Strangulation, sex and death

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By | From the Collections

An exciting new addition to our existing holdings of Spilsbury papers helps clarify the working methods and interests of this famous (or notorious) forensic pathologist.

In July this year the Library was fortunate enough to be the winning bidder at Sothebys for a group of papers of Sir Bernard Spilsbury. As these had at some time undergone fire damage they had to be cleaned and where necessary provided with protective containers by the Conservation department, which thus meant that they could not be made available to researchers until this had been done.

Our existing holdings consisted of a large number of index cards relating to autopsies he undertook: on the basis of the new evidence provided by this recent accrual these contain notes extracted from the famous ‘little black books’ mentioned in the biographies of Spilsbury. We now hold a few, out of the many compiled over the course of his long and busy career,  of these ‘black books’, from the years 1941-1947 (PP/SPI/B), one of which in fact has inserted between its pages index cards on which preliminary details have been written but not the full case details.

These were clearly the notebooks in which he recorded his immediate observations on his investigations: each case has a summary giving place, date, name and age of patient, whether death occurred in presence of anyone else, and the cause of death, followed by the detailed record of the post-mortem examination. They also include various inserted notes and forms. The volumes bear an annotation on the flyleaf ‘Reports All Furnished’ – presumably his official records of his conclusions. As with the cases on the index cards, a vast range of types of death  are covered besides murder and manslaughter: sudden deaths from a variety of natural causes, accidents (including medical accidents, especially anaesthesia-related), suicide, criminal abortion, and judicial execution. They are an important addition to our holdings.

The lot also included a number of other items. There were several groups of papers on matters of professional interest, such as notes and correspondence on various causes of poisoning, including by ingestion of rhubarb leaves (PP/SPI/C.5), and his reports on pieces of leather made from human skin in Nazi concentration camps (PP/SPI/C.13).

Texts of lectures given by Spilsbury include one on death during autoerotic bondage which includes some correspondence on similar cases (PP/SPI/D.6) (a number of the index cards record cases of death from autoerotic asphyxia) . There is also a file of miscellaneous notes on throttling and strangulation (PP/SPI/C.8).

Little very personal material is represented, although we now have Spilsbury’s Longfellow Birthday Book. Some correspondence was found among these papers but is largely of a professional nature.

Some items (in PP/SPI/E.4) suggest that this group of papers as a whole was at some point in the possession of one or other of Spilsbury’s earliest biographers, Douglas G. Browne and E.V. Tullett.

There are also a number of publications by others (PP/SPI/F), presumably retained by Spilsbury for reference purposes.

This new accession, now available to researchers subject to some restrictions on access for reasons of Data Protection, significantly adds to the understanding of Spilsbury and his career in forensic pathology.

Lesley Hall

Lesley Hall

Lesley Hall, FRHistS, PhD, DipAA, has been an archivist at the Wellcome since 1979. She has published extensively on the history of sexuality and gender in Britain in the 19th and 20th centuries, given many talks and conference presentations, and featured on radio and television. Further details can be found at her website.

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