Dealing with Death: the early Coroner’s Court

The proceedings on the Coroner’s inquest on the body of Bassilese Steapenhill, who was shot by her husband on the night of Friday the 7th inst.were resumed on Tuesday morning at the Grand Turk on Ludgate-hill, Birmingham and brought to a conclusion on Wednesday

This inquest into the tragic death of Mrs Steapenhill was reported in Aris’s Birmingham Gazette on January 24th, 1842. At this time, certainly in Birmingham, it was standard procedure to hold inquests in a public house, such as the Grand Turk. Birmingham’s first coroner was Dr Birt Davies, appointed by the Town Council in 1839 and holding the post until his death in 1875. His successor was Henry Hawkes, who introduced an improved system of jury selection, mortuaries in every police station and a formal coroner’s court at the Public Office on Moor Street.

Showell’s Dictionary of Birmingham gives a grim account of the old practices, describing ‘the occasional exhibition of a dead body in the back lumber room of an inn yard, among broken bottles and gaping stablemen’ declaring this was ‘not conducive to the dignity of a coroner’s court or particularly agreeable to the unfortunate surgeon who might be required to perform a post mortem’.

Although the setting for these ‘pop-up’ coroner’s courts appeared unseemly, they were nevertheless carried out in a professional manner. The jury at Mrs Steapenhill’s inquest will have been selected from amongst ‘respectable’ residents living nearest to the scene of death. Aris’s gave a detailed account of the witness accounts, including friends and employees of Mr and Mrs Steapenhill, some of whom stated that the couple had argued often and that Mr Steapenhill had been seen to threaten his wife in the past. Dr Davies also called on William Hill, a local gun maker. Hill had been the first to reach the scene of the crime, after hearing the explosion of gun fire. It was Hill who had called Dr Annesley after finding the deceased ‘with blood running from her breast’. Hill was also requested to give the jury his professional opinion on the gun used in the crime: ‘It went off at half-cock, which it should not do and would not stop at full-cock; he likewise explained that a common percussion cap will frequently go off twice when the spring of the lock is weak’, the paper reported. Dr Daunt of the Enniskillen Dragoons was then called as an expert witness. He had been permitted to examine the body and give his opinion of the gunshot wounds. Dr Daunt gave his opinion that the wound had been sustained from the muzzle of a gun ‘pointed down, over the left shoulder, near the neck with the butt end elevated’, adding that ‘even the mischief done to the heart was in a slanting downward direction’. This, with other evidence, introduced the possibility of ‘accident’ and the jury had to decide whether the accused had intended to murder his wife. After a short recess, the verdict returned on Ezra Steapenhill was one of wilful murder. On March 21st, at the Lenten Assizes in Warwick, the judge presiding the case was reported to have read ‘most of the depositions, though not all of them’ and instructed the Grand Jury to determine whether Bassilese Steapenhill had come to her death through an act of ‘misadventure’. The jury, in the somewhat grander setting of the Warwick County Court, concluded that no foul play was intended and Ezra Steapenhill walked away as a free man.

The importance of an informed coroner’s verdict is also clear in the accounts of the Town Council. Listed below is a schedule of coroner’s fees, which were approved, after some discussion, at a Town Council meeting held on June 4th, 1845. The list shows allowances for use of rooms in public houses as well as fees for ‘expert’ witnesses. This schedule can be seen in its original context in the first volume of Birmingham Town Council minutes BCC1/AA/1/1/1 [Archives, Heritage and Photography at The Library of Birmingham]

Schedule of Coroner’s Fees

To the keeper of any inn or other public house for the use of room wherein an inquest or inquests are held at the discretion of the Coroner but not exceeding per day  3s 6d
To the keeper of any inn or other public house for the use of room for a dead body until the inquest is held at the discretion of the Coroner but not exceeding  7s 6d
To every witness examined before the jury at the discretion of the Coroner but not exceeding  2s 6d
To every witness not residing in the Borough for travelling expenses at the discretion of the Coroner but not exceeding per mile 4d
To every person for taking a dead body out of the water, extinguishing fire in the case of a person burning, removing a dead body when found, to some convenient place until an inquest is held at the discretion of the Coroner but not exceeding  7s 6d
To a chemist or engineer or other scientific person employed by the court at the discretion of the Coroner but not exceeding  £2  2s 0d
For a car in case of lameness or indisposition of any witness and on other extraordinary occasions in the discretion of the Coroner but not exceeding per mile  1s 0d
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4 thoughts on “Dealing with Death: the early Coroner’s Court

  1. Really enjoyed reading this . .. Ezra Steapenhill was my great great grandfather! He married my great great grandmother 2 years later. Having read the newspaper reports I thought it was surprising that he wasn’t found guilty.

    • Thank you for sharing this, how lovely to hear from you. There seemed to be a lot of technical support presented in his favour, the impression I got was that he had found the gun and that Bassilese had been a little afraid that the might use it on her. It was the technical report, rather than the eye-witness accounts, which seemed to take precedent though in the County Court though. I have the full newspaper article that I took the report from if it’s not one that you’ve seen. Really appreciate this, cheers.

      • I have read several newspaper articles including one saying how Bassilese and her sister were going to see the clairvoyant to ask her if Ezra was going to kill her – but apparently she was out. There did seem to be a certain amount of character assassination going on. I guess also this was a way to sell papers. Do you happen to have a copy of the newspaper article I would love to read it.
        By the way I really enjoyed reading your other articles too.

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