‘The Hanged Man and the Body Thief: Finding Lives in a Museum Mystery’ by Alexandra Roginski

Roginski_Hanged-Man1

2015, 79 p & notes.

Great title and a good little book.  There are, in effect, three mysteries rather than just one- and all within 79 pages, grounded in careful research and a sense of humility towards the unknown and unknowable.

The first mystery explored in Chapter One, is the identity of the skull in Museum Victoria.  Catalogued as ‘Jim Crow’ and part of the Hamilton collection that was gifted to the National Museum of Victoria in 1889,  the skull had puzzled museum curators for some time. The matter had assumed a more urgent, human significance in the wake of the international trend towards repatriation of indigenous artefacts from collecting institutions.  The label on the skull designated it as ‘Jim Crow’,  a name frequently cast on indigenous men and evocative of African-American blackness, but physical tests suggested that the skull was that of a female.  It was only with a re-reading of the ambiguity of the analysis, and a preferencing of the historical record over the skeletal one, that opened up of the possibility that the skull was male after all. Roginski makes no secret of the conditional and still uncertain nature of this classification.  It might indeed be the skull of the man known as Jim Crow, and from this suggestion the rest of the book flows.

Jim Crow’s death certificate indicates that his birthplace as Clarence Town, near Maitland.  We know little of his origins, but we do know his end: hanged for rape in 26 April 1860 at Maitland Gaol.  Jim Crow bursts into the historical record on 24 January 1860 when he visited a farmhouse near Dungong and asked for water, and then- according to Jane Delanthy’s  deposition- asked “Will you give me rape Missus?”. In Chapter 2 Roginski unpicks the case, weighing it against other rape cases involving white prisoners. Although, as she acknowledges, we will never know what really happened, she suggests that the evidence did not appear strong enough to secure a guilty verdict.

But Jim Crow – or at least, his body- was to leave a longer trace in the historical record. Three months later, the noted  showman-phrenology  Archibald Sillars Hamilton (known professionally as A. S.Hamilton) approached the sexton at the Anglican Church at East Maitland asking where the bodies of Jim Crow and another man hanged at the same time were buried.  The sexton felt uncomfortable enough about the request to report it to his superior who then reported it to the police magistrate.  Hamilton was committed to stand trial for inciting another person to exhume corpses from a burial ground.  After a widely reported trial, Hamilton was acquitted, but his purpose was achieved when ‘someone’ disinterred the bodies.  Chapter 3 deals with this case, and explains the ‘science’ of phrenology as an international and then Australian phenomenon.  A. S. Hamilton led a colourful and disreputable life, and his attitude towards indigenous people is complex.  His slipperiness as a character further complicates the identity of that skull in the museum.

Chapter 4 deals with the provenance of the Hamilton collection and how it came into the possession of the Board of Trustees of the Public Library, Museums and National Gallery of Victoria.  Hamilton’s third wife, Agnes, gifted them as a phrenological collection to an organization embedded within the cultural and scientific life of Melbourne. A rather rueful note in the author’s acknowledgments notes that an Overland article by Jill Dimond about Agnes Hamilton (which she cites quite a bit in this final chapter) appeared just as she submitted her thesis (and here we all experience a collective shudder of fellow-feeling).  This chapter, however, is broader than just Agnes Hamilton, as it widens out to consider the collecting policies of the Melbourne institution more generally.

This is only a small book, but it is told in an engaging voice and makes reference to many larger academic arguments without becoming bogged down in them.  The introductions and conclusions bear the hallmarks of the thesis genre, and she has been served well by Monash University Publishing which has allowed her the academic accoutrements of decent footnotes and -bliss- a separate bibliography.  It’s a rollicking good read, but weaves together important questions with rigour as well.  ‘Jim Crow’ is no longer mere artefact.

Other review: Tom Gilling’s review in The Australian

aww-badge-2015-200x300I’ve read this as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2015

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One response to “‘The Hanged Man and the Body Thief: Finding Lives in a Museum Mystery’ by Alexandra Roginski

  1. Pingback: Australian Women Writers Challenge 2015 wrap up | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

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