“Touching the death of Joe Governor: Coronial violence and the scientific body trade”

Katherine Biber, University of Technology Sydney

In October 1900, the proclaimed outlaw, Joe Governor, was shot dead by civilians. A First Nations man from the Wiradjuri and Wonnarua peoples, Joe Governor had, with his brother Jimmy, committed murders of nine white settlers on the colonial frontier of New South Wales. Their crimes occurred on the cusp of Australian Federation; the moment in which a new nation was being born. A coronial inquest was held in a regional pub in the Hunter Valley, with Joe Governor laid out on the billiard table. Twelve jurors rapidly justified his death and celebrated the bravery of his killers.

This paper investigates a sinister transaction that occurred behind the scenes, when the local Government Medical Officer removed a part of Joe’s body and send it to the University of Sydney for scientific examination. It unleashed a media frenzy, a parliamentary investigation and a scientific scandal.
Joe Governor’s ancestral remains were sent to Professor J.T. Wilson, the Challis Chair of Anatomy at the University of Sydney’s medical school. A graduate in Medicine and Botany from Edinburgh University, Wilson was connected with all of the great comparative anatomists of the time. The Wilson Papers, held at the University of Sydney, are brimming with their correspondence; a lively compendium of scientific masculinity and scholarly ambition, evidencing their extensive trading in human and non-human remains. Wilson taught Grafton Elliot Smith, whose gossip-filled letters from Egypt recur in the Wilson Papers. Elliot Smith’s persistent taunting prompted Wilson to gift Joe Governor’s remains to another of his former students, James Froude Flashman, a pathologist in the new Lunacy Department. Flashman’s published study of Joe Governor’s remains reveals the nature of this scientific work: it is descriptive, racist, and draws no original conclusions.

The Governor brothers’ bloodline survives today, and their family’s spokesperson and historian is Aunty Loretta Parsley. Through Aunty Loretta, I learned about the work of First Nations activists demanding the repatriation of ancestral remains. Despite the passage of 120 years, the work of repatriation and return is undertaken with sadness, trauma and anger. This paper traces my journey from the Hunter Valley to the university pathology museum, characterised by local rumours, gossip, silences and missing records. Despite intrepid inquiries, I never found Joe Governor’s stolen remains.

In one respect, this paper drafts a collective biography of a network of imperial scientists, men whose scientific work was heavily entangled with the making of the new nation of Australia. In another respect, this paper remembers that when these men traded human remains, these were people too, and their lives, deaths and afterlives warrant biographical attention. It also draws links to First Nations people who have survived, those who live today, and who undertake the difficult labour of locating and repatriating their Old People.

Katherine Biber is a legal scholar, historian and criminologist and Professor of Law at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), Australia. She is the author of In Crime’s Archive: The cultural afterlife of evidence (2018) and Captive Images: Race, Crime, Photography (2007). She is currently writing a book about Australia’s last proclaimed outlaws, Jimmy and Joe Governor. Her podcast trilogy, The Last Outlaws, won Australian Podcast of the Year (2022). It also won the Premier’s History Award, Best History Podcast (AusPod Awards), and the Australian Legal Research Award. Katherine teaches Law of Evidence at UTS. She is Co-Editor-in-Chief of the journal Crime Media Culture.

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(photo: Shane Lo)