During the Regency, the British had a constitutional dislike of police, believing that an organized police force would undermine the ideals of the kingdom. So when there was a crime, they had to rely on local magistrates and volunteer constables to take care of things. Occasionally, people would enlist the aid of the Bow Street Runners in London (that’s a post for another day). But when the crime involved a suspicious death, the coroner was called in to decide if someone was responsible and if that person deserved to pay for the crime.
The title “coroner” comes from the Latin “coronus,” meaning crown; from the Middle Ages, the British coroner was a representative of the crown in cases of criminal justice. The office evolved over, and by the Regency, the coroner was almost exclusively responsible for determining if murder had been committed, as well as the identity and the level of culpability of the guilty party. To do this, he called an inquest, which was a very loosely organized preliminary investigation to gather and analyze evidence.
The inquest generally took place within forty-eight hours of the death, and jurors were chosen from among the nobility, gentry, and principle inhabitants of the area where it occurred. The first order of business was to view the body, which was supposed to have been untouched since the death; hence, all the jurors would troop up to the bedroom or into the backroom or over the fields to see the dead person and make what they could of it.
Then the group adjourned to somewhere close by—a room in the house or the local inn—to decide who should be called in to give a deposition. Anyone with any knowledge of the situation was summoned by letter to give evidence, and could be heavily fined if they refused to cooperate. Generally, people were happy to comply, because it was their chance to discover more details of the crime as most inquests were not public.
If it was determined that someone was responsible for the death, these suspects were only detained in jail if they seemed to be dangerous or likely to flee, instead being told not to leave the country until the inquest was over. Unlike today, jurors were not forbidden from speaking to any of the witnesses (including the suspect) before the inquest. The only time the jury could not speak to anyone outside the court was after all the evidence was heard and they were deliberating over their decision.
If the inquest found the suspect guilty, he would be ordered to appear for trial at the assizes, where his final fate would be determined. Because the assizes came around only every couple of months and only in principle towns, the suspect was not necessarily detained, but expected to stay in the area until the trial. If he/she did not present him/herself at the appointed place and time, they could be seized by soldiers and fined or transported (depending on the situation).
At the town where the assizes were being held, the suspect would be held in jail until their hearing, and given the opportunity to make final arrangements in case they were found guilty and sentenced to death. The decision of the judge at the assizes was final, and could range from acquittal to transportation to death to prison, depending on the situation and, unfortunately, the status of the prisoner. Nobility and gentry tended to get better treatment, while commoners more often than not got the short end of the stick.
This process was a way to keep the assizes from becoming too overwhelmed by cases that could be resolved in the local community. Because the inquest was run by people who better knew the circumstances and the people involved in each case, there was a better chance of justice being served than by referring every suspicious death to a travelling judge in a far off town.
Impey, John. The practice of the office of sheriff; also the practice of the office of coroner. W. Clarke and Sons. 1817.