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Five questions with Dr Catie Gilchrist

Catie Gilchrist Portrait Cropped

Book cover for Murder, Misadventure and Miserable Ends

Dr Gilchrist, one of the Library’s Highly Commended Fellows in 2018 (Keesing Fellowship Prize), has spent the past year investigating death in colonial Sydney.

Her research has uncovered new stories and fresh insights into the State Library’s collection relating to our colonial history. 

In our next Scholar Talk on 5 March, Dr Gilchrist will discuss her research and the amazing discoveries she made in the Library’s collection. 

Her fascinating new book, Murder, Misadventure and Miserable Ends: Tales from a Colonial Coroner’s Court (HarperCollins) was released this month.

What inspired your newest book, Murder, Misadventure and Miserable Ends: Tales from a Colonial Coroner’s Court?

The initial impetus was a quick conversation in January 2017 with my friend and colleague Dr Peter Hobbins in the mail room of the History Department at Sydney University! I was looking for a new project to get stuck into and Peter said two fatal words - "Coroner's Inquests".

I was immediately intrigued and got stuck in. I spent the next few weeks delving into inquest reports in the newspapers and I was struck by the extraordinary frequency of inquests held all over the city into all sorts of deaths. The fact that they were often held in pubs was especially interesting - as was the fact that the very old, the tragically young, and everyone else in between was included in these inquests. Life and death was so random (it might be argued that it still is) and I became convinced that a new way of looking at the history of Sydney could be gleaned through the inquests held into ordinary people's lives.

I think perhaps the extraordinary story of Thomas Meredith Sheridan – a quack practitioner whose fatal abortions on countless women led to so much misery for so many women wanting to control life, but ultimately losing their own in the process – was the definitive confirmation that these stories of life and death needed to be told. His memoirs, written on the eve of his execution at Darlinghurst Gaol in January 1896, are held in the Mitchell Library collection and they are both utterly fascinating and utterly chilling. 

Crime fiction (and non-fiction) has always been such a popular genre for readers. What do you think is so attractive about grizzly and gruesome tales?

Oh I think that's a question for the remarkable Rachel Franks [the Library’s resident crime fiction expert]. I am not a criminologist or a psychologist. But, as a human and a historian, I know that while they are not 'attractive' in the normal sense of the word, crime and 'gruesome' tales have a long and abiding fascination for people.

Perhaps it’s because we can't imagine committing such atrocities ourselves? So, when others do dreadful things we want to know why and try to understand the motivations behind such acts of often unspeakable cruelty/depravity. To be sure, some crimes are simply cunning audacity, while others are utterly unfathomable. A metaphor for life and death itself in some respects....

In the 19th century, and indeed long before, public executions were often turned into a carnivalesque day out for entire towns and cities in England. It would, to our minds eye, have been utterly awful. As it was to many spectators back then. But, for many, it was quite normal to go along to a public execution in the 1800s – as Ned Kelly (apparently) said before his own (private execution), 'such is life.' It also reminds us that despite our common experiences of being human, attitudes towards life and death are also historically and socially and culturally contingent. 

Henry Shiell Book Plate

If you had to pick one item (object, text, or otherwise…) from the Library’s collection that helped you in writing your book, what would it be and why? 

Oh that is really hard to answer because my book is made up of so many fabulous sources - many from the State Library of NSW, others from the NSW State Archives, many from Trove, others from Ancestry.  

Perhaps however, it was finding Henry Shiell's book plate in the Mitchell Library's collection of book plates. I have no photos of ‘my coroner’ Henry Shiell, so to find his book plate in the Library was a huge clue into the person that he was. Then again, his book plate leaves me in two minds – so maybe it was not much help at all? But rather simply, like so many historical sources, merely a helpful clue? 

How did having a relationship with the Library as a Fellow assist you in your research?

In so, so many ways!  And I will always encourage people – from early academic careerists to non-academic people wishing to pursue their passions and 'magnificent obsessions' (like David Scott Mitchell himself did!) – to apply for the fellowships at the State Library. The helpful assistance, advice and encouragement of the Library staff has been nothing short of wonderful and inspiring. And while sitting in the Mitchell Library (especially in ‘spesh’ collections) is always an utter joy, the solitude and quietness and space that fellows are provided with in the Horne Room is a sheer and an utter privilege. 

What can people expect from your upcoming talk ‘Life and Death in the Library’?

I hope they simply sit back and enjoy it to be honest! But also that it makes them ponder life and death. I will be talking about my book (Murder, Misadventure and Miserable Ends: Tales from a Colonial Coroner's Court), some of the primary sources I used to write it, and hopefully a big shout out to the many resources that we all are so, so lucky and privileged to have access to – including the magnificent State Library, the marvellous endeavours at the National Library of Australia with Trove and the increasingly expanding resources now available on Ancestry. 

Scholar Talks are held on the first Tuesday of every month (February - November).