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In 12th century England, the power of the Sheriff was a growing entity within the King's land. To monitor the Sheriff for evidence of dishonesty, the King created the role of Coroner (the word was originally derived from coroune or "crown," because they were meant to serve the "crown"). For each county, four men were selected by the court for the role of Coroner. These men brought important concerns to the attention of the King and investigated any failure to inform the King of these matters. The Coroners were deemed the only persons within the county with the power to arrest the Sheriff himself.
By the 16th century the coroner had become an elected official. While he still maintained the power to ensure the honesty of public officials, the most prominent role of the coroner had become what it is today: investigating the circumstances of sudden, unnatural, or suspicious deaths.
Determining the cause and manner of deaths would be as 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 at the time the only requirement for a Coroner was proof that they were 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 county officers, comparable to sheriffs with whom they often traded places.
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