Getting Away with Murder

[Just FYI, if you were reading this piece in the Guardian or the New York Times, it would be badged ‘The Long Read’.]

Coroners have never been called in routinely to any and every sudden death – despite what we see on crime dramas and read in crime fiction, even in the twenty-first century the decision on whether to hold an inquest is a judgement call. Some cases are obvious, of course, but there are still occasions where an unexpected death appears to be unremarkable or to have happened in the natural course of events and no investigation is carried out. It’s how Harold Shipman managed to kill so many of his elderly patients. Loopholes in GP death registration have been closed since his conviction, but it remains true that it is still possible to get away with murder if you know the cash-strapped system.

Of course, things were much, much worse (or better, depending on your point of view) in the mid-nineteenth century when Harry and John are conducting their investigations.

During the 1850s, the number of inquests per thousand deaths in the Teifi Valley area was amongst the lowest in the whole of England and Wales. Were the people of the Teifi Valley more law abiding than everybody else, more brimming with the milk of human kindness? Possibly; countryside dwellers have, historically, tended to resort to violence less frequently than their urban counterparts. Or perhaps that’s what statsticians would call a reporting error – we think the data paints a picture of reality when all it actually paints is a picture of exactly what’s been recorded.

Maybe the Teifi Valley was more a more easy-going and law abiding place to live; or – more probably – many, many examples of murder and manslaughter were successfully passed off as accidents or death from natural causes.

So, how did the people responsible get away with it?

1: The local police forces lacked an investigative branch

Until the early 1840s there was no police force in the Teifi Valley. And, even when county constabularies were established, they weren’t the investigative forces we know now. Their role is better described by the Welsh term for police: heddlu – peace force.

Robert Peel, who created the Metropolitan Police force, outlined nine principles on which policing was based and not one of them had anything to do with investigation. Nineteenth century constabularies were there to prevent crime and disorder. They moved people on, harrassed known criminals, followed up people’s complaints about individuals and periodically marched about the streets with large truncheons as a deterrent. Deaths they did not look into. Unless they were of the ‘body lies there bleeding while man stands over it with a dripping knife’ variety.

In None So Blind, the first book in the Teifi Valley Coroner series, the board of magistrates make it very clear that they do not want any investigation into the provenance of the bones discovered. But, even if had not done so, no Chief Constable in 1850 would have seen it as their business to investigate the discovery of unidentified bones.

2: Financial constraints on the coroner.

As we’re all very much aware, the twenty-first century criminal justice system is cash strapped. Police forces, the courts, the Crown Prosecution Service, the legal aid system, prisons: they all howl their lack of resources, and the coroners’ system is no different. We tend to assume that things must have been better in some earlier, golden age but that’s not the case. In terms of getting away with murder, one of the greatest factors in the mid nineteenth century was the reluctance of county magistrates to pay for inquests.

One of the most helpful pieces of research I came across in getting to grips with the historical background to the Teifi Valley Coroner series was by Dr Pam Fisher of Leicester University. In her work The Politics of Sudden Death: The Office and Role of The Coroner in England and Wales 1726-1888 she explains why the costs of inquests had doubled and trebled in the decade before the Teifi Valley Coroner series is set.

Firstly, legislation had changed to enable payment of the parish officer who reported suspicious or potentially inquest-worthy deaths to the coroner (in None So Blind that would be the plwyfwas, Matthew Evans). So those officers started reporting A LOT of deaths which quickly became very expensive.

Secondly, in 1837 the registration of births and deaths became mandatory. Registrars and subregistrars were responsible for making sure that the cause of death was accurately recorded and, not wanting to get it wrong, they often called in the coroner to hold an inquest and make sure they’d got it right.

So… many more reportings, many more inquests, much more expense. And the magistrates were going quietly spare. They had to do something to keep the costs from spiralling any further and the something they decide on was to become very sniffy about payment. They also started trying to stop coroners investigating deaths which proved to be from natural causes – the finding in around a third of inquests in the 1850s. But, as coroners quite rightly pointed out, they couldn’t know whether it was a natural death until they’d heard the evidence so just refusing to pay fees on inquests that returned that verdict was nonsensical. But that didn’t stop magistrates around the country doing it.

Refusal to pay fees on natural deaths resulted in a sharp drop in inquests held in some regions. And a well-quoted example make it quite clear that, as a consequence, people were getting away with murder. Jonathan Balls, a father and grandfather, managed to poison six of his family before finally swapping homicide for suicide. The last of his murders, committed minutes before he killed himself, was only investigated after repeated requests to the coroner. Following the discovery that Balls’s baby grandson had been poisoned with the same substance Balls himself had ingested, his other recently deceased family members were also exhumed and inquests held. If Balls has not committed suicide the five murders he had committed previously were unlikely ever to have come to light. People died, was the magistrates’ view, and if they hadn’t obviously been feloniously done to death, why go looking for reasons?

And it wasn’t just natural deaths that the magistrates thought coroners should ease up on. In 1847, magistrates in Carmarthenshire, one of the counties through which the Teifi Valley runs, imposed restrictions on inquests into fatal accidents, believing them unnecessary. If that had been in force in Cardiganshire, too, the murder at the heart of the third book in the series, Those Who Can, would never have been investigated as everybody except Harry is convinced that the death must have been accidental.

In the 1850s, the passing of the County and Borough Police Act made it mandatory for all counties to establish a police force. In setting up new constabularies, various boards of magistrates around the country decided to make their police officers – and only those officers – responsible for notifying the coroner of a suspicious death and triggering an inquest. That further reduced the number of inquests – in some counties by as much as fifty per cent – as the police were entirely under the thumb of the magistrates.

This all makes for a good deal of police-coroner conflict which is great for crime fiction. In the second book in the series, The Unkindest Cut, Harry and the Inspector of Police in Cardigan are at loggerheads from their first meeting.

3: Forensics, lack of.

Until the Anatomy Act of 1832 the only legal means of acquiring a dead body to practice anatomy on was to get your hands on the corpse of a hanged felon. And the illegal means ranged from buying unclaimed bodies from the police to digging up recently buried bodies from graveyards. Unsurprisingly both the legal and the illegal sourcing of cadavers led to the practice of anatomy developing a somewhat desreputable reputation. It also meant that people associated being cut up – or anatomised to use a contemporary word – with wrongdoing and shame.

Despite the subsequent (Birth and Death Registration) law requiring all deaths to be registered by cause, people were in no way resigned to their loved ones being cut up once they were dead, even – or possibly, depending on the circumstances, especially – when the post mortem examination was being carried out on a suspicious death.

Doctors, obviously, saw things rather differently. In fact, there was a feeling amongst some pioneering public health doctors that every death should be examined forensically so that no cause of death should remain a doctor’s best guess. Only by taking that step, they felt, would we really get to grips with what was killing people and why.

It never happened, obviously. It would have been enormously expensive as well as massively unpopular. So death registration continued to rely on doctors who often knew next to nothing about what might have killed the person they were looking at.

Of course, even when autopsy examinations were carried out, they were’t always undertaken by experts so things were missed. Added to that, the tests for various poisons were in their infancy and not always available, especially out in rural areas like the Teifi Valley.

That’s one of the reasons why, in The Unkindest Cut, I introduce Dr Benton Reckitt, a former anatomy demonstrator at Guy’s hospital who, for reasons not yet clear (even to me) is at large in West Wales. Reckitt has a mania for autopsy which Harry capitalises on. He also believes, as above, that the cause of every death should be confirmed by autopsy which causes him, in Those Who Can, to stand against Harry in the election for Teifi Valley Coroner.

Getting away with murder in the 1850s. It was easy in the law abiding Teifi Valley.

Until Harry Probert-Lloyd came home.