Julia Hamill bought a house contrary to advice, solicited and unsolicited, of others. All she wanted to do was plant a garden. This required some digging, heavy work she was not accustomed to. And now she had found a body. True, the realtor selling her the house had warned her of rumors that she might hear about the history of the house. A ninety-year-old woman, the previous owner, had died in the house and her body hadn’t been discovered for several weeks. Surely this was not her body. So who was buried here?
Mystery one was quickly solved. The body came complete with a ring that dated the body to around 1840. Still, who was it? Chapter two takes us back to 1830 and the book continues organizationally in this fashion. Chapters alternate in time telling a story in the past and in the present. The story in the past presents us with a mystery to solve. Who is the West End Reaper? People are being killed seemingly systematically. The story plays out in a medical environment that involves doctors struggling with new ideas, students struggling to be doctors, and grave robbers struggling to supply bodies for study by the medical community.
The story of grave robbers both as individuals and as an occupation is fascinating and gruesome. The reader might agree with a basic tenet that bodies are needed for anatomical study. It should be easy to see the questions that will occur. Where do you get the bodies? Obviously from the graves, but what happens when supply is scarce and demand is high? How about from the poor and homeless population? Nobody would really miss them, it would be a kindness to relieve them of an existence of suffering, and medical research would advance. There is the nasty problem of a criminal act, not to mention that such killing would be at least immoral.
Dr. Crouch is a mentor doctor in charge of four central character medical students, one a notable historical figure, Oliver Wendell Holmes. More important than Holmes is student Norris Marshall, a romantic interest for Rose as well as a necessary helper. Rose, Aurnia, and Margaret are the center pieces of conflict in the novel. Aurnia is disposed of easily, she dies in childbirth in the first few pages. Rose is a definition of abject poverty. She can’t rely on brother-in-law Eben. Prior to Aurnia’s death Rose had worked as a seamstress at Eben’s tailor shop, but after Rose discovered the avarice and sense of ownership of all things that had belonged to Aurnia on the part of Eben, she knew continuing employment with him was no longer a possibility.
Any guesses as to where Aurnia’s body will end up? Rose wants to care for her sister Aurnia’s newborn, saving the baby from a life in a government home. Rose has no faith in systems, government or medical. The doctors had not listened to her when she told them to stop bleeding Aurnia and Aurnia had died. She was not going to let the baby die from governmental neglect. The problem was Eben, Aurnia’s husband. He saw the baby as the property of Aurnia along with everything else Aurnia had prior to her death, such as a necklace she had given Rose. Eben wanted the baby but wanted the necklace more. Why?
In the present, the identity of the skeleton Julia found was not difficult. Hilda had died and left behind several boxes, close to a hundred, of documents, pictures, and news clippings. The stories in this novel will be related as the elements are discovered. There are also accounts of the daily lives that people of different classes lived during the 1800s. This novel explores the horrible poverty, filthy hygiene (out of economic necessity), resistance to new medical ideas (bleeding, really), and crime developed around a grave robbing industry of the 1800s. And there is almost a romance. There are also some really startling surprises that make the book well worth reading.
And finally, there is a tie-in to present day medicine. This is not a spoiler, so if you want to follow this up even prior to beginning reading, feel free. This novel has a great, and factually true, great last line. Going to it first will not affect your enjoyment of the book.