Melancholy Occurences in Sydney

n September 1866, a boy walking his dog found a severed head on waste ground between Bathurst and Liverpool streets in Sydney. A piece of burnt torso was found nearby. The victim was a woman, and she had been dead two or three weeks. The Sydney coroner, Henry Shiell, convened an inquest.

Catie Gilchrist's Murder, Misadventure, and Miserable Ends is the story of such inquests. Shiell, as Sydney coroner from 1866 to 1899, had the responsibility of investigating all unnatural, unexpected or violent deaths. He also investigated all deaths in hospitals and jails. This kept him busy, sometimes heading to several deaths in one day.

The inquest would be held in a nearby hotel or tavern, as was also the case in England. In New South Wales a publican's licence required him to make such space available. A jury would be assembled of local citizens, and curious bystanders could also attend. Inquests were (and still are) public in New South Wales.

The coroner could request an autopsy, although pathology was in its infancy, so results were not always conclusive. This was all in a world without refrigeration, so in a Sydney summer, a corpse got pretty ripe while the death was investigated. Still, the civilians of the coroner's jury would clasp their handkerchiefs to their noses and troop into the dead house to see the remains. For the inquest to be valid, the jury had to see the body.

After assessing the evidence, the jury would decide whether the death was by misadventure, illness or foul play. The coroner would issue a verdict.

Gilchrist leads us through some of Shiell's cases, and the criminal trials that resulted. These cases reveal the variety of issues faced by the coroner. He was never “off duty”, and could be summoned at any hour to deal with a death. (This was a point of contention for Shiell, who regularly petitioned—largely unsuccessfully—for a pay rise.)

Each case offers us a glimpse of life in Sydney in the second half of the nineteenth century. Gilchrist has used reports from the coroner's investigations, court records (if there was a prosecution) and newspaper accounts to lace together the stories and illustrate the landscape in which they occurred.

Shiell himself was a prototypical son of the empire. A scion of a planter family in Montserrat, he may have been educated in England (although precisely what and where he studied is unclear). His father was a younger son, so no money trickled down to his branch of the family tree. In 1853, like so many younger sons, he emigrated to New South Wales. Taking the path of the connected-but-broke, he found his way onto the ladder of civil service, first as a district registrar, then a police magistrate. He was appointed Sydney coroner in 1866.

The role of the coroner goes back to the Middle Ages, and the public inquest and coroner's jury form part of the transparency of common law. In nineteenth-century Sydney, the coronial inquest was also a tool of social improvement, with juries able to issue “riders”, or advice for legislation to prevent similar deaths. These could include mandating drain covers, or cow-catchers on the front of trams. Such riders were not always followed, but showed how members of the public (on the jury) felt that lessons should be learned to avoid future fatalities.

Sydney was a lively place back then. The city was growing rapidly: from 90,000 residents in 1861 to 225,000 in 1881. Its residents faced the risks common to all Victorian cities—tuberculosis; poor sanitation; runaway horses; all manner of industrial accidents. They also faced dangers from one another—although as Gilchrist points out, murder was rare. The annual homicide tally was in the low single digits during the 1870s.

When a murder did happen, it was a focus of interest. Particularly ghoulish cases would always draw the public's attention. The severed-head case was covered exhaustively by all the papers, in lurid detail. The victim turned out to be Annie Scott, murdered by her husband William, who was eventually hanged for his crime. A hundred people watched his execution. For those who couldn't make it, William Scott was displayed in effigy in Sydney's waxworks, along with other local villains.

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