Prof. Zbigniew Białas

“Nobody they call me”. The body as a coffin.

One of the most famous travellers in Western culture was also a notorious liar and trickster; although fictitious, he was nevertheless formidably myth-forming. Odysseus, confronted with the Cyclops’ monstrous body, denies his own corporeality. “Nobody is my name, Nobody they call me,” insists Odysseus frantically, answering the Cyclops’ impatient question. The shift from Οδυσ[σεύς] into Οϋτις is more than cosmetic – it is indeed life-saving. “Nobody is slaying me by guile and not by force,” roars blinded Polyphemos, denying a body’s participation in the process of his mutilation. Soon after, Odysseus temporarily withdraws under a no-human-body when in a successful attempt at escaping, he hides his cunning self beneath the mass of Polyphemos’ favourite ram. This example illustrates not only the obvious truth that the paradigm of travelling has its roots in ancient times, but also the fact that the traveller’s body – whether hotly denied or not, whether saved or mutilated – remains at the very core of the representational enterprise of travel writing. Informed by this, my presentation will examine some of the representational mutilations undertaken by Herman Melville against the body of Queequeg.

Zbigniew Białas is Professor of English, Director of Institute of Anglophone Cultures and Literatures, Head of Postcolonial Studies Department at the University of Silesia, Katowice (Poland) and author of four novels. He was Humboldt Research Fellow in Germany and Fulbright Senior Fellow in the USA. His academic books include Post-Tribal Ethos in African Literature (1993), Mapping Wild Gardens (1997) and The Body Wall (2006). His novel, Korzeniec, was awarded Silesian Literary Laurels, won the title of Best Polish Prose of 2011 and was turned into a successful theatrical play. Białas edited/co-edited twelve academic volumes, wrote over sixty academic essays and translated English, American and Nigerian literature into Polish.

Dr Willemijn Ruberg

The criminal’s hair, body and mind: forensic practices in the Netherlands (1800-1945)

Body and mind played an important role in the identification of criminals and in the determination of insanity and unaccountability. This paper will address the ways forensic scientists, doctors and psychiatrists examined the criminal’s body and mind. It argues that a major shift can be identified in the methods and techniques used to define the criminal self: from the last decades of the nineteenth century, psychiatric reports became more important in court cases. Increasingly, these reports contained detailed measurements of the body. For instance, psychiatrists looked for signs of hysteria on the body and in the suspect’s expressions of emotions. During the 1920s these psychiatric reports became more extensive. At the same time, the natural sciences began to influence the investigation of trace evidence. Fingerprints, blood tests and the use of the galvanometer to measure the pulse rate and emotions were all instruments that could ‘objectively’ establish the criminal’s identity.

This increasing importance of scientific measurements of the body led to new regimes of making knowledge: whereas in the early nineteenth century, most knowledge on the criminal suspect was gained by interviewing witnesses, in the early twentieth century scientific practices were added to lay evidence. We can see this by looking at hair: In the first part of the nineteenth century, hair, together with clothes, featured in the administration of criminal law as a means to identify suspects, whose looks, before photographs or images were used, were described in discourse. Hair, together with facial features and posture, was an important indicator of identity. With the introduction of scientific technology in crime scene investigation at the beginning of the twentieth century, hair acquired a new meaning: several tests were designed to distinguish human from animal hair, but hair was also seen as a marker of gender and ethnicity, as is testified by Dutch and colonial handbooks of forensic medicine and technology. However, older meanings attached to hair did not entirely disappear: in the early modern period, hair had been cut or shaven as a way of punishment. This practice reappeared just after the Second World War, when Dutch and French women who had slept with German soldiers during the Second World War, were publicly punished for their behaviour.

This paper will compare the older and newer, scientific, ways of giving meaning to the criminal’s hair and body. It will thus focus on knowledge practices and the body and address the question whether the criminal’s body was disciplined or whether criminal identities were rather produced by these kinds of practices.

Willemijn Ruberg is associate professor in cultural history at Utrecht University. Her research addresses the cultural history of gender, sexuality, the body and emotion. She is currently writing a monograph on the making of forensic knowledge on body and mind in the Netherlands, in 1800-1930.

Dr Richard Sugg

A Brief History of Terror

On 14th April 1621, Elizabeth Sawyer of Edmonton was charged with various crimes performed by supposed witchcraft. On 19th April she was hanged as a witch at Tyburn. Sawyer’s case is relatively well-known: with impressive speed and opportunism Thomas Dekker, William Rowley and John Ford adapted her story into a play and had it on the stage by December of that year.  One of their sources was an account published by a minister, Henry Goodcole, who had spoken to Sawyer in prison. Among other things, Goodcole tells of how Sawyer did ‘witch unto death Agnes Ratcliffe’, because Ratcliffe did ‘strike a sow’ belonging to Sawyer ‘for licking up a little soap where she had laid it’. Declaring that she would be revenged for this assault on the pig, Sawyer ‘thus threatened Agnes Ratcliffe, that it should be a dear blow unto her, which accordingly fell out, and suddenly; for that evening Agnes … fell very sick, and was extraordinarily vexed, and in a most strange manner in her sickness was tormented’. Her husband indeed swore to the court that his wife ‘died … within four days after she fell sick: and further then related, that in the time of her sickness his wife Agnes … lay foaming at the mouth, and was extraordinarily distempered’.

It does not seem to have been realised that Ratcliffe in fact died of ‘voodoo death’. In numerous cases of tribal magic, those believing themselves the victim of a curse or tapu have behaved in just this way: sometimes foaming at the mouth, they enter a state of despair, often refuse food and drink, and die within one to four days.

Whilst voodoo death as a concept originated largely from tribal societies in which curses echoed the power and effects of early-modern witch beliefs, many other people have died of related but distinct supernatural terrors. In vampire country there are cases in which a supposed vampire attack again leads to a person languishing, in a kind of physiological shut-down, before dying within four days. In nineteenth century Britain both country and city-dwellers, educated and uneducated, died of terror of ghosts – in some instances as victims of the crudest hoaxes, and even after this had been explained to them.

In recent decades we have many well-detailed accounts of adults and children who have died of terror or shock through fear of violence, claustrophobia, or simply getting lost. Supernatural terror evidently includes a strong mental component: Ratcliffe and others like her seem to be dying of their beliefs. Yet, given the number of small children and even animals who have suffered this fate, it is difficult to easily separate out mental and physical elements in such cases.

One ironic and radical feature of witch- or curse-deaths is that magic is real for those who believe it to be real. It is real enough to kill them, or to cause extreme physiological trauma, inluding temporary blindness, muteness, and paralysis. In a strange sense, then, some of the things which people believed about witches, vampires and ghosts were true.

Strangest of all is the relationship between those three entities and the poltergeist. In relatively modern poltergeist cases, personal, sexual or social trauma centred on a child or teenager can occasionally be released in the form of poltergeist events: unsourced rappings, inexplicable fires or floods, and objects levitated or hurled around. Bizarre as this seems, it yet appears to obey broad patterns or laws: the incidents follow the agent from place to place, and depend upon their body, decreasing or ceasing at a certain distance from it.

The body is indeed woven through all of this long fraught history, whether afflicted with voodoo death, conversion disorder or vagal inhibition, or trapped within the strange shadow-play of the Sleep Paralysis Nightmare.

In witch, vampire or ghost territory, the catalyst for poltergeist outbreaks seems to have been sheer supernatural terror, rather than social or personal stress. By examining in detail certain vampire and witch cases with clear poltergeist features, I aim to show that, sometimes, supernatural belief genuinely did make supernatural things happen.

Dr Richard Sugg is the author of six books, including John Donne (2007), Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires (2011, 2nd edn 2015), The Smoke of the Soul (2013) and A Century of Supernatural Stories (2015). 2017 will see the publication of three new books: The Real Vampires, A Century of Ghost Stories, and A Century of Animal Stories. Fairies: A Dangerous History is due out with Reaktion in spring 2018. He has published or contributed to articles in Social History of Medicine, The Lancet, Der Spiegel, The Guardian, Smithsonian Magazine, and The Sun, and appeared several times on international radio and television programmes. He is collecting real life ghost and poltergeist experiences, and would welcome any new contributions.