A Little History Lesson
Even before they were known as Coroners, people were selected to investigate deaths in the community. The office of “Coroner,” however, originated in England around 1100-1200 A.D. when these investigators were known as “crowners.” They were appointed by the Crown to investigate violent, unexplained deaths and to make sure that any property that was left by the deceased was added to the treasure trove of the King of England. The Latin word for crown is “corona,” which is why the office became known as “Coroner.”
Determining the cause of deaths would also be important in the New World. It is believed that William Penn appointed one of the first Coroners in the American colonies in 1682 after a dead body was found on a river bank. The early American Coroners, like their English counterparts, tried to use as much common sense as possible since most did not have a medical background. In some cases, however, they simply made guesses, in part because the only requirement for a Coroner was proof that he was not an ex-convict! This Coroner system was used as the country grew, and Coroners were elected in all of the original 13 colonies. As the new states and territories developed, Coroners were elected to be county officers, comparable to sheriffs, with whom they often traded places.
The Coroners of the County
The following historical information was taken from the “History of Lycoming County Pennsylvania” edited by John F. Meginness (1892).
The city of Williamsport was formed in 1795, the same year that Lycoming County was organized. It does not appear that Lycoming County had a regularly elected Coroner for the first three years of its existence. But in 1798, it is recorded that Henry Dougherty was Lycoming County’s first elected Coroner.
Deaths by accidents and other causes were quite frequent in early times. The first record of a Coroner’s inquest was held for a man who drowned in the Susquehanna River in 1798. Others followed, including a farmer who was killed in 1799 by being run over by an ox team.
On December 22, 1804, a man was found lying dead on State Road. It was brought out at the inquest conducted by coroner John Brooks that the victim: “walked to the place where he was found, having staid [sic] the night before at the house of Norris. He lay down, placed a handkerchief under his head, and perished by severe cold.”
The following year, Brooks also investigated the death of a man who drowned in an attempt to cross Pine Creek with a four horse team. The two rear horses were also drowned. In 1807, an inquest was conducted by Coroner Apollos Woodward at a home in Newberry, on the body of a man who was “killed by a tree falling on him.” In 1808, an inquest was held on the body of a woman; verdict: she “came to her death by the abuse and ill treatment of her husband.”
During the 1800s, a new Coroner was elected every three years in Lycoming County. These Coroners investigated many deaths including that a man who hanged himself in the jail with a saddle girth, and a resident who committed suicide by cutting off his tongue with a razor “while in a state of insanity” in 1848.
In some counties, the Coroner system fell into disrepute, partly because it was an elective office, and partly because Coroners did not need any qualifications, legal or medical. But in 1859, Dr. George W. Wood was elected the county’s first doctor to become Coroner. And, throughout most of the 20th century, every Coroner was a doctor, including Dr. Earl R. Miller who was elected in 1958 and held the office for 20 years. Our current coroner, Charles Kiessling, began his career in the Coroner’s Office in 1986, when he was appointed as Deputy Coroner. In 1997 and 1998, Chuck filled in as Acting Coroner until Dave Shultz’s appointment in 1999. Chuck was ultimately elected to the Coroner’s position and began his term in 2000 and was re-elected in the fall of 2003.
Chuck’s education (he is an RN and has earned a BS in Nursing) and experience in the medical field is a very valuable asset when he is called upon to determine the cause of deaths and perform related investigations. But, Chuck estimates that, surprisingly, about 70% of the coroners in the state are funeral home directors. This is reminiscent of the old custom of electing coroners who were furniture- or cabinetmakers...and, conveniently, quite proficient in making wooden caskets!
In addition to his formal education, Chuck has also attended the forty-hour Coroner’s Basic Education course that culminates in a certification exam. Continuing education courses, assorted seminars and conferences punctuate Chuck’s schedule—which only serve as a reprieve from those telephone calls 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, requesting his presence when a death has occurred.
~Text written by Joan Blank for the Sept. 1 2006 edition of the “County News” – the quarterly newsletter for employees of Lycoming County, published by the Human Resources Office, County of Lycoming.