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Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Can You Really Trust That Cause of Death?


Last night, 7 January 2014, we sat and watched The Poisoner's Handbook, an episode of the American Experience series on PBS. I strongly recommend that every genealogist and family historian working with death records watch this episode to gain a better understanding of how "unnatural" deaths were investigated at the turn of the 20th century.

Some interesting information that I did not know, was that in New York City, a coroner's position was considered a patronage position. This meant they could influence which funeral home handled the remains and even how the circumstances of the death and the cause of death were handled in the coroner's report and resulting death certificate.

The Poisoner's Handbook traces different types of poisoning crimes and explains how two pioneers - Charles Norris and Alexander Gettler - changed the entire science of how causes of death were investigated and reported. In fact, some of Gettler's research - especially that of carbon monoxide poisoning - is still used almost 80 years since its first publication.

So while go back and look at some of my early New York City death certificates in my research, take a look at this excellent film:
© 2013, copyright Thomas MacEntee

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