Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Death in Miniature

Armchair Detective

Magrath, who became the chief medical examiner for Suffolk County (Boston), had regaled Lee for years with his investigative tales and he often confided to her the need for better training for death investigators, especially because coroners, who managed death scenes in most states, were not required to have medical degrees.  He thought it was important that medicine be included in their backgrounds, because to make accurate assessments they had to be familiar with the nuances of wounds and the different types of poisonings. 

Doctors and the Law by James Mohr
Doctors and the Law by James Mohr

In fact, demand to switch from the British coroner system to a medical examiner system had begun in America before the Civil War.  James Mohr writes about it in Doctors and the Law, pinpointing the strongest movement among physicians in Massachusetts and New York.  They regarded the coroner system as corrupt and backwards, and after several financial scandals in Boston involving coroners, reform became a real concern.  Thus, on July 1, 1877, Massachusetts became the first state to replace coroners with medical examiners.  Two were appointed in Suffolk County to conduct the state's autopsies, though they were granted limited powers.

A few other jurisdictions followed suit, but reform was by no means nationwide, and support for better medico-legal education was weak.  A Medico-Legal Society formed in Massachusetts to advance the science, and a few cities emulated it, but the groups were splintered and largely inactive, so it was left for passionate physicians in the twentieth century to pick up the torch.  Magrath was among them.  (Even today, many states still have a coroner system.  According to a report by Hanzlick and Combs in 1998, medical examiner systems serve about half of the U.S. population.)

Magrath undertook to teach Lee about legal medicine, for which she was deeply grateful.  At the time, there was little information, so together they found whatever sources they could. Lee was agitated about crimes that went unsolved or unpunished, and she knew that better education might improve the situation.  Yet her interest derived from something else as well.  A fan of Sherlock Holmes stories, she was also fascinated by the way the circumstances of a crime might point to a solution, but then a clue might turn up at the autopsy or during the investigation that would indicate an entirely different scenario.  She enjoyed the surprise factor.

Statue of Sherlock Holmes
Statue of Sherlock Holmes

With her usual industry, Lee set about to become an expert in the field and was eventually considered sufficiently knowledgeable to be viewed as an authoritative consultant.  She was convinced that this was her calling, and her chance to make the contribution about which she had dreamed since childhood was not long away.

 

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