Author Paul Collins is expert at finding unlikely pairings for his historical nonfiction. In Duel with the Devil, he recounts a missing persons case and murder trial that put Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr on the same side. In Blood & Ivy, Collins uncovers a hasty murder in Harvard’s medical school.
It’s a gaslit story for the resurrectionists in a Robert Louis Stevenson book. George Parkman, a well-known, respectable landlord is seen making business calls around Cambridge one afternoon. But he never returns home that evening. The police retrace his steps and the family offers a generous reward but weeks go by with no solid leads on Parkman’s whereabouts.
Meanwhile at Harvard Medical College, Dr. John Webster is acting strangely enough to arouse the suspicions of the school’s janitor and handyman. His discovery will launch the most salacious trial Boston had seen in decades — and none of the city’s institutions will be untouched.
Webster’s lab was tucked in the middle of the Medical College’s ground floor; flanking his lab was the dissecting room and Littlefield’s family quarters. … The problem of obtaining cadavers had dogged Harvard for decades. Painstakingly crafted wax anatomical mannequins, imported from France, might suffice for public demonstrations, but training students in the fine points o surgical and anatomical instruction allowed no substitute. While in other cities, corpses could be had from graveyards for the price of a bottle of whiskey, and a midnight bribe to the sexton, Boston’s precincts of the dead were better guarded, not least because of the particular umbrage local Irish Catholics took at “resurrectionists.” And that was too bad, as port cities had the best specimens; sailors were especially prized for the fine musculature they displayed under the scalpel. ~Pg. 23
Collins unwinds the strange story much as it would be revealed to the public over the ensuing months. Through rabid newspaper articles, stunned police reports, and the gossip tree of the scandalized Boston Brahmin, and eventually, trial testimony, the story of George Parkman’s last hours is pieced together.
The book is an examination in duality, and the struggles it engenders. How can respectable medicine be advanced if doctors aren’t able to do something unacceptable like examine the dead? How could a respected community leader be killed by a colleague and equal, then left to rot in a privy? How could a lowly janitor have enough standing to bring down a member of the upper class? How could an institution of higher learning be hiding such horrid secrets? Was a river really the only thing that separated it from the unsullied Boston proper? And what of this bridge and train that was going to connect the two?
Blood & Ivy is set against the backdrop of a city still finding its way, in a country figuring out how to handle the macabre (Poe, a Boston native had just died), in a time of great upheaval and learning in the medical sciences.
My thanks to W.W. Norton for the review copy.
Hardcover: 368 pages
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1 edition (July 17, 2018)
Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 1.4 x 9.6 inches