Digging Up Dead Doctors
By E.J. Wagner
My assignment is clear-800 words, more or less, about murder and medicine for “The Lancet”, the venerable British medical journal.
I’m on deadline, I need to gather and organize material, and so I should be in Long Island, at my desk, surrounded by notes, constructing deathless prose.
So why am I instead in a coastal Connecticut bookshop which specializes in nautical history?
Because deadlines have a perverse effect on me. Tell me I have to write about murderous physicians and I suddenly develop an intense curiosity about the golden age of piracy.
I have never missed a deadline-but I inevitably procrastinate until pushed by panic.
So here I am, in a maritime book market, browsing through shelves of volumes on navigation and sea battles.
And then the bookseller beckons me to the back room.
“I picked up something interesting but a bit off-topic for me” he says- “Old ship’s doctor passed on a few months ago- and I bought his book collection from the heirs. Some of the stuff is purely medical-not for my clients. Know you write about that kind of thing sometimes-I’ll sell you the carton as is for $125..you have any interest?”
He indicates a carton of roughly ten books. There is a strong smell of mold and old cigar smoke wafting from it-not a really good sign.
I peer at the top layer and see a battered book with a peeling cover. “The Report of the Case of John W. Webster: indicted for the murder of George Parkman”. The flyleaf informs me the publication date was 1850. I recognize this at once- this was the homicide which electrified 19th century Boston-the killing of a prominent physician /businessman by a well-known professor of chemistry in the sacred precincts of Harvard Medical School itself. The very first criminal case to provide a firm definition of legally acceptable circumstantial evidence in America.
“I’ll take it” I cry. Clutching the carton to my bosom, I head for the Long Island ferry.
When I arrive home and examine the goods, I discover that the crumbling carton also contains “The Medical Register of New York of 1865”, which includes an eye witness account of the famous Doctors Riot of 1778, as well as an original copy of John Bell’s “Anatomy”, dated 1775. There’s a copy of “The Trial of Burke and Hare”-the legal proceedings against the notorious duo who provided unusually fresh corpses to anatomists in 1828 Edinburgh. Also an1825 copy of Beck’s Medical Jurisprudence”. Evidently the old ship’s doctor had a taste for crime.
(There are less appropriate contents too- World War 1 directions on constructing latrines and a 1923 pamphlet on dog training. I put these aside, but I don’t discard them. I never know when I will need that sort of thing)
Leafing through my find, I discover a bonus. Old doctors take notes, often in the margins of books. This lowers the books’ value to a dealer, but not to a researcher. I read the cramped handwriting to find odd bits of sanguinary information- a reported “accident” suspected by the writer to be homicide, a peculiar poison discovered at autopsy.
I find notes on an 18th medical discussion on whether or not a woman can become pregnant from rape. (One side argues that “pleasure” on the woman’s part is required for conception. The opposing physician points out that women have become impregnated while drugged and unconscious, and clearly not having an enjoyable time. It sounds amazingly like a 21st century political debate).
I’m fascinated to read that on the Isle of Man in the same period if a “maid” (a single woman) was raped she was presented by the ‘deemsters” (court officials) with a rope, a sword, and a ring. She would then decide if her assailant should be beheaded, hanged, or married-to her.
There are notes about how bodies were illegally “resurrected” for dissection in medical schools-the techniques used, the prices paid.
The engravings in “Bell’s Anatomy” show not only the organ systems of dissected subjects, but their faces, their flayed corpses hung on ropes or slumped over short tables, the legs dangling. The grim images force us to remember that these subjects were once living, feeling beings, and inexorably makes us consider how malodorous 18th century medical education must have been.
In the texts on Medical Jurisprudence, as forensic pathology was formerly called, there is a panoply of “illustrative cases” at the end of each chapter. Many of these involve “death by doctors”, either by deliberate homicide or by spectacular inattention.
The predations of Dr Pritchard, poisoning his way through his domestic circle, the machinations of Dr Warren Waite arranging death as well as teeth.. The physician who suspected Dr Smethurst, a fellow doctor, of poisoning Smethurst’s wife, but who didn’t report this before the lady succumbed , for fear of annoying a colleague..
I know nothing about the dead ship’s doctor whose notes I dig up and study-but he has left me an embarrassment of historical riches.
In the ‘Adventure of the Speckled Band” Sherlock Holmes says;
“When a doctor does go wrong he is the first of criminals. He has nerve and he has knowledge.
True-and has so very many opportunities.
I am now working on a novel about a medical murder in 19th century Salem. So, of course,(the procrastination thing again) I am leaving for London. Who knows what I will discover there? How many long dead doctor’s notes I will dig up?
EJ Wagner is a crime historian and author of the Edgar winning “The Science of Sherlock Holmes”. She has written for Ellery Queen, The NY Times, Lancet, and Smithsonian Magazine, among others.
She is currently working on a novel and the traveling Museum exhibit “Sherlock Holmes: The International Exhibit” which is currently at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry and soon to open in Ohio.
Her website is http://www.ejwagner-crimehistorian.com/
Her Lancet article on medical murders, History, Homicide, and the Healing Hand may be found on her blog,here http://ejdissectingroom.wordpress.com/2009/11/27/history-homicide-and-the-healing-hand/
These are images from the Bell’s anatomy described in the article.