Even before they were known as Coroners, people were selected to investigate deaths in the community. The office of coroner was formally established in England in September 1194. They were appointed by the crown to investigate violent, unexplained deaths and to make sure that any property that was left by the deceased was added to the treasure trove of the King of England.
The Latin word for crown is “corona”, which is why the office became known as “Coroner” to “keep the pleas of the Crown” (Latin, custos placitorum coronae). This role provided a local county official whose primary duty was to protect the financial interest of the crown in criminal proceedings. The office of Coroner is, “in many instances, a necessary substitute: for if the sheriff is interested in a suit, or if he is of affinity with one of the parties to a suit, the Coroner must execute and return the process of the courts of justice”.
The Eyre of September1194 was held in the County of Kent, and Article 20 stated that: “IN EVERY COUNTY OF THE KING’S REALM SHALL BE ELECTED THREE KNIGHTS AND ONE CLERK, TO KEEP THE PLEAS OF THE CROWN”; and that is the only statutory basis for the Coroner. Each county had three Coroners and a poor man who had to walk behind their horses, carrying the “Coroner’s Rolls” and pen and ink: a Medieval Coroner’s Officer, you might call him; though even this minor office was abolished in later years to provide for another Coroner. He was referred to for hundreds of years as “the Crowner”-as in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, where derisively it is said “But is this law? Ay, marry, is’t crowner’s quest law!”
Coroners originally had to be Knights and men of substance. This was in accord with Chancellor Walter’s new philosophy: the participation of the middle-class Knights in the administration of the country. Their appointment depended on a certain property level and they had to possess an income of at least £20 a year, which was a large sum in those days. One was actually dismissed from office because he did not come up to this wealth threshold. Coroners were unpaid and it was a serious offense for any of them to receive a reward for their duties-which again was enforced on a number of occasions. Hubert Walter had sound reasons for appointing only well-to-do gentlemen to the office. He wished to reduce any temptation for them to follow the Sheriff’s habit of embezzlement: the assumption being that they were in no need of further wealth-a bit optimistic perhaps, but that was the idea. As time went on, the qualification of a Knight vanished, though the Statutes of Edward I and Edward II required them “…to be Knights or of the most lawful men of the county”. Their dishonesty and greed became more apparent, though they never acquired the same reputation for venality held by the Sheriffs.
Determining the cause of deaths would also be important in the New World. It is believed that William Penn appointed one of the first Coroners in the American colonies in 1682 after a dead body was found on a river bank. The early American Coroners, like their English counterparts, tried to use as much common sense as possible since most did not have a medical background. In some cases, however, they simply made guesses, in part because the only requirement for a Coroner was proof that he was not an ex-convict! This Coroner system was used as the country grew, and Coroners were elected in all of the original 13 colonies. As the new states and territories developed, Coroners were elected to be county officers, comparable to sheriffs, with whom they often traded places.
Sources: Britannia History, Lycoming County , PA
The Former Coroners of Richland County
• 1847 H. Maxey
• 1854 D.B. Miller
• 1868 Thomas P. Walker
Coroner Walker refused to surrender his position as Coroner to the newly elected William B Johnston. Coroner Walker was then forced by the Attorney General of the State of South Carolina to surrender his office.
• 1868 William B. Johnston
Coroner Johnston also served as Magistrate. He received a Certificate of Election by General Canby who, during the Re Construction Period was in Command of the Military District which was Head Quartered in Charleston, South Carolina.
• 1870 S.B. Thompson
One of Coroner Thompson’s duties was to auction property of convicted defendants. In September of 1870 he advertised and then held an auction at the Richland County Courthouse to sell 966 acres of land bordering the Congaree River in Richland County.
• 1885 – 1888 John A. Civil
In addition to serving as Coroner, he served as Auditor for the city of Columbia and then was employed by The State Newspaper. He was a lifelong resident of Columbia, having seen it grow from a village to what was considered a metropolitan area. A member of St. Peter’s Catholic Church.
• 1889 – 1890 and 1893 -1894
Job Johnson Roach
In addition to serving as Coroner, he was a Magistrate’s Constable. He and his wife raised 10 children and were members of Washington Street Methodist Church.
• 1897 -1904 William S. Green
Coroner Green also served as Jury Bailiff for the Clerk of Court and as a member of the Richland County Board of Registration. A popular character known as Uncle Billy who spent most of his time at the Richland County Courthouse – in fact he spent Saturday afternoon there, greeting friends and died that night in his apartment on Main Street.
• 1904 – 1912 Richard D. Walker
Coroner Walker also served as the City Scales Manager and was a Veteran of the Spanish American War. A member of Ebenezer Church.
• 1918 – 1928 J. Blakely Scott
He was appointed to serve as Coroner by SC Governor Manning. Served on the Board of Tax Assessors and was elected to the County Board of Commissioners. He played Quarterback at Furman University and was a member of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon Fraternity. He was survived by his father, TA Scott who was a well known Confederate Veteran. Coroner Scott was a Deacon at The First Presbyterian Church of Columbia.
• 1929 -1933 William A. McCain, Sr.
Coroner McCain was a Richland County Sheriff’s Deputy and his father was Richland County Sheriff. He was a member of the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Eau Claire Masonic Lodge #344 and a member of Main Street Methodist Church. Among the Honorary Pallbearers at his funeral were all of the members of the Richland County Sheriff’s Department, Senator Olin D Johnston and Coroner Cecil Wiles.
• 1933 – 1941 J.A. Sargent
During World War II Coroner Sargent served as a government photographer at Camp Jackson (now Fort Jackson). He got into Law Enforcement after the war and was regarded as a fearless Law Enforcement Officer. He was a member of Ebenezer Lutheran Church. Honorary Pallbearers at his funeral were Dr. WR Barron, Sheriff T Alex Heise and deputies, Chief L.J. Campbell and members of the Columbia Police Department, Chief A. McC Marsh and members of the Columbia Fire Department, Chief S.J. Pratt and members of the State Constabulary and all Richland County Officials.
• 1941 H.H. Knox
Coroner Knox who was serving as Magistrate was appointed by SC Governor R.M.Jefferies to fill the unexpired term of Coroner J.A. Sargent.
• 1942 – 1953 W.A. ‘Bill’ Plott
Coroner Plott was a graduate of the Cincinnati College of Embalming and a licensed Funeral Director for 54 years. He was a member of Acacia Masonic Lodge 94 and Omar Temple of the Shrine. He was a member of Washington Street Methodist Church.
• 1953 – 1978 Cecil L. Wiles
Coroner Wiles is responsible for obtaining Richland County’s first autopsy equipment in 1954. A Columbia High School Graduate, a member of Acacia Lodge 94 AFM, a member of the South Carolina Law Enforcement Officers Association and a member of First Baptist Church.
• 1978 – 2001 Frank Barron
A political appointee by Governor James Edwards to fill the term of Coroner Cecil L.Wiles who died while in office, Coroner Barron was elected to serve 5 terms.