Historical Perspective

This office has a long history in Allegheny County and went through some big changes in 2005. Allegheny County voters approved a referendum that eliminated the Coroner as a Row Office, returning it to its early roots as an appointed position, now called Medical Examiner. This position is now appointed by the County Executive to a five-year term and reports to the Allegheny County Manager.

The Office of the Coroner dates back to the Anglo-Saxon Common Law system of government, making it the oldest administrative office. The earliest mention of Coroner is in the statutes of Eyre around 925 A.D. It was an appointed position with broad judicial and investigative powers.

In 1170 A.D., the King succumbed to pressure from the residents of London, giving them permission to elect four Coroners to serve the area. By 1215 A.D., the subjects throughout the kingdom demanded that they be allowed to elect Coroners. The King of England signed the petition, creating one of the most famous documents in existence the Magna Carta.

Until recently, the Coroner had jurisdiction over crimes such as robbery, rape and burglary, in addition to homicides. As late as the early nineteenth century, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that these common law powers still inherently rested with the Coroner, but were seldom exercised. It was not until 1972 that the Coroner statutes became codified and those seldom-used common law powers of the Coroner were officially abolished.

By the turn of the century, the Coroner's Office in Allegheny County was well on its way to becoming a fully developed medico-legal investigative agency. Employees took an active role in performing autopsies, rather than hiring private physicians to do the work. In 1965, Allegheny county voters elected their first physician as Coroner. Since that time, the Office has made its professional expertise available upon request to Coroners' offices and law enforcement agencies in surrounding counties.

The building that houses the Allegheny County Medical Examiners Office has a rich history of its own. The impressive stone edifice was constructed at the turn of the century and has been occupied since 1902. Its gothic architecture mirrors that of the Allegheny County Courthouse and former Jail. The intention of the County planners was to form a fortress-like enclave of government centered in Downtown Pittsburgh. The buildings were constructed adjacent to each other, with the Mortuary being located at Forbes Avenue and Ross Street diagonally across the intersection from the Courthouse.

By 1929, Allegheny County government needed more space for expansion. It was determined that the most efficient form of expansion was the construction of one consolidated County Office Building on Ross Street between Forbes and Fourth Avenues, forcing the relocation of the Mortuary. The County was able to procure the property at 542 Fourth Avenue where the Metropol Restaurant and the MB Speer & Company were located, and hired a young engineer named Levi Duff to supervise the move.

The three-story marble and stone monument was moved by a system of beams designed by Kress-Orvits Co. The building was slowly and laboriously moved in one piece onto the beams and then pulled by cable along the system until it rested on the new foundation which had been built at the 542 Fourth Avenue property. The horsepower needed to move the building was actually supplied by horses.

During the three weeks it took to move the building, operations at the Mortuary continued. Temporary gas, water, and sewage were connected and maintained on a 24 hour basis. The move was completed in August of 1929. From that time, the Mortuary, now known as the Allegheny County Medical Examiners Office, has remained in much the same condition in which the movers left it on that hot summer day when they finally placed the structure into its present foundation.