Coroner's Records

In Quebec in the 1920s, as today, a coroner's inquest took place when a violent or otherwise suspicious death occurred. The procedure at the time was relatively simple. The coroner appointed by the Crown organized his inquest, which took place in the municipality where the death had occurred. As a courtroom he could choose a private home, a church, or a school, as long as there was enough space to accommodate the witnesses, the members of the jury, the body of the victim, etc.

The inquest on the body of Aurore Gagnon took place in the Fortierville parish church. The coroner collected testimony, including that of the doctor who had carried out the autopsy, whose report was a key element in the file. Specific procedures were to be followed. The jurors had to take an oath, for example, and a written copy of the evidence, the testimony, and the verdict was to be created and kept. As a whole, the inquest served to determine whether the cause of death was natural, unnatural, or criminal.

Coroners' inquests provided relatively abundant information on several types of violent deaths, including accidents, suicides and, of course, murders. Normally, all the documents produced with respect to such an inquest were grouped together in a file and kept in a separate fonds, that of the "Dossiers du coroner” (Coroner's Records), in the regional depositories of the National Archives of Quebec. The historian André Lachance made extensive use of this fonds for the District of Saint François, in the Eastern Townships, for the period from 1900 to 1950, in his book "La vie est si fragile..." Étude sur la mort violente dans les Cantons de l’Est, 1900-1950. Sherbrooke: Éditions GGC, 2002.

The coroner himself was the one who drafted the documents following the examination of the witnesses, often on forms prepared for this purpose. The testimony must therefore be read while keeping in mind that it was transcribed on the spot by an officer of the Crown, potentially introducing errors. In the case of a death judged to be of a criminal nature, such as that of Aurore Gagnon, the coroner's inquest was, moreover, the starting point for judicial proceedings aimed at identifying and punishing the guilty party or parties. The documents produced during the inquest could be used subsequently at either the preliminary inquiry or the trial. As the case in question here did indeed go to court, certain documents pertaining to the coroner's inquest ended up in the files of the Sessions of the Peace and of the Court of King's Bench.