Corrupt Coroners

This post was written by Danielle Abell (MC ’23) and edited by N. Locklin.

In being tasked with defining what evidence constitutes an investigation, which specifics define murder in an investigation, and how to defend those who have been victims of a crime, forensic pathologists and coroners are flush with power in the criminal justice system. Their position affords them a level of involvement in cases that is hardly ever reached by lawyers, judges, or any of the other occupations that are so common in the courtroom. In fact, coroners are probably the most involved in an investigation without being directly related to or being one of the plaintiffs or defendants. While today, we know coroners and forensic pathologists as knowledgeable, unbiased, evidence-producing professionals, the culture surrounding scientific crime investigation was not always the same.

In fact, as a profession and a tool in forensic investigations, that culture has only been considered as it is now for about a century. According to Julie Johnson-McGrath of Harvard University, “scientific crime detection has become an integral part of the criminal justice system, but its implementation and institutionalization were the invention of a specific historic period and were designed to serve particular professional interests”. The emergence of forensic science as a respected profession in the legal sphere was a long process. At the beginning of the 20th century, the increasing urbanization of the United States, coupled with absolutely none of the technological abilities of the modern criminal justice system, resulted in a largely political, corrupt, and ineffective system of justice. Not only were race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status a common determinant of cases, but “Victim and culprit alike remained anonymous”. A mess of a system in the midst of an already socially changing nation, criminal justice could only be loosely defined as such. Forensic pathologists had to prove the integrity and value of their profession, while being a part of a system which was corrupt and largely not respected throughout major population centers. Progressive-era reports, “revealed that the criminal justice system neither punished offenders or protected the public”, according to the historian Jeffrey S. Adler. Americans became increasingly disillusioned with the system, and violent crime continued to soar into the 20th century as the realization that a four out of five chance to be acquitted did not make the courtroom a scary place for criminals.

A report published in 1915 in New York City by a reformer named Leonard Wallstein revealed exactly how easy it was for incompetent individuals to become coroners. As in many cities, the office of coroner was an elected position and political party bosses could rig elections so that loyal supporters got the job.  There were no qualifications necessary to run for coroner. Some physicians were elected coroner, but they tended to be doctors who had lost their practices or licenses. Between 1898 and 1915, the list of men who had served as coroners included undertakers, politicians, real estate agents, saloonkeepers, and a variety of tradesman. Worse yet, coroners worked on commission and some, for the right price, were content to call a murder an accident or a suicide a heart attack. Some got kickbacks from funeral homes if they pressured grieving families to use their services. Some were even said to have signed the autopsy without ever looking at the body.

This era is, of course, when the Night Marauder committed his crimes. However, the Night Marauder would have not had an easy time remaining anonymous in such a small town as Maryville and early 20th-century Knoxville. However, we can also see the prejudices of the times in the Night Marauder case, not only with the eventual acquittal of William Sheffey, but also with the conviction of Maurice Mays on very little evidence. The undeniable power of a jury to convict or acquit on the basis of race and small-town politics in the case of the Night Marauder is a microcosm for the state of the criminal justice system across the nation during the interwar period, and marks yet another 20th century killer who went unidentified, and whose victims would never see justice. As we will see in Sheffey’s 1925 trial, handwriting experts, doctors, and psychologists testified for the prosecution but could not make their case. Not only was this case so representative of the justice system, but also representative of the low level of respectability that medical professionals and scientific experts held in the courtroom in the early 20th century.

Modern Forensic Science Lab (Wikipedia Commons)

Scientific evidence in criminal cases has only recently become a standard of operation for the legal system. While we may be able to guess, the technology and science of the early 1920s did not allow for this type of evidence against the Night Marauder, whether or not it was William Sheffey. Unfortunately, this means that the Night Marauder and many other violent criminals went unidentified or escaped conviction in the legal system of the early 1900s, and even past this point as doctors and scientists fought to establish their credibility as part of the legal system. In establishing that credibility, forensic scientists have had an uphill battle to the reputation that they now hold. The occupation has struggled to hold its own in the face of “its association with corruption – the physical corruption of long-dead bodies and the moral corruption of crime” (Johnson-McGrath). In fighting this stigma, the occupation has struggled, even in high-crime, low conviction time periods like the turn of the century. The process to establish the profession of forensic science as a valuable profession on its own and in the courtroom was a long one, involving increasingly strict medical certifications, a fight for the detachment of political power in the coroner’s office, and recognition of the sub-specialty of forensic medical examination.

For further reading, see Jeffrey S. Adler’s “Less Crime, More Punishment: Violence, Race, and Criminal Justice in Early Twentieth-Century America.” The Journal of American History 102, no. 1 (2015); Julie Johnson-McGrath’s “Speaking for the Dead: Forensic Pathologists and Criminal Justice in the United States.” Science, Technology, & Human Values 20, no. 4 (1995); and Deborah Blume’s The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York (Penguin Books, 2010).

Published by Nancy Locklin

I am a professor of history at Maryville College in east Tennessee.

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