Thursday, November 14, 2013

Tragic Ends: Coroner's Inquests from the Legal Matters Documents

LM 3478 - Part of the inquisition over the body of Polly Outerkirk, dated September 16, 1826. The eight-year-old child fell into the Erie Canal "in a place called Waltons Basin" and drowned. Several other inquests in the collection identify cause of death as drowning by accidental falls into the Erie Canal or the Mohawk River. Image from collections of Grems-Doolittle Library.

The Legal Matters category of the Historic Manuscripts Collection consists of an interesting variety of documents related to legal transactions and disputes, dating from 1670 to 1972 (most documents in the collection date from the nineteenth century). The documents include land agreements and leases, affidavits, petitions, judgments in civil and criminal suits, legal notices, promissory notes, licenses, bills of sale, contracts, and bonds. Some of the documents in this category highlight the unsavory and the tragic, documenting gambling, assaults, domestic violence, slavery, and prostitution in Schenectady County in the early-to-mid-nineteenth century.

LM 3480 - Portion of inquisition over the body of Susan Day, otherwise known as Susan Tappan, dated March 29, 1828. The jury found that "being moved and seduced by the devil," Day took a large amount of opium to poison herself. The Schenectady Cabinet of April 2, 1828 further reported that "from letters which were found on her table, she appeared to be in great distress of mind; one particularly directed to the landlord, wherein she makes a partial statement of her situation; that her mind is calm and firm, and that she was broken-hearted. She left directions about her interment -- and where the landlord must call to be remunerated." Image from collections of Grems-Doolittle Library.

There are approximately 50 coroner's inquests included in the collection, ranging in date from 1824 to 1843. Inquests are inquiries made into the manner and cause of person's death. These documents were created when there were reasonable grounds to believe that the death of a person resulted from violence or suicide, or when a person's death was sudden or mysterious. The inquests in this collection tend to be fairly brief, are signed by a number of jurors, and -- on occasion -- impose moral judgment on the deceased. During this time, law enforcement structures were rudimentary, and physicians may or may not have been enlisted to participate in inquests. As the documentation created by coroners was expanded and forensic science developed in the latter part of the nineteenth century, the record-keeping became more standardized, formal death certificates began to be recorded, and the legal and medical terminology employed became more technical.

LM 3549 - Part of inquisition over the body of Joseph Crasp, dated December 4, 1826. Crasp, an inmate of the Schenectady County Almshouse, was severely beaten by fellow almshouse resident Daniel Bradt on December 1 and died on December 3 as a result of injuries received. Image from collections of Grems-Doolittle Library.

Included here are just a few examples of the inquests included in the collection. Click this link to see the full, searchable finding aid for the Legal Matters category of documents.

LM 3553 - Portion of inquest over the body of Caroline Behart, dated November 28, 1828. The day prior to her death, Behart "got intoxicated with ardent spirits and continued so all that day in company with others." She was found the next morning a mile and half east of the Schenectady city center, on what is now State Street, lying in the road. It was found that "Caroline Behart came to her death by intoxication and lying out all night exposed to inclemency of the weather." Image from collections of Grems-Doolittle Library.

LM 3496 - Portion of inquisition over the body of "John, an Indian," who purposely leaped from a small boat on the Mohawk River at Alplaus to his death, dated Agust 5, 1827. The inquest reads that the man, "not having the fear of God before his eyes," "voluntarily and feloniously as a felon of himself killed and murdered, against the peace of the people of the State of New York." Image from collections of Grems-Doolittle Library. 

LM 4227 - Brief inquest over the body of "an infant found on the hill near the Baptist Burying Ground," dated April 12, 1843. The baby was "found in a coffin & left there by its unnatural mother" or by another unknown person. Image from collections of Grems-Doolittle Library. 

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