Life in the nineteenth century, it seems, sucked.
That’s what I glean from Catie Gilchrist’s presentation of life through the coroner’s lens. Sydney, while not exactly a prison colony at the time, was still not really that cosmopolitan a place. With medicine and policing both rough and ready, corpses, violence and things taken care of in a how’s-yer-father manner, there was a distinct seat-of-one’s-pants approach to life and the grim reaper.
The book provides a history of Sydney through murder and accidental death from the standpoint of the fifth coroner, Henry Shiell. Shiell, a man who was never really paid enough, mostly relied on shanks’ pony for the 20-plus years he examined deaths in the settlement.
Though the content is both amusing and disturbing – you’ll learn a lot more about baby deaths and the unsuitability of certain portmanteau for the concealment of corpses than you ever really needed to know – there’s a lot in here I didn’t know. The conditions in which inquests were held – imagine the smell, folks – are shocking, but the ability of the coroner to grant bail and make suggestions of change to industry practices – is an interesting discovery. Importantly, Gilchrist notes, the findings of inquests helped “shape the trajectory of legal developments to better govern and safeguard the lives of those who were still living” – a knock-on effect that I wouldn’t have associated with the office, but which makes complete sense.
There’s a lot of examination of the politics and society of Sydney at the time in here, as told by the cases examined. It’s interesting to note that murder doesn’t appear as frequently as might be imagined, and was met with general alarm. Lest anyone think the “coward punch” or king hit death is a new thing, there’s a load of those – associated with calls for licensing changes – around this period, too.
BEYOND THE RESPECTABLE sandstone façade, Sydney was a city where homelessness, obscene language, petty theft, fighting and the mental obliteration of strong grog and smoking opiates were a daily reality.
I guess Sydney never actually changes.
(Hearing inquests at pubs seems a fairly Sydney thing to do, mind.)
There’s a lot of detail about particular cases – murders, accidents, rapes and suicides – and the way those cases reflect the values of the community and speak to the conditions of the populous are well drawn. The reader does get a real sense of Sydney as a living, breathing entity, and it’s neat to be able to map particular locations if you’re familiar with the city today. The shift from grim shithole to gentrified suburb in several cases is pretty amusing.
I have a feeling – perhaps unjustified, but there nonetheless – that this book was a PhD project that grew legs. There’s the distinct whiff of academia about the writing. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean that there’s an adjustment to be made on the reader’s side: the book is more on the side of dry history than it is gory true crime. Sure, there’s lots of gore to be found within, but it’s wrapped in some fairly detailed writing that brings the momentum down a fair bit. If this was presented as an academic historical text, I’m pretty sure this would be fine, but I – like many others, I guess – picked this up because it looked like a pop-history book in the true crime mould.
I’m not explaining myself particularly well, but I think the dryness could’ve been knocked out a little – it seems there’s a section of readers that haven’t finished the book because it didn’t grab them enough. I saw it to the end, but it did begin to wear a little by its conclusion, which is a shame as this is a period – and a gig – that is supremely interesting.