Coroners Inquests And The Detection of Crime

It has often been stated that Wynne Edwin Baxter, the Coroner who presided over the deaths into the deaths of the majority of Jack the Ripper’s victims, deliberately drew out the proceedings at those inquests in order to give himself a personal grandstand whilst, at the same time, extending his own public profile.

However, in fairness to Baxter, the inquests into the deaths of the Whitechapel murders victims were slightly different to the usual murder cases he presided over in that no perpetrator or suspect for having committed the crimes was either in custody or was even suspected of having been responsible for the atrocities.

And, since there was no parallel criminal trial taking place, that might have resulted in the person responsible for the murders being prosecuted and convicted, the inquests provided the only available opportunity for witnesses to be interrogated and questioned, and for their sworn statements to be put on record whilst their memories of what they had seen were still, relatively, fresh in their minds.

In the wake of the murder of Annie Chapman, which had taken place on 8th September, 1888, some of the newspapers were questioning whether Baxter might be overstepping his brief with his drawn-out inquests into the deaths of the victims so far – Martha Tabram, Mary Nichols and Annie Chapman.

A photograph of Coroner Wynne Baxter.
Coroner Wynne Baxter. From The Illustrated London News.


The Graphic, in its edition of September 29th, 1888, decided to come to the defence of the Coroner with the following article, which also defended the detectives who were, at the time, engaged on the hunt for the perpetrator of the crimes:-

“In the case of the late horrifying murders in Whitechapel, some persons have alleged that the Coroner’s Court exceeded its legal functions by making an unnecessarily exhaustive inquiry.

There can be no doubt that occasionally such a complaint as this is well founded.

Where there is a prisoner in custody on suspicion of having committed the murder, it is manifestly absurd, although the practice is common enough, for precisely the same evidence to be given day after day both before the police-magistrate and the coroner.

In such a case the Coroner’s Court has sufficiently done its duty when it has ascertained the cause of death, and, as Mr. Rowland Williams aptly remarks, has preserved the evidences of the crime, if any exist.


In the case, however, of the Whitechapel butcheries, matters were altogether different.

No one was arrested against whom sufficient evidence was adduced to warrant his examination in a police-court, and therefore the Coroner’s Court afforded the only legal machinery available for collecting sworn evidence which might assist the police in their search for the criminal.


As regards the action of the police, there is a tendency in some quarters to sneer at the efficiency of our detective arrangements because the person, or persons, by whom these terrible crimes have been committed are still at large.

But surely this is very unreasonable, seeing that the police are men, like ourselves, possessed of no preternatural powers.


Murderers who escape immediate seizure are usually ultimately captured, either because there has been some previous acquaintance between them and their victim, or through their attempts to dispose of the plunder they have acquired.


But so long as it was supposed – and not unnaturally – that the Whitechapel murderer was actuated by a simple lust for homicide, it was plain that he might escape without leaving any serviceable clue behind him.

The medical evidence, however, throws a different light on the matter.


It seems pretty certain that this forlorn creature, Annie Chapman, was killed for a mercenary motive – a motive resembling, yet even exceeding, in atrocity the villanies perpetrated by the notorious Burke and Hare sixty years ago.”


The “mercenary motive” being mentioned in the article was a reference to the fact that Baxter had revealed at the inquest into Annie Chapman’s death, that an unnamed American doctor had been touring the anatomy rooms of the major hospitals offering to purchase wombs.

Since Annie Chapman’s womb had been removed, Baxter had wondered if this might have encouraged the perpetrator to carry out the murder with the intention of selling this particular body part.

The press had dubbed this the “Burke and Hare” theory, after the notorious Edinburgh murderers of earlier in the 19th century.

It is also worth mentioning that the theory was very quickly discredited.