The Trickster Prince

Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling.

Public reputation and the celebrity pathologist in 1930

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Sir Bernard Spilsbury made himself an unlikely kind of celebrity in the first four decades of the twentieth century. For rather than a film star or a sportsperson, Spilsbury was a Home Office pathologist and lecturer in forensic medicine. The public reputation he cultivated was secured through the rituals of post-mortem examination and the dogmatic testimony he delivered in some of the most high profile trials of the period. Through cases like the suave ‘Crumbles’ murderer Patrick Mahon, Spilsbury created a name for himself that rested upon the decomposing bodies of victims and the inscrutable minutiae of the scene of crime.

Spilsbury’s celebrity was also fueled by the obsession with crime that characterized popular newspapers and publishing in this period. Crime sold, and in a burgeoning market for news and firsthand testimony the words and images of pathologists and detectives, villains and victims were lucrative commodities — fought over by journalists and editors eager for a scoop. In this frenzied world managing one’s reputation required care and attention. The excesses of personal journalism and popular publishing prompted anxious debate over the extent to which prominent men and women could (and should) exercise control over their public image.

It was in this volatile context that journalists from the Daily Mail reported that Sir Bernard Spilsbury, was considering legal action to suppress the publication of Leonard and Walter Townsend’s Sir Bernard Spilsbury’s Famous Case Book on 21 April 1930. This was not a disinterested revelation on their part. The Townsend brothers’s putative Case Book was published by Albert E. Marriott and Sons, a disreputable company then drawing the Daily Mail’s ire for what they called ‘an impertinent and unauthorised biography’ of Queen Mary. While courtiers remained aloof from public debates over this book, Spilsbury’s dispute with Marriott unfolded as a very public dispute conducted through interviews in the national press.

Interviewed by the Daily Mail, Star, and Daily Chronicle, Spilsbury commented:

It is a disgraceful piece of work entirely unauthorised and unwelcome. After reading it I instructed my solicitors to write to the firm asking for an undertaking that the book should not be published. Falling receipt of this undertaking, I shall take legal action to prevent the appearance of the book. The manuscript was written in such a way as to lead me to understand that it had been written by an American. Many of the facts are inaccurate and it is full of the grossest flattery.

The Daily Mail argued that the intrusion on Spilsbury’s privacy was compounded by the deliberate illusion that the book’s ‘facts are taken from personal sources.’ Addressing these accusations, the authors reiterated their undertaking to revise the manuscript in response to Spilsbury’s concerns. The title was used ‘only in a general sense, and never thinking that it could be taken to imply anything actually associated with the written records of a doctor.’

As journalists returned to Marriott’s offices, an anonymous source claimed to have asked Spilsbury to read the manuscript — a letter that Spilsbury insisted he had not received.

When Spilsbury’s solicitors took the first steps towards legal action the book was withdrawn from publication. After ‘frantic efforts’ to contact Marriott, then ‘yachting on the French coast,’ he returned to London, and issued a statement to the press:

Mr Marriott has had a consultation with Sir Bernard Spilsbury’s solicitors. In view of the position in which Sir Bernard would be placed with the General Medical Council, Mr Marriott has agreed to withhold the publication of this work. A New book, “Murder Will Out”, is being planned, with which Sir Bernard Spilsbury will be in no way connected.

Spilsbury remained on the offensive: rather than professional position it was ‘my personal objection to the book so far as it concerns me, and on that ground my solicitors have stopped publication.’ Marriott, by contrast, sought to give this furore a positive gloss, stressing their desire to conform with the proprieties of the British Medical Council while exploiting the controversy by publishing the Famous Case Book’s ‘living child.’ Hastily revised, Murder Will Out promised the ‘true story of every famous murder for the last 50 years.’

The controversy over Spilsbury’s Case Book coalesced around the question of the boundaries between public and private life and the individual’s right to exercise control over their biographical representation — questions that could bleed into broader considerations of authority, dignity, and respect. The campaigning periodical Truth identified ‘an increasing practice among literary hacks of exploiting famous people for their own profit.’ An editorial in the Daily Chronicle considered Marriott’s titles as part of a growing number of ‘Smash and Grab Memoirs’ and praised Spilsbury’s ‘determination’ to take a stand. His action ‘should help to establish the obvious right of anyone, however public his (or her) position, to keep some check on the disposal of his “life” for public consumption … It is surely time some restraint was put on unauthorized biography of the living.’

Writing in the Publisher and Bookseller, Jacob Omnium agreed that Spilsbury’s ‘protest and action were, in the circumstances, fully warranted’ since the book’s subject matter was ‘the discharge of professional duties of the gravest responsibility.’ Writing from within the world of books, Omnium nonetheless remained deeply wary about the potential of such concerns to shade into censorship when the lives of prominent figures were of vital public interest. The celebrity pathologist and the disreputable publisher provided an unlikely focus for increasingly heated debates over the nature of celebrity culture and the boundaries between public and private life.

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