When an individual died under mysterious or unknown circumstances, an inquest was often held. This was especially common when someone died with no witnesses around. This happened more frequently than you might think. Cases of potential suicide, murder, accidental death, death in prison, and diseases representing a potential threat to public health are just some of the instances in which an inquest would be held.
In colonial times, the inquest may have been lead by a jury as well as a coroner. Eventually this practice faded out and coroners led the inquests. Think of these inquests as early crime scene investigations. The goal was to discover the exact circumstances of the death.
The coroner (or jury) would go to the scene of the death. They would search for clues and examine evidence. They would also interview witnesses and people of interest. As time went on, detailed forms would be used asking for lots of information. All of which can have genealogical significance.
Witnesses may include family members, providing evidence of familial relationships that does not exist elsewhere. It may also help to disprove relationships by showing that someone was not a relative, but a neighbor or friend.
The purpose of the inquest was to determine the cause of death. It was not to generate criminal charges. The inquest records may show that an individual was murdered or met his/her end at the hands of others, but any criminal charges would be in separate records entirely.
Coroner’s inquest records, like many others, are not used as much as they should. Many of them are not yet even filmed, let alone digitized. But the information they can reveal is worth the effort to locate them. Some localities are at least making indexes available online. Cook County has an online index for records from 1872 to 1911. The state of Missouri also has an online index. In both instances, searching the index is free. Copies of the original records can be ordered online.