Murder wasn’t always investigated the way we know today… authors Candace Robb and Robin Blake reveal some surprising facts on how death and murder were handled in medieval and mid-Georgian times.
Candace Robb on death and murder in 1374
The coroner’s jury in medieval England shaped how a case would be presented to the crown – whether a death was a felony, a misdemeanor, or a misadventure. Beyond examining the evidence, they considered the significance of both the death and the verdict to the community at large, their goal being the best outcome for the people. For example, in the case of misadventure, or accidental death, the jury could chose to punish a property holder for neglect despite having no cause to believe the owner meant the victim harm. Such a verdict would result in the property being confiscated or the owner heavily fined, thus preventing further accidents. Even more intriguing to me, medieval law was more interested in a man’s honor, or “truth”, rather than the truth of the accusations made against him.
It was perfectly legal for the jury to find a murder honorable – an honorable man killing a dishonorable man for the good of the community. The makeup of the coroner’s jury was also quite a different kettle of fish than we would find appropriate today, the jurors often kin to the dead or the accused, neighbors, friends, business associates. They were valuable in potentially having insights into what happened, what led up to it, the victim’s health, etc., which was, apparently, far more important than possible conflicts of interest.
Candace Robb is the author of the Owen Archer medieval mysteries set in York. The most recent addition to the series, A CONSPIRACY OF WOLVES, follows Captain of the Guard Owen Archer as he is persuaded out of retirement to investigate the murder of a prominent citizen. Are the rumours of wolves running loose in the city true, or is a human killer responsible? Read more here.
Robin Blake on death and murder in 1754
The way in which suspicious deaths were investigated in the mid-Georgian era was radically different from how it is done today. The expression on a dead person’s face – placid, surprised, horrified, terrified – was regarded as a sure guide to how they died. Victims of murder were thought to haunt their murderers, so that anyone seeing visions of the deceased would be automatically suspected. A suspect would then be made to shake the corpse’s hand; if its wounds started bleeding anew, this was a sure sign this was the murderer.
There were no police and criminals were prosecuted by their victims, at the victims’ own expense. In high crime areas such as London people insured against these costs by subscribing to Prosecution Clubs, which created a pool of money to fund court cases.
Apart from criminal matters many odd details of everyday life come to light during research. I have learned that every 18th century roadside inn had a bootcatcher employed to pull off the boots of arriving guests. Piepowder Courts were held at fairs “for redress of all disorders committed therein”. Tea was so valuable that there was a secondary market in used tea leaves dried out and resold by household servants as a perk.
Robin Blake is the author of the Cragg & Fidelis mysteries set in Lancashire. The latest addition to the series, DEATH AND THE CHEVALIER, sees Coroner Titus Cragg attempt to solve a brutal murder as the Young Pretender and his Jacobite army approach. Can he prevent himself being executed for the crime? Read more here.