Charles Dickens, Inquest Juror
In The Uncommercial Traveller, Charles Dickens gave the following account of his service as an inquest juror. I've put it up here as an item of general interest. The experience Dickens describes is much as it would have been in 1888 Metropolitan London: the lack of a suitable coroner's court or mortuary, the notoriously corrupt beadles still serving as coroners' officers, the legal formality of the view of the corpse, etc.
In order to put off a beadle expecting a bribe to excuse Dickens from jury duty, Dickens decides to attend instead. The inquest takes place in a workhouse. The coroner here is Thomas Wakley, surgeon, founding editor of The Lancet, M.P. for Finsbury, and coroner for West Middlesex 1839-1862. Over the course of his life, Wakley did much to medicalize the inquest--two of his contributions were the ability to summon and pay qualified medical witnesses and along with East Middlesex coroner William Baker (a solicitor, I believe), Wakley helped make autopsies routine procedure. Although most coroners were and still are people with legal backgrounds, Wakley strongly advocated the medical coroner, and Dickens has a bit of business that has Wakley showing off his medical experience. Wakley is a tremendously important figure, he did so much to transform the inquest and in the long run, probably saved a lot of lives doing it. Not surprising that Wakley and Dickens got along, they were both reformers.
. . . . Be this as it may, the Beadle did what Melancholy did to the youth in Gray’s Elegy—he marked me for one of his own. And the way in which the Beadle did it was this: he summoned me as a Juryman on his Coroner’s Inquests.
In my first feverish alarm I repaired ‘for safety and for succor’—like those sagacious Northern shepherds who, having had no previous reason whatever to believe in young Norval, very prudently did not originate the hazardous idea of believing in him—to a deep householder. This profound man informed me that the Beadle counted on my buying him off; on my bribing him not to summon me; and that if I would attend an Inquest with a cheerful countenance, and profess alacrity in that branch of my country’s service, the Beadle would be disheartened, and would give up the game.
I roused my energies, and the next time the wily Beadle summoned me, I went. The Beadle was the blankest Beadle I have ever looked on when I answered to my name; and his discomfiture gave me courage to go through with it.
We were impaneled to inquire concerning the death of a very little mite of a child. It was the old miserable story. Whether the mother had committed the minor offence of concealing the birth, or whether she had committed the major offence of killing the child, was the question on which we were wanted. We must commit her on one of the two issues.
The Inquest came off in the parish workhouse, and I have yet a lively impression that I was unanimously received by my brother Jurymen as a brother of the utmost conceivable insignificance. Also, that before we began, a broker who had lately cheated me fearfully in the matter of a pair of card-tables, was for the utmost rigour of the law. I remember that we sat in a sort of board-room, on such very large square horse-hair chairs that I wondered what race of Patagonians they were made for; and further, that an undertaker gave me his card when we were in the full moral freshness of having just been sworn, as ‘an inhabitant that was newly come into the parish, and was likely to have a young family.’ The case was then stated to us by the Coroner, and then we went down-stairs—led by the plotting Beadle—to view the body. From that day to this, the poor little figure, on which that sounding legal appellation was bestowed, has lain in the same place and with the same surroundings, to my thinking in a kind of crypt devoted to the warehousing of the parochial coffins, and in the midst of a perfect Panorama of coffins of all sizes, it was stretched on a box; the mother had put it in her box—this box—almost as soon as it was born, and it had been presently found there. It had been opened, and neatly sewn up, and regarded from that point of view, it looked like a stuffed creature. It rested on a clean white cloth, with a surgical instrument or so at hand, and regarded from that point of view, it looked as if the cloth were ‘laid,’ and the Giant were coming to dinner. There was nothing repellent about the poor piece of innocence, and it demanded a mere form of looking at. So, we looked at an old pauper who was going about among the coffins with a foot rule, as if he were a case of Self-Measurement; and we looked at one another; and we said the place was well whitewashed anyhow; and then our conversational powers as a British Jury flagged, and the foreman said, ‘All right, gentlemen? Back again, Mr. Beadle!’
The miserable young creature who had given birth to this child within a very few days, and who had cleaned the cold wet door-steps immediately afterwards, was brought before us when we resumed our horse-hair chairs, and was present during the proceedings. She had a horse-hair chair herself, being very weak and ill, and I remember how she turned to the unsympathetic nurse who attended her, and who might have been the figure-head of a pauper ship, and how she hid her face and sobs and tears upon that wooden shoulder. I remember, too, how hard her mistress was upon her (she was a servant-of-all-work), and with what a cruel pertinacity that piece of Virtue spun her thread of evidence double, by intertwisting it with the sternest thread of construction. Smitten hard by the terrible low wall from the utterly friendless orphan girl, which never ceased during the whole inquiry, I took heart to ask this witness a question or two, which hopefully admitted of an answer that might give a favourable turn to the case. She made the turn as little favourable as it could be, but it did some good, and the Coroner, who was nobly patient and humane (he was the late Mr. Wakely), cast a look of strong encouragement in my direction. Then, we had the doctor who had made the examination, and the usual tests as to whether the child was born alive; but he was a timid, muddle-headed doctor, and got confused and contradictory, and wouldn’t say this, and couldn’t answer for that, and the immaculate broker was too much for him, and our side slid back again. However, I tried again, the Coroner backed me again, for which I ever afterwards felt grateful to him as I do now to his memory; and we got another favourable turn, out of some other witness, some member of the family with a strong prepossession against the sinner; and I think we had the doctor back again; and I know that the Coroner summed up for our side, and that I and my British brothers turned round to discuss our verdict, and get ourselves into difficulties with our large chairs and the broker. At that stage of the case I tried hard again, being convinced that I had cause for it; and at last we found for the minor offence of only concealing the birth; and the poor desolate creature, who had been taken out during our deliberation, being brought in again to be told of the verdict, then dropped upon her knees before us, with protestations that we were right—protestations among the most affecting that I have ever heard in my life—and was carried away insensible.
(In private conversation after this was all over, the Coroner showed me his reasons as a trained surgeon, for perceiving it to be impossible that the child could, under the most favourable circumstances, have drawn many breaths, in the very doubtful case of its having ever breathed at all; this, owing to the discovery of some foreign matter in the windpipe, quite irreconsiable with many moments of life.)
When the agonized girl had made those final protestations, I had seen her face, and it was in unison with her distracted heartbroken voice, and it was very moving. It certainly did not impress me by any beauty that it had, and if I ever see it again in another world I shall only know it by the help of some new sense or intelligence. But it came to me in my sleep that night, and I selfishly dismissed it in the most efficient way I could think of. I caused some extra care to be taken of her in the prison, and counsel to be retained for her defence when she was tried at the Old Bailey; and her sentence was lenient, and her history and conduct proved that it was right. In doing the little I did for her, I remember to have had the kind help of some gentle-hearted functionary to whom I addressed myself—but what functionary I have long forgotton—who I suppose was officially present at the Inquest.
I regard this as a very notable uncommercial experience, because this good came of a Beadle. And to the best of my knowledge, information, and belief, it is the only good that ever did come of a Beadle since the first Beadle put on his cocked hat.
Hope that's of interest, things were much the same in 1888.
Last edited by Dave O : 02-25-2010 at 06:35 AM.