jury, as he does not think it reasonable to compel them to enter houses which are often not suitable for the accommodation of so many persons, and where, moreover, there may be a possible risk of infection. Doubtless a well-arranged mortuary is a more suitable place for the purpose than most lodgings or small dwelling-houses can be, and the removal thither of the corpse is a benefit to the surviving members of the family; but, unfortunately, popular prejudice is often opposed to such a removal, and the law does not sanction it except in certain cases. Under the Sanitary Act, 1866, which applies to the metropolis, and the Public Health Act, 1875, which applies to the rest of Kngland, mortuaries may be provided; and to them "any dead body of a person who has died of any infectious disease, or any dead body which is in such a state as to endanger the health of the inmates of the same house or room," may be removed by order of a justice, on a certificate by a legally qualified medical practitioner. A coroner is, ex-officio, a justice of the peace, and therefore might make such an order, if he was put into motion by a proper medical certificate. A coroner, or other constituted authority, may also order the removal of a body to a proper place for the purpose of carrying out a post-mortem examination. These two cases are. as far as we can see, the only ones under which there is any power to remove a corpse if the friends object; and in both cases a proper order must first be made.

            In the case of Mrs. Banham, it would seem to have been most desirable that the body should have been removed; for the tenement occupied by her family, consisting of herself and her daughter, and the daughter's husband and child, was only two small rooms over a provision-shop, approached by a stepladder. But the relatives disliked the idea of the removal, and, backed up by the advice of a curate, refused to allow it. There was no medical certificate that the body required to be taken elsewhere, and consequently there could be no magistrate's order. The coroner had apparently given verbal directions for a post-mortem examination, but had not stated where this was to take place, and the only document ordering removal was a slip of paper given by his officer to the undertaker. The curate had consulted certain people who might be supposed to know something of the law, who told him (quite rightly) that there was no power to remove the body without an order from the coroner. Mr. Baxter, when informed of this, is reported to have said that " it was a great piece of impertinent interference with his office, as j the usual course had been taken with regard to the removal of the body." We cannot agree. It probably was most desirable, as we have said, that the body in question should have been removed; for if a post-mortt m examination was required, it could not well have been conducted in either of the two small rooms above the provision-shop. But officials such as coroners should take the trouble to discharge their duties propei ly. If the usual course in East Londou is for the coroner's officer (whoever that person may be) to give a slip of paper to an undertaker, ordering the removal of a corpse, without obtaining any formal order from his employer, the coroner, the sooner it is recognized that the slip of paper is waste paper, and is no valid order at all, the better for all parties concerned. Coroners are 110 more above the law than are magistrates or judges, and there is no excuse for their performing their duties in such a slipshod way. If the law is to be altered, the alteration must be made by Parliament. Possibly, as regards the Metropolis, provision may be made for the matter in the Public Health Amendment Act, which has attained its second reading in the House of Commons.
            Best Wishes,
            Cris Malone
            ______________________________________________
            "Objectivity comes from how the evidence is treated, not the nature of the evidence itself. Historians can be just as objective as any scientist."

            Comment


            • #21
              Say Cris, thanks for transcribing that. Articles like this one, besides being interesting reading, are also helpful--I've always thought that if you wanted to learn how something is supposed to work, listen to a bunch of people arguing over what's wrong with it. A-Z mentions one for Macdonald that's like this, except the criticism there is that he didn't remove the body (he certainly wouldn't have encountered an objection if he'd had).

              So it seems that unless there was a contagion or a postmortem order, and there must have been many cases where this wasn't the case, the validity of removing a body depended on whether or not the family objected. I think I can see why Baxter would get his dander up here. It's interesting that this article touches on this dwelling not being suitable for accommodating the jury's view, but then doesn't say how necessary the view was for the inquest to be legal. In this case, Baxter's probably got 13 or 14 men on his jury I bet, and perhaps the argument can be made that the state of the law at this time threatens to leave the validity of his inquest hinging on the desires of this family, and the only real way to counteract that is to order a postmortem that might have been unnecessary (if I'm understanding right). There would have been many cases where there was no postmortem, and many of those would be where the deceased died at home. Imagine if many families objected, that's a lot of conflict (and expense, if adding a guinea to your inquest is the cost of the way out of it).

              But I'm sure it's true that the paperwork must have gotten sloppy, no surprise considering how many inquests they're doing, and how quickly. But sloppy's sloppy, yeah? Some of Macdonald's records look that way, and in his district, my impression is that the officers seem to have had some leeway, too.

              As Baxter claims to have been doing, I think all coroners must have been doing this sort of thing routinely, claiming the same right. Macdonald certainly was moving bodies where there's no evidence in the record of a postmortem being ordered or of a contagious disease present.

              Here's a request for one case in Hackney. They got this one on the 4th November 1888, and the inquest was held on the 6th, pretty typical. Here the officer suggests that they move this body, and nothing to do with law, because there's nothing in the testimony that the doctor has opened the body up. The reasons seem to be practical. The "advantage" described must have been convenience, to save time and money. Because also in Hackney, they already have another case scheduled at the Mermaid for the 6th. If they move this body to the mortuary in Mare St. that must have been nearby the Mermaid, which they did, they change the venue, and they're now able to hold two inquests at the place with only having to summon one jury, which can view both bodies at the mortuary. That's fewer men summoned from work for jury duty, and using the same venue, Macdonald can save a little on his expenses. Since he'd be reimbursed for those later, ultimately this was the ratepayers' money they're spending.

              Perhaps it was common that the removal of bodies had nothing to do with determining cause of death or an infectious disease. But as you've shown, the coroner could have had a problem if the family objected. The problem seems to be the law only addresses specific scenarios that didn't encompass everything that was encountered in practice, as the end of your transcription seems to suggest.

              Best,
              Dave
              Attached Files

              Comment


              • #22
                Hi Dave,
                Thanks for the input and the request form from Macdonald - even if its been over two years ago. Like yourself, I find this stuff interesting. Too bad Baxter's papers have not been found or no longer exist. This may be because of a destruction schedule imposed in 1921 that stated Inquisitions and depositions dated after 1874 could be destroyed after 15 years I believe. At least someone saw fit to retain many of Macdonald's records, which you have gone to the expense to photocopy and share with us on many occasions.

                Originally posted by Dave O View Post
                ...So it seems that unless there was a contagion or a postmortem order, and there must have been many cases where this wasn't the case, the validity of removing a body depended on whether or not the family objected. I think I can see why Baxter would get his dander up here. It's interesting that this article touches on this dwelling not being suitable for accommodating the jury's view, but then doesn't say how necessary the view was for the inquest to be legal...
                The jury viewing the body was necessary for the inquest to be legal, going back to a time when examinations by a physician just didn't happen. The jury had to see the physical evidence themselves. Worrall's "Coroner's Guide" from the mid-eighteeth century went so far as to advise the jurors what to look for. It wasn't until the Coroner's Act of 1926 that the jury wasn't required to view the body (the coroner was still required to do so.)
                Best Wishes,
                Cris Malone
                ______________________________________________
                "Objectivity comes from how the evidence is treated, not the nature of the evidence itself. Historians can be just as objective as any scientist."

                Comment


                • #23
                  Hi Cris,

                  Good to hear from you. Yes, it's fascinating how the records in London moved after the deaths of each coroner. The papers really do have their own stories, I feel, each with their own odd variables, and there's more work to be done there.

                  The only exception to the view that I've found prior to 1926 is if there was a contagious disease involved, and then the coroner might possibly have dispensed with it, although it technically invalidated the inquisition. But they apparently did it anyway. I don't know if there were any consequences, but it was apparently known about at the time.

                  Cheers,
                  Dave

                  Comment


                  • #24
                    You're certainly correct on that. They didn't always know specifics about contagions, but they did know they were likely spread by contact. And jurors around bodies in close quarters raised concerns.

                    Even though there were many laws passed during the 19th century that affected coroners, there was still much ambiguity when it came to jurisdictions between the coroner, magistrates and the police, and even standards of notification - even who exactly was in charge regarding the medical aspects of death.

                    Better understanding of these aspects and the conflicts they sometimes initiated give us a better understanding of the processes and their outcomes during the Whitechapel murders.
                    Best Wishes,
                    Cris Malone
                    ______________________________________________
                    "Objectivity comes from how the evidence is treated, not the nature of the evidence itself. Historians can be just as objective as any scientist."

                    Comment

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