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The Fascinating History of The Coroner’s Court: Part 1, The Bodies

This is part 1 of our 3-part series on the history of the Coroner’s Court:

The old Coroner's Court in Vancouver, BC. The Vancouver Police Museum

In session at the old Coroner’s Court with Glen McDonald, former Chief Coroner and Judge, presiding over an inquest.

One of The Vancouver Police Museum’s biggest claims to fame is the fact that it was once the city’s Coroner’s Court and Autopsy Suite. Many bodies have lain on the cold steel tables that are still on display in the Autopsy Suite, and many more have waited patiently in the quiet, refrigerated refuge of the morgue—also still on display, heavy metal doors, pull-out body trays and all.

But what about the Coroner’s Court? What purpose did it serve?

To understand the purpose of a Coroner’s Court, you must first understand the formal procedures that occur after unnatural, unexpected, unexplained or unattended deaths in BC. They are as follows (via the BC Coroner’s Services website):

All deaths that are unnatural, unexpected, unexplained or unattended must be reported to a coroner. Upon receiving a report of a death, the coroner begins an investigation, which proceeds in one of three ways: Natural Death, Coroner’s Investigation or Coroner’s Inquest.

Natural Death

If, after reviewing the circumstances of death and speaking with the personal physician, the coroner determines that the death was due to natural causes, the coroner will contact the personal physician of the deceased to obtain information on medical history. If it is confirmed that the death is natural, the responsibility for completing the medical death certificate remains with the physician, and no further investigation from the Coroners Service is required….

Coroner’s Investigation

An investigation is conducted and a coroner’s report is written. When a death is reported to the coroner, he/she has the authority to collect information, conduct interviews, inspect and seize documents and secure the scene. Upon conclusion, the facts as determined by the investigation are released in a report. It sets out the coroner’s findings, including a cause of death and whenever possible, recommendations to prevent future deaths….

Coroner’s Inquests

Inquests are formal court proceedings, with a five-person jury, held to publicly review the circumstances of a death. The jury hears evidence from witnesses under subpoena in order to determine the facts of the death. The presiding coroner is responsible to ensure the jury maintains the goal of fact-finding, not fault-finding. Once an inquest is held, a Verdict at Inquest is written….

This particular Coroner’s Court was built in 1932, and, back in its active days, looked as it should have—like a small courtroom.  If there were ever any inquests to publicly review the circumstances of a death, subpoenaed witnesses and a small jury would sit in the room and help the Coroner ‘fact-find ‘not ‘fault-find‘ the details behind the death.

Sometimes this involved long hours of discussion and less-than-exciting examination of straight-forward facts surrounding the death.

Other times, inquests dove into murders, mysteries and unsolved crimes. During these times, matters in the courtroom became heated, witnesses fumbled their words, made mistakes and revealed the true causes and motivations for murder.

This Coroner’s Court engraving still hangs proudly over the doors of The Vancouver Police Museum’s heritage building.

One such case happened in 1965 when former Chief Coroner Glen McDonald held an inquisition to the death of Esther Castellani. The central victim of Vancouver’s infamous Milkshake Murders, Esther had died of a long, undeterminable illness—or so it seemed. Upon further investigation by numerous doctors, specialists and pathologists, it was later determined that she had been poisoned with arsenic.

Here, in this small Coroner’s Courtroom, twenty-seven people underwent questioning during the inquest’s three-day span, while a six-person jury did the fact-finding and assessing. They were to uncover the when, the what and the how surrounding Esther’s death. Was she poisoned? If so, how was she poisoned even under the care of medical staff at Vancouver General Hospital? Why was she poisoned? How did her husband and his mistress play into this whole plot?

Meanwhile, Judge and Chief Coroner Glen McDonald would keep the mandate of the Coroner’s Court clear to the witnesses and jury: While they would listen to testimonies and issue a verdict based on the what, when and why, it was not their job to find out the who. “It was not their job to find out who was responsible but to determine if the death was by accident, natural causes, suicide, or murder.” * excerpt from Murder by Milkshake by Eve Lazarus.

Salaciousness aside, this eventful inquest would end with the jury ruling that Esther’s death was a homicide by arsenic poisoning by person or persons unknown—though many suspected it was her husband, Rene, who refused to testify.

A newspaper clipping from the era of the infamous Milkshake Murder. Featured in the photo: Lolly Miller, the accused’s mistress, heading out into the rain after the Coroner’s Court inquest where Esther’s death was ruled a homicide by a person or persons unknown.

Learn more about this famous Vancouver murder in Eve Lazarus’s acclaimed book, Murder by Milkshake: An Astonishing True Story of Adultery, Arsenic, and a Charismatic Killer.

True to the Coroner’s Services mandate, the inquest also put forth a recommendation that required those who purchased arsenic to register for the product—which at the time was commonly found in weed killer—as to prevent further murders like Esther’s.

More often than not, inquests would look into accidental deaths, such as the death of a cyclist training for the British Empire Games in 1954. In an unfortunate event, the cyclist was killed when a truck driving on Broadway turned suddenly, causing him to crash and fall under the wheels.

Judge McDonald couldn’t find enough people for the inquest jury, and in a flurry, invited crime reporter Eddie Moyer, who would go onto rally the jurors into recommending a cycling ban in Vancouver due to safety concerns. McDonald was not happy; but rightfully, the recommendation did not pass.

The Old Coroner's Court at The Vancouver Police Museum Jury Box

The Jurors’ Box which has served many purposes throughout The Vancouver Police Museum’s history.

A New Home

After 1969, the Coroner’s Services fell under Provincial jurisdiction rather than municipal, and McDonald was made Supervisory Coroner for BC from 1969-1980. The headquarters of these services were held in this building until 1980 when the Coroner’s Court and Services were moved to Victoria. Lucky for us, and for all those who love The Vancouver Police Museum, the building would later be reinstated in 1986 as the museum’s home, and received official heritage designation by the province and city.

The Vancouver Police Museum Behind the Lines Exhibit in the old Coroner's Court

The current look of the old Coroner’s Court. Home to our newest exhibit: Behind the Lines: A Traffic Story.

Today

The Coroner’s Courtroom looks different today. Wide-open and home to our new Traffic Exhibit, you can still see aspects of its foundations, whether in the high, crown moulded ceilings, or the original wood railings.

Along with all the other rooms in the museum, it will also play host to Night Court, an after-hours Valentine’s Day event taking place on February 14th. Those looking for a very different Valentine’s Day will not be disappointed as we’ll have plenty of crime history and Valentine’s Day activities in addition to a beer and wine bar located in the Autopsy Suite. Whatever your reasons for attending, you’ll certainly walk through a room that has seen its fair share of bodies, crime and courtroom drama.

Stay tuned for part 2 of our Coroner’s Court Blog: The Brilliant, Whiskey-Loving Coroner…

Written by Sheena Koo

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