Title

Dancing on the Dead: Death, Entertainment, and Respectability in Victorian London

Author ORCID Identifier

http://orcid.org/0000-0002-8241-2855

Degree Year

Spring 2021

Document Type

Thesis

Degree Name

Bachelor of Arts

Department

History

Advisor(s)

Ellen Wurtzel

Committee Member(s)

Annemarie Sammartino, Co-Chair
Shelley Sang-Hee Lee
Danielle Terrazas Williams
Leonard V. Smith, Co-Chair

Keywords

Media, Death, Entertainment, Respectability, Sensationalism, Performance, Class

Abstract

As industrializing nineteenth-century London found itself in the position of a prominent world capital, the city faced problems of overcrowding, high poverty, and waves of epidemics, making the dead progressively more visible in public spheres of society. This thesis examines different forms of publicly-spectated death in Victorian London, moving from anatomical dissections to funerals to burials, following the Victorian corpse in these moments of dealing with the dead and the level of media involvement in structuring and marketing each of these spectacles to the public. While the current historiographical debate surrounding spectacles of death in nineteenth-century Europe agrees that death ceased to be a spectacle at the beginning of the nineteenth century, I argue that death took on new meaning in the nineteenth century, moving from a context of ritual or punishment to ostentatious and media sensationalist displays. These displays reveal a concern with both the commercialism and respectability of death, reflected in literature such as popular novels, newspapers, and reform-minded writings. The media’s spin of each of these types of spectacles, coupled with the culture of materiality of nineteenth-century London, indicates that Londoners sought out spectacles of death both as escapist entertainment and as pieces of the larger moral question of respectability, which was distinctly stratified along class lines: who could secure a “good” death, and whose bodies were put on display?

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