|Laws, curfews and control of crowds||2||1||2|
|Sentries and nightwatchmen||1||2||1|
|Courts of law||2|
|Other legal proceedings||1|
|Sounds of crime||1|
Period referred to: 1850s
Sound category: Authority > Other legal proceedings
Title of work: Bleak House
Type of publication: Novel
Author: Charles Dickens
Year of publication: 1853
Page/volume number: Chatper XI
A coroner’s inquest proceeds briskly in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House
At the appointed hour arrives the coroner, for whom the jurymen are waiting and who is received with a salute of skittles from the good dry skittle-ground attached to the Sol's Arms. The coroner frequents more public-houses than any man alive. The smell of sawdust, beer, tobacco-smoke, and spirits is inseparable in his vocation from death in its most awful shapes. He is conducted by the beadle and the landlord to the Harmonic Meeting Room, where he puts his hat on the piano and takes a Windsor-chair at the head of a long table formed of several short tables put together and ornamented with glutinous rings in endless involutions, made by pots and glasses. As many of the jury as can crowd together at the table sit there. The rest get among the spittoons and pipes or lean against the piano. Over the coroner's head is a small iron garland, the pendant handle of a bell, which rather gives the majesty of the court the appearance of going to be hanged presently.
Call over and swear the jury! While the ceremony is in progress, sensation is created by the entrance of a chubby little man in a large shirt-collar, with a moist eye and an inflamed nose, who modestly takes a position near the door as one of the general public, but seems familiar with the room too. A whisper circulates that this is Little Swills. It is considered not unlikely that he will get up an imitation of the coroner and make it the principal feature of the Harmonic Meeting in the evening.
"Well, gentlemen—" the coroner begins.
"Silence there, will you!" says the beadle. Not to the coroner, though it might appear so.
"Well, gentlemen," resumes the coroner. "You are impanelled here to inquire into the death of a certain man. Evidence will be given before you as to the circumstances attending that death, and you will give your verdict according to the—skittles; they must be stopped, you know, beadle!—evidence, and not according to anything else. The first thing to be done is to view the body."
"Make way there!" cries the beadle.
[. . .]
Says the coroner, is that boy here? Says the beadle, no, sir, he is not here. Says the coroner, go and fetch him then. In the absence of the active and intelligent, the coroner converses with Mr. Tulkinghorn.
Oh! Here's the boy, gentlemen!
Here he is, very muddy, very hoarse, very ragged. Now, boy! But stop a minute. Caution. This boy must be put through a few preliminary paces.
Name, Jo. Nothing else that he knows on. Don't know that everybody has two names. Never heerd of sich a think. Don't know that Jo is short for a longer name. Thinks it long enough for HIM. HE don't find no fault with it. Spell it? No. HE can't spell it No father, no mother, no friends. Never been to school. What's home? Knows a broom's a broom, and knows it's wicked to tell a lie. Don't recollect who told him about the broom or about the lie, but knows both. Can't exactly say what'll be done to him arter he's dead if he tells a lie to the gentlemen here, but believes it'll be something wery bad to punish him, and serve him right—and so he'll tell the truth.
"This won't do, gentlemen!" says the coroner with a melancholy shake of the head.
"Don't you think you can receive his evidence, sir?" asks an attentive juryman.
"Out of the question," says the coroner. "You have heard the boy. 'Can't exactly say' won't do, you know. We can't take THAT in a court of justice, gentlemen. It's terrible depravity. Put the boy aside."
Boy put aside, to the great edification of the audience, especially of Little Swills, the comic vocalist.
Now. Is there any other witness? No other witness.
Very well, gentlemen! Here's a man unknown, proved to have been in the habit of taking opium in large quantities for a year and a half, found dead of too much opium. If you think you have any evidence to lead you to the conclusion that he committed suicide, you will come to that conclusion. If you think it is a case of accidental death, you will find a verdict accordingly.
Verdict accordingly. Accidental death. No doubt. Gentlemen, you are discharged. Good afternoon.