Well, it’s been a while. 6 weeks to be exact. I’m put in mind of the beautiful Who Knows Where The Time Goes by Fairport Convention, sung by the mesmerising Sandy Denny. It’s one of those songs that always awakens my spirits and resonates more deeply with age. As it turns out, the answer to her enchantingly posed question is rather mundane…time goes on admin, long overdue holidays, comedy group debut live shows and ambitious crowdfunding campaigns. Put simply, anything but the PhD. Until now!
So, in the interim between blogs, many thoughts have crossed my mind for suitable topics, but nothing fully crystallised until i stumbled across (around to be more accurate) a particularly sizeable dog turd in the middle of my street. Bear with me! Two things struck me about this, firstly the disrespect it showed for others living in the area and secondly the shamelessness of allowing your pet to do that and believe it’s fine to leave it. As the co-owner of a dog, i have accepted that being a walking poop a scooper is one of the few downsides of the job, but it is part of being a responsible owner and more importantly a socially aware member of my immediate surroundings and community. Anyway, before I begin to sound too much like I’m pitching for the next leadership post for the W.I. or Neighbourhood Watch, I should get to the point/topic and that is shame.
In a previous blog I mentioned Jon Ronson’s excellent new book that warns against the unchecked rise of public shaming through social media. As if to counterbalance his work a new book has come out in praise of the power of shaming – Jennifer Jacquet’s Is Shame Necessary? New Uses for an Old Tool. Jacquet’s book is primarily focused on the power of shame as a political tool, citing numerous instances where it has been used to great effect to hold corporations or politicians to account. However, it is the ‘old tool’ of the book’s title that interests me and it is a theme noted in Ronson’s work too, the power of shame in public punishments has a very long history.
Increasingly in my work I come across examples of shame permeating far beyond the punishment of a crime itself. Whilst hanging was a visceral, dramatic and powerful attack on the body of the victim, it is oft forgotten how far the effects of punishments carried and how long.
I thought, over the next two blogs, I would share a few of the most potent examples I have encountered to illustrate this. They are invariably linked to the additional post death punishments established by the 1752 Murder Act, which sort to add “some further terror and peculiar mark of infamy” to the crime of murder (namely dissection by surgeon and gibbeting/hanging in chains).
The first example of the devastating effect of this “peculiar mark of infamy” comes in the execution and resultant dissection of Margaret Gatenby on Newcastle’s Town Moor, August, 1754. Gatenby was the first woman in the North East to be subject to the provisions of the Murder Act. Her crime was the murder of her illegitimate child. In their work on the North East, Morgan and Rushton have asserted that women were very rarely convicted for infanticide, but believe that in Gatenby’s case, her status as a “known…old offender” may have transpired against her.¹ Following her execution she was dissected by the Barber Surgeon’s at the Surgeon’s Hall in Newcastle. Having searched the Barber Surgeon’s records extensively at the Tyne and Wear Archives, there are very little existing notes detailing dissection, no doubt owing to the widespread public distaste and opprobrium at the practice (which often resulted in riots).² However, a peculiar note does appear about Gatenby, six weeks after the execution and dissection.
Sept. 30th, 1754-Ordered by a vote of the company that Mr. Halliwell is to have the bones of Dorothy Gatenby, who was lately executed for the murder of bastard child.”
Barber Surgeons minutes including accounts, lists of stewards, members and apprenticeships, cess payments etc. 3rd January 1686 – 3rd February 1778 GU/BS/2/2 (Tyne and Wear Archives). P. 459 (pencil marked).
In death Gatenby’s body had become a tradeable commodity, a keepsake for the medical profession – not only denied a burial (an intrinsic part of the 1752 Murder Act punishment) but denied dignity in death. This was not an uncommon practice. Shane McCorristine has recently shone a light on how these practices continue to this day, largely unquestioned.
Whenever human body parts are sold or put in a glass case and displayed for public view people should be provided with context and extensively informed about what they see. The gaze is never innocent, and to ignore the particular journeys that body parts take into auction rooms, anatomy departments, and museums is to be complicit in acts of historical injustice.
Shane McCorristine, “The Dark Value of Criminal Bodies: Context, Consent, and the Disturbing Sale of John Parker’s Skull,” Journal of Conservation and Museum Studies 13, no. 1. p.1
An article written in 1929 by Professor Frederick Charles Pybus (1883-1975), detailing the Barber Surgeon’s history, carries the following deeply unsettling detail.
Her (Gatenby’s) two sons, painfully affected by the disgrace brought on the family, drowned themselves, and her daughter, to avoid public odium, left Newcastle and went to a remote part of the kingdom).
F. C. Pybus, “The Company of Barber Surgeons and Tallow Chandlers of Newcastle-on-Tyne,” Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine 22, no. 3 (January 1929): 291
I have yet to verify the details of Pybus’ assertion, it is on my mounting list of ‘things i must do’, but its relative veracity is less important than what it says about the punishment itself. It is deemed plausible that the stigma attached to such a shameful end is eminently plausible and in the case of her daughter’s swift exit, it is motivated by the desire to “avoid public odium.” Punishment did not just end at the gallows, it permeated far beyond the nasty scene enacted on the Town Moor and affected people directly connected to the convict.
I’ll stick to one example this week, others to follow, but this weeks effort still needs wrapping up. So, what am i saying? Do I want the aforementioned dog fouler to be publicly dissected and shamed to the extent that his family feel the need to either drown or leave town? The simple answer is no. But, perhaps we lost something in removing the power to shame, maybe there is a workable equilibrium between Jacquet’s proposals and Ronson’s warnings. I think shame can play a vital role as a substitute for the more obvious punishments of fining or incarceration. To my mind, it is only by being made aware of your part in society and the effects your actions have on others that people can truly change and shame is a powerful tool for achieving that.
1). Gwenda Morgan and Peter Rushton, Rogues, Thieves And the Rule of Law: The Problem Of Law Enforcement In North-East England, 1718-1820 (Routledge, 2005), 119.
2). Peter Linebaugh, “The Tyburn Riot Against the Surgeons,” in Albion’s Fatal Tree: Crime and Society in Eighteenth-Century England (London, 1976)
Distraction 1: Das ist Disney
I came across a little gem on the radio this week. Having spent a wonderful week with my family in Cornwall in August, including my beautiful new niece, I found myself watching my fair share of Disney films (I figured sitting watching them with her counted as babysitting). Now Walt Disney is a curious character himself and various rumours abound of his Nazi sympathies, but I was completely unaware of his role in the American War effort. In this Radio 4 show, presented by Gerald Scarfe (a man who consistently produces excellent radio shows, most notably his Recycled Radio series). In this programme we heard how Disney produced numerous cartoons that were used by the Americans as propaganda during WWII. They included everything from Donald Duck emphasising the importance of paying income tax to this deeply disturbing cartoon detailing how children of the Nazi regime were trained to become ruthless soldiers.
Distraction 2: A Book for Her – Bridget Christie
My partner is often offering suggestions for books i might like, mercifully non PhD related, and the latest one was actually bought for me as a present. It is Bridget Christie’s “A Book for Her.” The combination of the title and the dedication (see below) made me slightly wary as to whether this book was really aimed at me.
For all the women in my family and ALL WOMEN. Whether they want it or not.
Dedication in Christie’s, A Book for Her
There is a theme in the books my partner has recommended (Caitlin Moran’s How to be a Woman and Viv Albertine’s Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys) namely that they are not primarily targeted at men. Another thing that unites all three books is that they share a deep vein of humour. These are three brilliantly funny women. Christie’s book particularly interested me as it charted her recent rise to fame (after years of being largely unrecognised for her comedy). Having previously lived in Edinburgh and reviewed one of her shows in which she played King Charles II (Her work was very eclectic, performing shows as, amongst other things, ants, viruses and former monarchs) I have known of her for a long time and have always rated her work (before anyone claims I jumped on the bandwagon, there is a four star review for a little known Edinburgh magazine languishing somewhere as proof). I enjoyed this book, but found that having seen Christie live did helped as her style is deliberately repetitious and as such can be quite a difficult read in parts, if you are unaware of her delivery, but there are some wonderfully funny moments. My particular favourite story was when the Daily Mail mistakenly used a photo of her as Charles II when reporting on a story regarding the erstwhile Monarch.