The Borough Mystery: Death of Dr William Kirwan (London, 1892)
February 25, 2013 12:26 PM   Subscribe

The Borough Mystery: Death of Dr William Kirwan (London, 1892)
For the past couple of months, I've been researching the final hours of Dr William Kirwan, a Victorian doctor strangled to death as he wandered the slums of London's notorious Southwark. Kirwan turned up there in the small hours with an alcoholic street whore one October morning in 1892, seeming barely to know who he was. He'd left a Canning Town pub perfectly sober the previous night, but never made it home. We don’t know what happened to him during that missing night, but we do know it got him murdered just a few hours later.

Kirwan’s companion, Blanche Roberts, had been drunk for several days by the time she met him, but he allowed her to lead him round by the nose nonetheless. Many of the eyewitnesses who watched Kirwan stumble round Southwark that day assumed he was drunk too, but the autopsy ruled that out. The murder trial that followed was hotly followed in the press, which badged Kirwan’s story The Borough Mystery to reflect everyone’s puzzlement at why a respectable professional man like him would take the insane risks he did.

PlanetSlade’s latest essay reconstructs Kirwan’s last day, looks at the gangland intimidation which saved his killers from the gallows, and asks what led Kirwan to Southwark in the first place. With the help of a modern-day London coroner and a family doctor, we also discuss what today's medicine can make of the surviving evidence, and offer some surprising conclusions.
Role: Writer & Publisher
posted by Paul Slade (2 comments total)

I'm interested in the topic and story, but as I go through, I'm increasingly distracted by some grammar and spelling errors of the type that a non-human checker wouldn't catch ('loose' for 'lose', for instance, and some odd use of commas.) Linking the footnotes would be a nice touch, too.
posted by cobaltnine at 10:09 PM on March 1, 2013

Thanks, kanata. I'm glad you liked the piece.

And thanks to you too, cobaltnine. I've just read the Kirwan article again, and I found ten mistakes there which I really should have caught before posting the piece online. Most of these are simple typographical errors, but I can't dismiss them all like that. I'm grateful for the chance to correct them now.

I can't blame a spellcheck programme for any of these errors, as I do proofread every PlanetSlade article with my own eyes and brain at both the finished copy and page layout stages. I was clearly half-asleep when I read this one, though. The most boneheaded mistake of the lot is the fact that I got "discrete" (meaning separate or distinct) mixed up with "discreet" (meaning secret, tactful). I know that distinction perfectly well really, but for some reason it escaped me here.

It's always tricky trying to proofread your own writing, because you tend to "read" the version already in your head rather than the one on the page in front of you. In an ideal world, PlanetSlade would have a full-time sub to catch this stuff for me before publication, but until I can find a way to get paid for this material that just isn't possible.

In some other cases, the problem may have arisen with differences in UK and US usage. For example, in the article I spell "offence" and "wilful" as you see them here, and my big Collins confirms both these as the standard British spelling. The same dictionary adds that US usage prefers "offense" and "willful". I see from your Metafilter profile that you're based in America, so perhaps that's one thing that tripped you up here.

As a British writer based in London, I couldn't spell "colour" without a "u" if you held a gun to my head, and I think any attempt to adopt American spelling now would just garble my copy completely.

I'm not sure what you have in mind when you mention grammatical errors, but I quite agree that this subject matters. Just a week ago on The Comics Journal message board, I was lecturing others on this very subject: "It really is a zero-sum game: every element of casual confusion you let slip past you forces the reader to do your work for you. Who can blame them if they decide that’s more trouble than it’s worth and turn elsewhere?"

That said, I would add that there are times in writing journalism when it's wise to leave the strict rules of the classroom behind you. Teachers in my day would tell you never to start a sentence with "and" or "but", for example. But in journalism this produces quite a forceful result.

I'm reminded of the story about Winston Churchill who - told he shouldn't end a sentence with a preposition - replied: "That is something up with which I will not put". Of course, the trick is to understand the rules before you decide if you're justified in breaking them in a particular case. If my grammar's ever clumsy enough to confuse my meaning then that's something I'd always want to put right, but aside from that I take the Churchill line.

I have considered linking the Sources & Footnotes reference numbers to their matching entries, but I still don't think it's a good idea. I don't want to encourage people to be constantly jumping in and out of the main piece as they read it. If anyone's interested enough to find the source of a particular quote, that information is there for them. I've done 99.9% of the work needed to give them this source, and if the remaining 0.1% is too much trouble then they can't have been that interested in the first place.

I think of the footnotes as little Easter eggs for anyone keen enough to read that back page, but again I don't want to encourage people to be constantly breaking off from the main piece to find them on their first reading.

Finally, I think you're right when you say I tend to overuse commas. I've been aware of that myself for some time, but in the four years PlanetSlade's been running, you're the first reader to mention it. I think that's more a matter of personal taste than hard and fast rules, though, and I'm pleased to say that Sir Ernest Gowers agrees with me. "The use of commas cannot be learned by rule," he writes in The Complete Plain Words. "Not only does conventional practice vary from period to period, but good writers of the same period differ among themselves."

I haven't corrected the ten errors I mentioned above yet, but I'll do so soon. Ten mistakes in a piece of over 11,000 words may not sound like many, but it’s still ten more than I’d like. Pulling readers out of the story with silly errors is exactly the opposite of what I’m trying to achieve here.

Sorry to drone at such length, but once I start talking about writing it's often hard to find the "off" switch. There’s an unwritten rule that any piece about spelling and grammar will contain at least one glaring howler of its own, so I’ll leave everyone to get on with finding mine now.
posted by Paul Slade at 6:43 AM on March 2, 2013

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