Written by CHRISTINA VANDEPOL, MD, Chester County, PA, Coroner, for the Chester County Medical Society
The office of Coroner goes way back – all the way back to at least 1194 in England, when Richard the LionHearted was seeking money to fund wars and crusades. English sheriffs who were supposed to represent the King’s interest in the shires were increasingly corrupt. Coroners (“Crowners”) were put in place not just to go to the scene of unexpected deaths, including murders, but to make sure the property of executed criminals went to the King and wasn’t “diverted” locally. While that’s no longer a coroner responsibility, coroners then and now investigated sudden, unexpected, and non-natural deaths, determined the cause and manner of death, and wrote death certificates.
Like so many American institutions, the U.S. coroner system began in Pennsylvania. The “Frame of Government for Pennsylvania,” written in 1682 by William Penn for the land he’d been granted by King Charles II, allowed for an appointed coroner. In 1684, Penn himself appointed Chester County’s first coroner, James Kanela (sometime written Kennerly), who was in office from 1685-1687. Since 1838 and continuing to the present, coroners have been elected officials. Whether headed by an appointed or elected Coroner, the Chester County Coroner’s Office (CCCO) has always functioned as a death investigation agency. County archives show that early coroners were paid to examine dead bodies to ascertain the cause of death and to hold inquests. The fee for viewing a dead body in 1814 was $2.75, approximately the cost of a week’s hotel stay in Washington, D.C. at the time. Today the position is salaried, with a current annual salary of approximately $75,000.
Death investigation is at the intersection of legal and medical disciplines. In the United Kingdom, in fact, coroners are usually lawyers who head Coroner’s Courts, deciding cause and manner of death through inquests where evidence is presented by forensic pathologists and other medical or forensic experts. Prior to the 1960s, inquests were still common in Chester County and coroner inquests are still legal in our state. The purpose of coroner inquests isn’t to adjudicate guilt or innocence, but to establish the facts around a death so cause and manner of death and possible criminal intent can be determined. In most cases today autopsies, toxicological and other tests, and extensive medical records allow the probable cause and manner of death to be determined without an inquest. There remain, however, the occasional “undetermined” cases or controversial situations, like deaths in police custody, where an inquest, with deliberations transparent to the public, are a potentially useful tool.
A striking example of what hasn’t changed much over time, at least in the last 75 years or so, is the facilities of the Coroner’s Office. Not so long ago, the CCCO was housed in one small office room in a West Chester building now occupied by the Mercato Restaurant. Next an office was provided at 313 W. Market St, the current home of most County administrative offices. Around 2016, the CCCO was moved into bigger but rather depressing administrative office space at the end of a long dim corridor in the basement of the Government Services Center. When visiting our office, you might be forgiven for wondering if the idea was “out of sight, out of mind.” While the administrative office has moved around, the same local hospital morgues and autopsy rooms have been in use since the 1960s. According to Dr. Harrop, who took office in 1966, before that autopsies were not infrequently conducted in the back of funeral parlors. Unfortunately, the current facilities don’t meet OSHA or state Department of Labor laws. The CCCO recently failed an accreditation audit in June 2019 because of the dismal state of its morgue and autopsy space.