52 Ancestors: Week 34 – Finding Coroner\’s Reports

Week 33\’s theme for the 52 ancestors series of posts is \”tragedy\”. When you have an ancestor who died in unusual circumstances, there might have been a coroner\’s, or chief medical examiner\’s, inquest. These inquests looked into these kinds of deaths. Because the coroner could interview people and look at evidence that would not qualify in a criminal court, one could find a wealth of information in them. These are the responsibility of provincial governments. As such, each province does things a little differently.

So how to find out if your ancestor\’s death warranted an inquest? Well the first thing you\’ll want to look at is historical newspapers. Because of the circumstances in which inquests were held, newspapers would almost certainly have reported on it. Even if the death itself didn\’t make the news, the fact that a coroner would be looking into it would ensure that it made the news. Depending on the circumstances, you might even find articles on the proceedings themselves.

The majority of Provinces today have a Coroner\’s Office. Alberta, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador, and Manitoba have Offices of the Chief Medical Examiner. These provinces have modeled their death investigation systems after the US, while Coroner provinces have modeled their systems after the UK model. There are slight differences in how they do things, but the main elements are the same. Statistics Canada has been compiling a national database and has some background here. You can also see their findings investigating deaths from 2006-2008 here. It gives a general view of the types of deaths investigated. Even though it does not discuss individual cases, it is interesting reading.

In both systems, the inquests and their findings were open to the public at the time they happened. However, now the average time restriction for access by the public is 100 years. Until that time, records are held by either the Coroner\’s Office, or the Attorney General. If the death you are looking at it is less than 100 years ago, your first course of action should be to contact the Coroner/ Chief Medical Officer\’s office. They would be able to let you know whether it is open access. If it is not, then they should also be able to direct you in whether you qualify for access to restricted records, and how to request access.  What I\’m going to focus on is where to access open records.

Provincial Archives of New Brunswick

Provincial Archives
The majority of Provincial Government records are deposited at Provincial Archives once they become open to the public. I did some searching on their websites, and these types of records will require an on site visit. Or, you can hire a researcher if that\’s not possible for you.

  • The Rooms in Newfoundland has a few records as part of their Supreme Court Fonds
  • The Public Archives and Record Office  of Prince Edward Island have them as part of the Attorney general Fonds
  • The Nova Scotia Archives has inquest records among their County Court Fonds. Not all districts have surviving records.
  • I checked the County Guides at the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick, but I cold not find specific mention of Coroner\’s Inquest records. My suggestion would be to contact the Archives directly.
  • BAnQ in Quebec holds historic coroner\’s inquest reports. They have several different fonds and files in their online search. Because there are BAnQ Archives across the province, you will want to pay special attention to which location the record is kept at.
  • As usual, the Archives of Ontario has a comprehensive research guide for coroner\’s reports. Here is their PDF guide Criminal Justice Records at the Archives of Ontario. Scroll down to the Coroner\’s Reports section.
  • The Archives of Manitoba hold records covering 1870-1916
  • The Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan\’s search capabilites are transitioning to new software. Because of that, I could not definitely say they have coroner\’s reports. 
  • The Provincial Archives of Alberta has coroner\’s inquests in several collections.
  • Coroner Reports are part of the Ministry of Attorney General fonds at the BC Archives.
Local County, Municipal and University Archives
If you can\’t find what you\’re looking for at the Provincial level, try looking at more location specific archives. For whatever reason, these smaller archives may have obtained the records. You may also find collections relating to coroners themselves. For instance:

Canada Gazette and Provincial Gazettes
In the past, I wrote a blog post about what a great resource the Canada Gazette is. Though a federal publication, I did find some interesting results looking for \”coroner\’s inquest\”. Here\’s a page thathas a proclamation saying that a Mr. William E Brainerd has a warrant out for his arrest due to the findings in the shooting death of his mother:
Also check Provincial Government gazettes. Historical issues can be found in provincial archives.

A search on Canadiana using the words \”coroner inquest\” resulted in over 7,000 results. Look at this gem titled Authentic report of the proceedings of a coroner\’s inquest held upon the body of Job Broom

Some Final Tips
  • Make sure you contact the Archives before you visit. Sometimes records are stored off site, and require some notice to have them ready for you.
  • Don\’t limit your search to government record collections. As I showed in the examples above, information can be found in family fond collections.
  • On that note, take some time to research who the Coroner/Chief Medical Examiner was in your ancestor\’s place and time period. By searching their name, you might find additional record sets. 
  • Now for the downside: a lot of these records did not survive. So, just because you found mention of an inquest in the newspaper does not mean that you will have a record of the proceedings. But the information you might glean from these records make it worth the search.

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