Post Truths, Half Truths and Half Hung MacDonald

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So, after dipping my toe in the swampy waters of public political debate last week, I not only achieved my biggest daily readership figures but also received my first heated comments! I think this must be what journalists feel like. To be honest, it was nice to get a passionate response to what I’d written and to be challenged, makes you have to think more sharply. It also made the blog feel more like an academic paper, where a contrary view or challenging question awaits you at the end of your talk. Having said all that, I am standing down as your unelected MP/mouthpiece this week and returning to the cosier, safer world of long-distant deaths.

So, It has been a week of talks this week. I am currently prepping for a post-show talk I am giving at Newcastle’s Live Theatre about phrenology in c19th Newcastle this Sunday and I also attended ‘From Body Snatchers to Body Scans’ at Newcastle’s Castle Keep (thanks to my old work colleague Beth for the tip off). So, it was that I found myself in an ancient, freezing cold building watching a demonstration of a criminal dissection.

The Talk was given by Dr Suzy Lishman*, President of the Royal College of Pathologists. She was kind enough to warn us that people often faint during her talks, which immediately set me on edge (I am a serial fainter – any mention of blood or needles and I collapse like a heavily corseted Victorian lady). True to form as the ‘blood ladles’ and ‘Rib Cracking Scissors’ were passed round, I quietly blacked out in my chair – I have it down to an art form now where no-one spots it. After awaking, I realised her talk happened to centre around an execution that is the first in the period covered by my PhD (1752). It is that of Owen/Ewen MacDonald or, as keen readers of local crime may know him – ‘half hung MacDonald.’ I have written in detail about this case before, for the Tyne and Wear Archives so I will not elucidate on it in great detail, other than to say my opinion remains largely unchanged.

To cut a long story short, MacDonald achieved the posthumous moniker ‘half-hung MacDonald’ after reportedly waking on the dissecting surgeons table – hours after being hung. I thought this case was particularly interesting given our current climate and the new emerging narrative of how we are living in a ‘post truth society.’ What interests me most about stories like MacDonald’s and their perpetuation over the centuries is our desire for them to be true – irrespective of the evidence. We need these stories. Perhaps these episodes of ‘bizarre’, ‘backwards’ practices help us to see ourselves in a glimmering light as the more enlightened progeny of our punitive past?

Similarly, there is often an interesting emotional detachment at play here. The same audience that would find the executions undertaken by ISIS unspeakable and terrifying, are the same polite middle class audience that can sit at an event on dissection and laugh at stories of botched executions in which convicts heads came clean off. What makes us abhor violence in our current time and yet relish its retelling?

Tackling these stories for a historian can be a tricky business – particularly, as someone who is very keen on public engagement. Do we play along or are we just professional pedants popping in to say “by the way that thing that fascinated you, probably isn’t true.” To some extent, yes to both. But, there is something far more interesting that we can offer. Say, for example, what the emergence of the ‘half truth’ of ‘half-hung’ MacDonald tells us about c18th Newcastle and indeed England. The very fact that the story was countenanced, albeit much later on, is testament to the general fear of dissection and the Barber Surgeons themselves.

Half Truths, Post Truths, call them what you will – we’ve always enjoyed a dodgy story and always will. There’s nothing new under the sun.

*As an aside I should say that Dr Lishman’s presentation was top drawer. She talked for almost 90 minutes without notes, though I can only vouch for 85 of those! I shall be lucky if I can manage 10 without mine on Sunday – hopefully see you there.

DISTRACTION 1: YORKSHIRE SCULPTURE PARK & THE HEPWORTH GALLERY

I had a great weekend, staying with a very old uni friend and his lovely partner in Sheffield. We spent the best part of two days at exhibitions and galleries in and around Yorkshire, stopping only for some great local fare. I particularly recommend the Depot Bakery in Sheffield, I had a fantastic eggs benedict and ham hock breakfast and an incredible pear and frangipani tart for the drive home. Anyway, here’s some shots from the remarkable Yorkshire Sculpture Park and brilliant Hepworth Gallery.

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DISTRACTION 2: FUTURE ISLANDS

I was trying to think of the perfect soundtrack for the changing seasons and beautiful late autumn surroundings that I found myself in at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. It had to be Seasons Change by Future Islands (another band my girlfriend put me on to). If you ever see someone parked at the lights in Newcastle in a white van, dancing terribly and singing along to a song – it’ll probably be me listening to this. This version was their network television debut and it’s a remarkable performance.

DISTRACTION 3: XMAS PARODIES. 

As we slowly leave Autumn, we are heading to that time of year again – yes, it’s Xmas advert season! We are bombarded by big brands using emotive soundtracks, cute animals and anything they can to tug at our heart strings. Even worse are the people who parody them. There seems to be a new industry of these people who are desperately clinging on the coat tails of the big brands’ Xmas campaigns in the vein hope they may get a few Facebook likes, get mentioned in the national press and maybe go viral.  It’s utterly pathetic – here’s just one example from a few years ago.

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