On the Ethics of Not Giving the Exact Locations of Horrible Deaths

09Oct12

Imagine, for the sake of argument, that you’ve recently moved into a new house. You’ve bought or rented, say, a Victorian house that you like a lot because it has “character”.

Thing is, with only a few exceptions, most of us aren’t particularly curious about the previous occupants of our homes. I’m just as guilty. When we bought the current Byrne Towers we were given a major head start on the research in the form of a big wodge of redundant legal documents about all the folks who’ve lived here since it was built. I’ve never bothered trying to find out owt about any of them. And I’m supposed to be interested in this local history stuff.

You do have to wonder how much this lack of curiosity is a sort of subconscious defence mechanism. Like as not you’d find out something you’d rather not know.

The older a house is, the greater the likelihood that something horrible has happened there. If you live in a Victorian house it’s almost a cert that more than one person has died there – maybe in old age, but maybe not. Maybe it was in childbirth, perhaps a healthy adult died of flu, or a child of diptheria or measles or any one of the ailments or accidents that used to carry people away before their time.

Then there’s violent death. Some 1,299 Bristolians died as a result of German bombing between 1940 and 1944, many of them in their own homes. And there’s murder, of course. Just round the corner from my house there was a bizarre sex killing in the 1940s. Or take, just for the sake of example, a certain address in Bristol where in Victorian times a man murdered his wife and sister-in-law before cutting his own throat.

I can’t be arsed to look up the exact numbers, but I reckon if you averaged it out, there’d be something like 20 or 30 murders each year in Bristol over the last 200 years, most of which were committed in homes. On the back of an envelope, and allowing for demolition, then well over 1,000 present-day Bristol homes (current total number of households is around 140,000) where there’s been a murder.

Well under one percent, but … How would you feel if you found that in the very room that you sleep in there was once a ghastly murder? Or maybe you’re just lying in the same room where three or four old people died down the years.

Some folks would find it interesting, or even exciting, but a lot more would find it pretty disturbing. I’m sure a lot of people whose homes have hosted murders know all about them, but most people probably don’t, especially if they’re renting and reckon they’ll be moving on in a year or three.

So in all my writings, mappings and talkings about local history I’ve always made a point of never giving exact addresses of horrible deaths. Seems only the considerate thing to do.

Of course if you want to find out whether or not your cosy little love-nest was once the venue for culpable homicide, it’s easy enough. Last time I looked the very wonderful (and of course very searchable) British Newspaper Archive (http://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/) had lots of local papers going well into the 1940s. (NB: There’s a paywall for this one. If you’re a member of your local library, however, you may well have access to this or other online archives.)

P.S. A trawl of the Western Daily Press reveals that nothing interesting ever happened at my house. Nothing that made it into the papers, anyway. It doesn’t merit a single mention, not even one of the residents writing a letter to the editor. And that’s the way we like things at Byrne Towers, thank you very much.

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One Response to “On the Ethics of Not Giving the Exact Locations of Horrible Deaths”

  1. When we were in the process of buying our place we called it ‘The Murder House’ because it was suspiciously cheap for the area (there never was a murder here that we know of, though I’d happily swap some grisly history for the rotten damp and hair raising plumbing that were the real reason for its price).


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