When my fictional 18th century coroner, Titus Cragg of Preston, investigates a suspicious death, he takes into account all the different kinds of evidence available to him, which means establishing the physical facts of a case and making deductions from those facts. When thinking like this, he is in effect practising an early form of what we call “forensic science”, in which he’s much encouraged by his modern young friend and informal assistant Dr Fidelis. But Cragg is a man of his time, in which hundreds of years of pre-scientific lore, of folk traditions and superstitions, also has to be reckoned with.
Enquiries by coroners in Cragg’s time were still governed to a considerable extent by popular belief in divine intervention. The old adage that “mordre wol out”, chillingly evoked by Geoffrey Chaucer in The Nun’s Priest’s Tale, derives from the idea that murder was so abhorrent in the eyes of God that sooner or later he always exposed and punished the murderer. Long ago physical trials by water or fire had been ways of hurrying the process up: if the suspects floated, or were not burned, they were not guilty, and vice versa. By the 18th century such procedures had long fallen out of use, but popular superstition remained a factor in any body of evidence.
Reports that a ghost had appeared to someone could be taken as proof that the dead person was haunting his murderer, just as Banquo’s ghost returns to accuse Macbeth. As psychological side-effects of guilt, such hallucinations may be plausible evidence, but another technique, the bleeding corpse trial, had rather less basis in reality. Here a suspect would be made to grip the hand of the body under inquest and, if this caused the corpse’s wounds to bleed anew, it was taken as the touch of the murderer.
Careful examination of the body, and the position it was found in, had always been essential to the coroner’s procedure. Sometimes this has a modern ring to it, as in the way wounds were precisely mapped and measured. The famous 1593 inquest into the violent death of the playwright Christopher Marlowe was very specific in finding “a mortal wound over the right eye of the depth of two inches and of the width of one inch”. However the coroner’s examination also took note of less tangible things, such as the expression on the victim’s face. Some believed this was a significant pointer towards the manner of death: a placid face would rule out a violent murder whereas a look of stark terror made it an open and shut case for homicide.
One forensic experiment, devised in the late 17th century, had a quasi-scientific basis. This was used to answer a question that had always been of special interest to coroners: whether the death of a new-born baby occurred before or after its birth. A piece of the infant’s lung was dropped into water. If it sank, that was taken as an indication that the lung had never been inflated; if it floated, it was taken that the baby had breathed before it died. This test remained in use for most of the 18th century.
Increasingly ideas in “natural philosophy”, based on observation and experiment of a kind beloved of Dr Fidelis, competed for credibility with a vast core of pre-existing beliefs and superstitions that had accumulated over thousands of years. Coroners like Cragg were therefore working at the very cusp of change between traditional and scientific forensics. It is what makes them such interesting figures.
(Robin Blake’s The Scrivener, the third Cragg and Fidelis mystery, is published by Constable in the UK. In the United States it appears under the imprint of Minotaur Books with the variant title The Hidden Man.) Follow Robin Blake on Twitter and for more information on his books visit robinblake.co.uk