In medieval England, the task of death investigation initially
fell to the Sheriffs who were resident in every county, or
“Shreve.” As was the custom of the day, these local officials
enriched themselves by confiscating personal property and real
estate belonging to deceased individuals.
During the reign of
Richard, Coeur de Lion (Lionheart), at the latter end of the
12th century, this practice was changed as the King realized he
was not getting his due, in large part because of the greed of the
Sheriffs. He needed to refill his depleted coffers after drawing
them down to finance his participation in the Crusades.
King Richard appointed Hubert Walter as Chief
Justiciar, and it was he who established the precedent for what
became known as the “Crown’s Man,” or “Crowner.” He appointed
middle-class Knights to the position, in the perhaps overly
optimistic belief that these appointments of affluent gentlemen
would reduce any temptation for them to follow the Sheriffs' habit
of embezzlement - the assumption being that they were in no need
of further wealth.
Over time, the qualification of being a Knight and of a certain
affluence vanished. However the dishonesty and greed that was
apparently inherent to the office continued to be an issue, albeit
not quite to the degree it was under the Sheriffs.
Eventually, the position of “crowner” or “coroner” (from the Latin
"custos placitorum coronas") became an elected position. The
practice of the Coroner being an investigator of unusual,
suspicious and traumatic deaths was imported to the British
colonies as they were developed, and ultimately adopted as a
standard by the newly-formed United States, where it continues in
a more judicious form to the present day.