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The History of The Coroner’s Court, Part 2: The Brilliant, Whiskey-Loving Coroner

This is part 2 of our 3-part series on The History of The Coroner’s Court:

“We have been inquiring to the best of our abilities into the circumstances of someone’s death. That person cannot, of course, be with us today in this courtroom. But, if he, or she, could be present, he would surely want to ask us one very simple and important question, ‘How come I’m dead?’ … If you can find the answer, maybe we can prevent a needless death in the future.”—Judge Glen McDonald from his book, How Come I’m Dead?

1984 photo by Alex Waterhouse-Hayward for Vancouver magazine. He wrote of his photoshoot with Mc Donald, “It was sometime in 1984 that I photographed retiring city Coroner Glen McDonald for Vancouver Magazine. A year later McDonald published a book (co-written with John Kirkwood) with the curious title How Come I’m Dead? Of the shoot, I remember little except for a few things. McDonald smelled of whiskey and even though he was very serious, I had this impression that at any moment he was going to laugh loudly.”

Judge Glen McDonald, Vancouver’s former Chief Coroner from 1954-1980 and the province’s Supervisory Coroner from 1960-1980, was a controversial character, to say the least.

One look at his famous photographs, and you’ll immediately get a sense of the late and great man. Posing sternly in his 3-piece pinstriped suit, he exuded a rough, curmudgeon male persona that reminds you of Jackie Gleason as Minnesota Fats in The Hustler.

Those who knew him would agree; he was a serious man with a tendency to let his temper flare. He smoked several packs of cigarettes per day and loved whiskey (among other drinks)—a passion which many people around him were aware of. “I’d been looking forward to a gin and tonic and dinner,” he wrote at the start of his book How Come I’m Dead?, kicking off a fascinating and oddly humorous chapter on the death and autopsy of Errol Flynn.

But behind this gruff exterior, existed a hard-working man with strong morals and an unwavering conviction to “study the cause of death in order to protect the living.” Given the grim nature of his job, many assumed that McDonald was haunted by the deaths that he had investigated, or, at the very least, carried around the negative baggage associated with death. But, for him, his work was “always positive.”

You can get a sense of the justice he sought through his investigations and inquests. In them, he would remind the jury to focus on fact-finding, not fault finding—to find the cause for death, rather than the person or persons responsible for death; these are hard points to drive home in emotionally tense courtrooms. Yet, McDonald was not only a professional at this, he was an expert.

“I believe there’s no Coroner in the world who can let himself join in those outside tears or those inside tears,” he wrote in How Come I’m Dead?. “He must be aloof and as removed from emotion as possible: he must be as fair as possible without fear, favour or affection, hoping that the evidence will be accepted and acted on.”

So, perhaps, what appeared as a stern demeanour truly was a result of professionalism. His dedication to justice was certainly steadfast: “Nobody who has died violently or in suspicious circumstances should leave this world without dignity or having an inquest. It is a person’s right. Words spoken from a pulpit do not examine and explain a cause of death as completely as words spoken at an inquest,” he wrote.

And for his persistence in the name of fact-finding, Mc Donald was rewarded with many thank you letters throughout his lifetime. Those who were part of inquests, or who had seen justice served at his hands, truly knew the honourable nature of the man. “One of the most impressive moments of my life was when I was in your courtroom and heard you say, ‘If Myrna Louise Inglis were here, she would probably say, ‘Did you, my society, let me down?’” wrote an anonymous individual in a letter to McDonald in 1969. “[Your words] probably carried more weight than anything else done to educate the public on the possibility of a tragedy happening to them, rather than to somebody else. Thank You, Sir.”

If the former Coroner’s Courtroom walls could talk, they’d probably say the same thing. Thank you, Sir. Thank you.

Stay tuned for the next blog in our Coroner’s Court series: The Bingo…

Don’t forget, you can explore the former Coroner’s Court and the rest of The Vancouver Police Museum after-hours this February 14th. Click to learn more about our event Night Court.

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