Walkabout: The Corrupt Tale of the Last Coroners of the City of Brooklyn, Part 1

Coombs, Brooklyn Eagle, 1899

Read Part 2 of this story.

If you are a fan of procedural cop shows, you are no doubt familiar with the character of the coroner or medical examiner. Since the days of “Quincy, M.E.,” we have grown to love the crusty and quirky personalities tasked with investigating the deaths of thousands of people in a given city.

Over the years, our TV coroners and medical examiners have changed. In today’s shows most of them seem to be black women. But no matter who is cast, on television they are invariably dedicated and brilliant doctors with a passion for finding the facts of a person’s death. They are immune to politics or profit, and serve only the law and the truth.

Well, back in 19th-century Brooklyn, things could be different. Our tale concerns the last mayor of Brooklyn, his administration and the two doctors who served as the last coroners of Brooklyn.

Frederick W. Wurster was the last mayor of the independent City of Brooklyn. He was elected in 1896, and lost his job when Brooklyn became part of Greater New York City on January 1, 1898. Like most of the powerbrokers in Brooklyn after the Civil War, he was a Republican.

By all accounts, Wurster was a decent mayor. Before being elected, he had been a successful businessman and banker. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he was vehemently opposed to Consolidation, but after the vote he knew it was inevitable.

His administration was no different than any other. His city agencies were filled with political appointees, career bureaucrats, reformers, honest employees and a fair number of crooks. It has ever been thus.

Back then, Brooklyn City Coroner was an elected office. The city had grown to the point that two men were needed in that position. The coroner did not need to be a pathologist or even a doctor. Medical knowledge was preferable, of course, but not a prerequisite.

Brooklyn’s coroners held inquests in the case of suspicious deaths. The inquests were like grand jury hearings. A panel was chosen, and the case was put before it. Witnesses testified, including doctors, police, family, neighbors, whoever might be called for.

The coroner was like the DA and the judge rolled into one. At the end of the case, the panel declared the cause of death, and ruled on any further legal action.

The coroner did not receive a salary. Instead, he billed the city by the case. In 1897, each inquest netted the coroner $8.50. In today’s money, that would work out to about $240. Not bad, as ten cases a week could fetch about $2,400 in today’s money. Surely there were ten people dying a week under suspicious circumstances in 1897 Brooklyn.

As one might imagine, this system was ripe for corruption on several levels. Many a suicide of a prominent person was reclassified as an accidental death, erasing scandal and allowing for a church funeral and burial in sacred ground. In more extreme cases, a murder became something less.

More often, though, it was just plain ripping off the taxpayers. A coroner could submit bills for inquests that never happened and pad his salary. Easy enough to do, and in the chaos of the waning days of a city government that was not going exist in a year, why not?

That’s what the two coroners of Brooklyn were accused of doing in the fall of 1897. Edward Butler Coombs and George H. Nason had been elected as the city’s coroners in the 1896 election. Coombs was a dentist and Nason was an undertaker.

Coombs -- Brooklyn History

Coombs, Brooklyn Eagle, 1899

Edward Coombs. 1899 Brooklyn Eagle

Soon after the election, their buddies gave them a party at the Clarendon Hotel in Brooklyn Heights. The room was decorated with death-related memorabilia, and the menus for the evening were shaped like coffins, printed on mahogany colored paper. A great time was had by all.

Clarendon Hotel -- Brooklyn History

For almost two years following, both men presided over cases of suspicious death. There were accidents, both personal and industrial, suicides, murders, and deaths from natural causes. Each inquest meant another $8.50 on the bill.

But towards the end of 1897, the district attorney’s office began an investigation of its own. In November of that year, the grand jury indicted both men on charges of fraudulent billing, grand larceny, and filing fake records.

The coroners had filed a bill for $2,762.50, covering 325 inquests. The grand jury was given evidence to show that 128 of those inquests were faked. The names of people who had died of natural causes or died years previously were put on the forms, as were false addresses, fake scenarios, and the names of fake jurors.

Coombs and Nason surrendered to the court and were arraigned, and a $10,000 bond was arranged for each. This was an enormous amount of money, but deemed necessary by the court, due to the gravity of the charges.

As all of the men involved gathered in an office waiting for bail to arrive, the atmosphere was tense. Everyone in the room — the district attorney, the lawyers, the defendants, the sheriff and the assistant district attorney — had been in the same Republican club. They all knew each other, and some had even been guests at the “death party” at the Clarendon.

Cold shoulders and hurt feelings abounded. As the D.A. told his assistant, “They don’t like it, but I can’t help it. It is my duty.”

Coombs was fated to go to trial first. His trial began in March of 1898. He was now and forever “Ex-Coroner Coombs,” in part because his position had been eliminated along with the other city government positions of the new borough of Brooklyn.

The D.A. told the jury that Coombs had been greedy, but also sloppy. The names of the same six jurors had been on the paperwork of most of the disputed cases, and those names and signatures had all been penned by the same hand.

During the trial, the D.A. brought in witnesses who testified that their loved one never had an inquest, as they’d died of natural causes, or even out of state. Many of these cases involved the deaths of infants and children due to illness.

Coroner's inquest -- Brooklyn History

Coroner’s inquest. Photo via Visitvictorianengland.blogspot

In almost all of the cases, neither Coombs nor any staff members had even come to the home to see the body. Funeral directors had reported the deaths, and no inquests were held. The parents were horrified that their children’s deaths had become billable goods.

The D.A. also showed that Coombs had falsified names and addresses for jurors. One of the addresses on a fake juror’s card turned out to be a cemetery, others were in the middle of parks, empty lots, canals or between row houses. The names were falsified too, culled from long ago death lists or obsolete city records.

One of Coombs’ subordinates testified that he and his father had filled out pages of forms, at Coombs and Nason’s behest. He also accused another clerk in the office of falsifying records.

The man, an old hand in the coroner’s office who had worked through several administrations, testified that such shenanigans had gone on for years. Introduced to it when they assumed office, Coombs and Nason had eagerly embraced the practice.

Throughout the trial, Coombs sat in his chair, seemingly unconcerned. Did he know something the district attorney didn’t know? We shall see… the conclusion, next time

City Hall and Courthouse. 1899

Top and bottom: undated postcards depicting Brooklyn City Hall and Courthouse

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