Bringing out the dead

Donna Taylor is currently working on a for a PhD dealing with 19th century Birmingham. She posts regularly on her Notes from 19th Century Birmingham blog and can be followed on Twitter @D_MT66.


Reading about the recent protests over the opening of a Jack the Ripper museum in London prompted me to think about the way in which historians present the dead and how the living can sometimes continue to be offended on behalf of the dead.

The issues surrounding the museum go beyond the historical facts – Fern Riddell, writing in the Telegraph, argues that ‘the so-called museum is profiting from the victimisation of women’ and a concerted public campaign has been established to force the museum to close down. It has been described as ‘misogynistic’ and ‘salacious’ in its presentation of the murdered women.

Clearly there are some very important social issues to be considered here, but there is also a question about how the dead are presented to a living audience and particularly I think modern history, where there are fewer degrees of separation between the past and the present.

Donna

As all my research centres on the 19th century I encounter a lot of dead people. Regardless of how dusty they might be, they all soon develop a personality and I find myself taking to some more than to others.

Even though most of them are politicians, I do try to be objective and a little bit sensitive as I drag them out into the twenty first century. Still, dead people can’t read and I have no compunction in revealing what Joseph Parkes called Thomas Attwood ‘in confidence’. A couple of reactions to posts on my blog have made me think more carefully about the presentation of the dead to a living audience.

In a post on how coroner’s courts were organised in early nineteenth-century Birmingham I included the case of Ezra Steapenhill, who had been charged with fatally shooting his wife, Bassilese, in 1841. There were numerous witnesses to attest to threats he had made to Bassilese in the weeks leading to her death and the jury of the coroner’s court found him guilty.

However, when the case reached the Warwick assizes, the judge released Ezra based on the account of an expert witness, a doctor with the Enniskillen Dragoons, who argued that the angle of the gunshot wound suggested accidental shooting. It was an interesting case.

Soon after publishing the post I had a response from Ezra’s great-great-great granddaughter. Ezra had remarried two years after the death of Bassilese and the woman who contacted me was a descendent of this second marriage. She had come across the tragic death when researching her family tree and was keen to know more, I sent her the newspaper articles I had found.

A less positive response came earlier this year following a post about the first execution at Birmingham’s Winson Green prison, in 1885. Henry Kimberley had been found guilty of the shooting of two women, his estranged partner Harriet Steward and her friend Emily Palmer. Emily had died from her wounds.

In retrospect and, reading the post again just now, I can see that I had included a lot of detail of the murder and that perhaps it should have been presented a little differently. It’s perhaps not as salacious as the dreadful ripper museum, but may lack sensitivity towards living relatives and 130 years is not such a long time in terms of a generation gap – my great-grandfather was born in 1889 and I remember him very well.

The post was garish enough to be copied and shared in a Facebook group on Birmingham history where it aroused lots of interest and a number of questions. However, among the comments was one from a relative of Henry Kimberley. She was aware of how Henry’s death had come about, it was a family story and hadn’t been kept secret. But she hadn’t expected to see all the details of the event that I had included in my post and it had left her feeling upset. I made an apology and she was very gracious, though reiterated how the details included in the post had come as a shock to her.

Of course, we cannot become over sensitive about treading on toes, whether they are dead or alive, or history would never get written. But, particularly in blog writing, there is a danger of being as over dramatic as the ripper museum and we should aim to bring out our dead gently.

Fern Riddell’s review of the ripper museum featured in the Telegraph on October 12th, 2015 and can be read here http://bit.ly/1POuzEa

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