Coronial manuals first appeared in Australia in the nineteenth century. They differed from their English counterparts insofar as they addressed the problem of a paucity of technical knowledge and the difficulty of transmitting legal opinions across vast frontiers. One of the most notable manuals was written by the notorious William Ramsay Smith. Smith was perhaps the most questionable physician to have ever assumed the office of coroner in Australia. He caused controversy by ‘unlawfully’ dissecting what he called ‘government corpses’ to test different theories of death causation. Smith wrote A Manual for Coroners (1904) a year after he was cleared by the South Australian Board of Inquiry of being ‘indiscreet’ in his dealings with the dead.
In ‘The Coronial Manual and the Bureaucratic Logic of the Coroners Office‘, which was recently published in the International Journal of Law in Context, La Trobe Law Lecturer Marc Trabsky, examines the coronial manual as a technique of occupying office in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The manual guided coroners in the performance of their duties, obligations and responsibilities. It was preoccupied with questions of technical knowledge, operational processes and administrative procedure. The language of office that characterised coronial treatises prior to the eighteenth century was gradually supplemented in the nineteenth century by the discourse of bureaucracy. Trabsky traces historical shifts in the technology of the coronial manual in British colonies and examines how a bureaucratic logic of the coroner’s office affected the way in which coroners pursued justice during the death investigation process.