Category Archives: research

Review: Murder, Misadventures and Miserable Ends – Tales from a Colonial Coroner’s Court by Catie Gilchrist

Social history, especially as it pertains to murder and crime, will always be a lure to get me into a book.  Catie Gilchrist’s account of Henry Shiell’s 33 year tenure as colonial Sydney’s City Coroner through a selection of the cases over which he presided has been on my wish list for a while.

The cases that passed through Shiell’s court between 1866 and 1899 are presented in distinct categories: murder, manslaughter, suicide, accidental deaths occurring through the hazards of work, transport and daily life, and the deaths resulting from unwanted pregnancies, either through abortion or infanticide. It’s a sad and sometimes sensational record of life and death in a colonial city and the usual spread of human suffering, passion, cruelty and pity.

Gilchrist doesn’t simply provide a litany of cases and their outcomes – her research into various cases comes with commentary of how Sydney society responded to notorious and sometimes heartbreaking cases. She also records the instances of when inquests resulted in suggestions for changes in laws and attitudes – whether such calls for change were ignored, embraced or took several years for authorities to act.

Gilchrist adds her own observations on how poverty and societal attitudes towards women and men affected various kinds of deaths, remarking with asperity particularly on damaging and contradictory attitudes to women and the poor (and poor women especially) that created situations in which so much tragic death occurred.

The author’s occasional tendency to withhold the names of key perpetrators for effect was sometimes frustrating. The reader needs to stay alert too, as cases mentioned one or more chapters ago might come up again to demonstrate the timeline. (I took a four week break between starting and finishing this book, which meant I lost track a little!)

Coffee and sticky notes: research essentials

Those quibbles notwithstanding, I read Murder, Misadventures and Miserable Ends: Tales from a Colonial Coroner’s Court with morbid fascination and finished it with a greater understanding of the conditions in Victorian-era Sydney. My copy is now festooned with sticky notes against cases and relevant laws that I may refer to for further research in my own writing.

My Melbourne: Melbourne General Cemetery

Melbourne General Cemetery

I enjoy a visit to a graveyard: these markers of the end of everyone’s story (or, for believers, the end of the fist book and the beginning of the sequel).

One of my favourite cemeteries is Melbourne General Cemetery, which dates from 1853.

Kitty Carrasco lives opposite this graveyard in Kitty and Cadaver, and there’s a very uncomfortable encounter with the dead rising from their graves and the ensuing musical battle where the minstrels try to sing the dead to rest again.

The Melbourne General Cemetery contains the remains of hundreds of Melburnians from all walks of life. Residents include great politicians, social reformers, explorers, singers, public servants and sportsmen from the early days of the colony.

Naturally, there are writers and other contributors to Melbourne’s literary history among the cemetery’s residents. These include Marcus Clarke, author of For the Term of His Natural Life; city co-founder John Fawkner, who produced Melbourne’s first newspaper; and John Stanley James, an early journalist who wrote for “The Argus” newspaper under the pseudonym ‘The Vagabond’.

Explorers Burke and Wills were buried here after their remains were recovered; opera singer Frederick Federici, whose ghost is said to haunt the Princess Theatre, is interred here.

One of the charms of the Old Melbourne Cemetery (and, indeed, of all cemeteries) is the occasional eccentric tombstone; whether it’s a pithy epitaph or an unusual design carved in stone.

One of the most distinctive and evocative headstones in the cemetery is that of Emily Mather, murdered in 1891 by her husband Frederick Deeming (a serial killer who some believed to be Jack the Ripper).

The headstone remarks upon on her murder and gives some frankly victim-blaming advice on being careful who you marry.

Walter Lindrum’s headstone

The 1960 grave of world champion billiard’s player, Walter Lindrum, is much less gruesome – a few stone billiard balls and a cue lie across the polished marble, as though Walter has just stepped away for a moment and will be back to finish his shot shortly.

Another unexpected memorial in Melbourne General Cemetery is the one to Elvis Presley – curious, given Elvis never made it to Australia.

The Elvis memorial

The memorial is said to be the only officially approved shrine outside of Graceland. It was commissioned by the Elvis Presley Fan Club in 1977 and still attracts visitors each year on the anniversary of the hip-swiveller’s death.

Graves can be sad; they can even be morbid. I find them melancholy but restful, a reminder that every life, however, brief, has it’s own story, filled with love, drama, tragedy and joy.

Every story ends. I want to make sure the pages of mine are full.

My Library: Folklore and occult history

I have a growing collection of books about myths, legends, folklore and occult history that I’m working through and flagging with sticky notes. Whenever I find something music-related, in goes a tag while I consider how I might use it in a Kitty and Cadaver story.

The next Kitty & Cadaver book is being planned and will be set in the UK – its working title is currently Rivers and Ravens so naturally I’m also looking for material about waterways and corvids. 🙂

I’m also interested in the history of occultism and the paranormal in the UK, as you never know when I might want to slip a little weirdness into a canon-era Holmes/Watson story.

Merlin Coverley’s Occult London has some cool background information on the likes of Dr John Dee, the 16th century scientist who was equally involved in ‘natural magic’. Queen Elizabeth I consulted him a few times. His name pops up in paranormal fiction set in the era – he was name-checked in KJ Charles’s first Green Men book, Spectred Isle. (I can’t recommend KJ Charles highly enough, by the way!)

Other personalities and places covered by Coverley are the architect Nicholas Hawksmoor (Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s graphic novel, From Hell, speculates that Jack the Ripper used Hawksmoor’s 18th century churches as part of ritual magic); Madame Blavatsky, the Victorian-era occultist behind the popularisation of the Theosophical Society in London; the notorious Aleister Crowley, who appears in Charlie Raven’s The Compact (with Dr John Watson having a supporting role as well!); and Caxton Hall, where Crowley operated in London for a while in 1910.

A Celtic Book of Days is a much lighter read, filled as it is with little snippets for every day of the Celtic year, which counts nights instead of days and begins on 1 November at Samhain, the end of summer.

The entries are short and not always particularly relevant to the paranormal for my purposes, but it’s scattered with lots of lovely little hints and ideas about folklore.

Among the ideas for further reading, I’ve learned about the Merrows (the females are beautiful but the male half of this mermaid sketch is described as having green teeth and hair, pig’s eyes and red noses); Saint Gobnat, the patron saint of bees, and the bird who built a nest in the hand of St Kevin, who perforce had to patiently hold still until the eggs hatched.

Musical folklore includes the Welsh belief that if a baby cries at baptism, it’ll be a good singer; the Furry Dance Song from Cornwall; a flurry of morris dancing that goes on in June; and St Cecilia, the patron saint of music and musicians.

I have some very fat books on folklore in the shelf too, so I expect they’ll be positively fluttering with sticky notes by the time I’m done!

two books on the paranormal, bristling with sticky notes.

My Library: New Acquisitions

3 books acquired for my research

I really need to stop buying books faster than I can read them.

*pause for mad laughter*

Yeah, we know that’s never going to happen. So while we’re recovering from our hysterical mirth, let’s have a look at three of my most recent acquisitions!

The Outcasts of Melbourne

ed. Graeme Davison, David Dunstan and Chris McConville

The Outcasts of Melbourne

In February, I attended the “Marvellous Smellbourne: early Melbourne’s noxious trades” talk at Docklands Library, presented by John Lack of the Docklands History Group. He spoke about the tanneries, abattoirs and glue factories that gave Melbourne its unflattering epithet, and how the city cleaned up its filthy air and waterways. He also spoke about this book, for which he’d written about the noxious trades.

I’m reading as much as I can about 19th century Melbourne, particularly about the working classes and the era’s social history as well as contemporaneous attitudes towards queerness (rather than what we *think* went on from a 21st century perspective).

The Outcasts of Melbourne offers insights on Chinatown, crime, poverty, disease and “low life” so it should be a rich source of period detail and plot ideas!

Inventing the Victorians

Matthew Sweet

Inventing the Victorians

I found out about this book during the recent broo-haha when author Naomi Wolf discovered she’d misinterpreted data about the death sentences for men convicted of homosexual sex in the 19th century. The radio host and author who highlighted the error live on air was Matthew Sweet, an expert in the era.

I’d been considering getting Wolf’s book, Outrages: Sex, Censorship, and the Criminalization of Love , partly because its claims of the number of men executed for sodomy seemed at odds with some of my other reading (notably Graham Robb’s Strangers: Homosexual Love in the 19th Century).

I’ll still get Outrages in due course – a later edition with the corrections Wolf is said to be making, having found out that ‘Death recorded’ in the old records actually didn’t mean an execution took place. However, the whole thing introduced me to Matthew Sweet, so I’ve picked up his Inventing the Victorians to see what he has to say about what the Victorians were actually like instead of what we only *think* they were like. I’m looking forward to reading what the Literary Review says “overturns cliche after cliche”.

(One thing I keep discovering in my reading is that what people think the Victorians were like has a lot more to do with film and television and narrow interpretations through current social lenses than actual social history.)

Pages Passed from Hand to Hand: The Hidden Tradition of Homosexual Literature in English from 1748 to 1914

ed. Mark Mitchell and David Leavitt

Pages Passed from Hand to Hand

I don’t now recall where I read of this title, but it came up in relation to all the commentary on the Matthew Sweet/Naomi Wolf commentary.

Among the things that interest me (or agitates me) is how some people like to insist that if two men or two women in the historical past had an intense relationship that ‘they were just good friends and stop trying to make everything gay you’re spoiling it la la la la I can’t hear you!’. I mean. Maybe it was intense friendship and hello, maybe they were lovers negotiating their love in a difficult time when they couldn’t openly acknowledge it, and either is a reasonable view maybe, but statistically a good number of those relationships were in fact deeper bonds and all my reading suggests quite a lot of them were, in fact, and so shush now, and stop pretending gayness never existed before people started labelling it. Shush now.

Ahem.

Pages Passed from Hand to Hand is an anthology of stories published before E.M. Forster’s seminal Maurice that contains the rich coding by which queerness was explored, hinted at, subliminally supported or otherwise threaded into writing during periods where same-sex sexual practices (and by association, same-sex affections, desires and hopes for established relationships) were under the shadow of the law.

The anthology contains stories and extracts by Herman Melville, Ambrose Bierce, Henry James, Kenneth Grahame and many others.

If nothing else, I’ll know which tomes to put subtly into the hands of my 19th century queer characters – from my interpretations of Holmes and Watson to other inhabitants of my historical fiction.