Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Corpse-snatching and President Lincoln; a guest blog on a writer's inspriation by Anna Lee Huber

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: I've been a fan of Anna Lee Huber's since I had the good fortune to read an ARC of her first Lady Darby mystery, The Anatomist's Wife. It's a fact well established that I'm a big historical mystery buff. Anna's unique heroine and setting - a gentlewoman versed in the reviled science of anatomy, Scotland at that moment in history when the Georgian era yielded to the Victorian - caught my imagination. It doesn't hurt that she has a sexy love interest for Lady Darby and that her mysteries are twisty and tricky.

Today, Anna is here to tell us how a little-known fact about President Lincoln's death inspired the plot of her third Lady Darby mystery, A Grave Matter.

When I was brainstorming ideas for the plot of Lady Darby Book 3, I knew I wanted to utilize the beautiful and melancholy Dryburgh Abbey near where I had set Kiera, Lady Darby’s childhood home in the Border region of Scotland. I’d been fortunate enough to visit the site in the autumn of 2010 and instantly fell in love with the crumbling ruins. However, I needed to come up with a unique twist to a crime happening there, and I found it from a somewhat unlikely source: by watching a documentary on President Abraham Lincoln.
I was surprised to learn that in 1876 there had been a plot to steal Lincoln’s corpse from its grave in Springfield, IL. Apparently, a gang of Chicago counterfeiters decided to steal Lincoln’s body and ransom it back to the governor of Illinois in exchange for $200,000 and a full pardon for their best engraver of counterfeit plates, who was locked up in prison. Luckily an informant for the Secret Service became involved with the plot and was able to tip off the authorities to the plan.
I found the entire caper to be fascinating, and a light bulb went off inside my head. In the time and place in which I’ve set my stories—1830 Scotland—body snatching was a viable, though criminal, profession, and a terrible problem for authorities and upstanding citizens. Resurrectionists, as they were called, would steal recently buried corpses and sell them to anatomy schools for the modest sum of 8-10 guineas, depending on how fresh the body was and whether it had any interesting abnormalities. But how much more could a grave robber hope to make by ransoming the body of a loved one back to their wealthy family? 

Considering the predominant beliefs of the time—that a person could not rise from the dead on Judgment Day if they were not buried whole in consecrated ground—most people would be frantic to get their relative’s remains back, and willing to pay far more than a few guineas. The endeavor would also be less taxing, dangerous, and messy for the body snatchers. By 1830, the public had become wise to the ways of resurrectionists and begun to take precautions to protect the bodies of the recently deceased until they were too decomposed to be of any use to the anatomy schools. But a body long past that state, perhaps even deteriorated so far that it was no more than bones, would not be guarded. Bagging up a pile of bones from an old grave was far easier than transporting a heavy, stinking corpse under close surveillance. 
It seemed feasible that an intelligent body snatcher might become wise to such a ploy. After just a few successful ransoms, an entire team of resurrectionists could earn enough money to live comfortably for decades, so long as they didn’t become too greedy. And thus the plot of A Grave Matter—how apropos—was born. 

Anna has a copy of A Grave Matter to give away to one lucky commentor. Let's make it interesting: in order to win, tell us the names of Scotland's two most infamous resurrectionists!

You can learn more about Anna Lee Huber and the Lady Darby mysteries, and read excerpts, at her website. You can friend her on Facebook, follow her on Twitter as @AnnaLeeHuber and share book suggestions with her on Goodreads.


  1. President Lincoln and grave robbers . . . who would have guessed that could be so inspiring?
    I loved The Anatomist's Wife and I'm looking forward to reading Lady Darby's newest mystery . . . .

  2. Welcome, Anna! You had me at "Scotland"... : )

  3. Welcome Anna! Grave robbing in Scotland? Sounds creepy. =)

  4. Burke and Hare were the most famous.
    Sounds like a series I need to read.

  5. What a gorgeous gorgeous cover..and what terrific idea. It's so fascinating, always, to hear where ideas and inspiration come from. YOu just never know--and that is so exciting.

    Is it a challenge for you to do the voice in an historical novel? Do you have to put yourself in a different mental/emotional place?

    So great to see you here!

  6. I'd love to hear the answers to Hank's questions too. And I love hearing how historical research inspires plot. I think Rhys had a similar story about Naughty in Nice and discovering that Coco Chanel had been in Nice at the time Rhys was setting the book. (The things you remember from Malice panels!)

  7. The thing I found fascinating is the strength of the religious belief requiring bodies to remain as whole as possible - to the point that the relatives of the (can you call a corpse a victim?) deceased would pay to have the bones restored.

    And of course it was the belief that drove the laws that made it so difficult for doctors and scientists to obtain bodies for legitimate purposes. An interesting echo of the way certain religious beliefs drive law and custom in our own time.

  8. Thank you, everyone!

    Susan - I'm so looking forward to meeting you in September when I moderate the panel you are on at Kerrytown BookFest in Ann Arbor, MI.

    Hi Hank! It has been surprisingly easy for me to write Kiera, Lady Darby's voice. I'm not sure why, but from the very beginning she has seemed to be speak to me from some subconscious part of my brain. I know this sounds pyscho, but it's true. :) What I do find challenging is making sure I don't put modern words or phrases in her mouth. My Etymology Dictionary is indispensable. I do have to take myself somewhere different emotionally because Kiera is far less chipper than I am, but then again she's experienced far darker things in her life.

    Diane - I love hearing about inspiration, too. It can come from the most unlikely source.

    Julia - thank you so much for hosting me! My characters in the book had the same problem knowing what to call the corpses/victims, and wondered whether the law would consider the crimes thefts or kidnappings. :) It is interesting how religious beliefs morph over time. Though, I still think some people would go to great lengths to get their loved ones remains back, for sentimental reasons if nothing else. I admit it would disturb me if my grandparents bodies were stolen, even though I know their souls and everything that really made them who they were are no longer with their bodies.

  9. Ooooh. William Burke and William Hare are the two most infamous ones I know of. I've enjoyed your Lady Darby books very much and am eagerly anticipating A Grave Matter! And some romance involving lady Darby and a certain agent.

  10. Burke and Hare were certainly well known in Edinburgh
    The work was in poor taste, but I have to give credit to some clever thinking there.

  11. Burke and Hare!

    Love this series - looking forward to reading this.

  12. Libby, I love your description of the body snatching as "poor taste." :-)

    Anna, how have I not read your books? I love historicals, I love Scotland, I love Edinburgh. Going on my list asap!

    As for the body snatching, having lived in Edinburgh, Burke and Hare are very much household names. But I can't help wondering, as Julia mentioned, how many advances were made in medicine BECAUSE of the body snatchers? Very interesting!

  13. I am so delighted to see you here today, Anna. I have been drawn to this amazing cover in seeing it advertised or listed in different places online. Without even reading about it, I put in on my Amazon wishlist. Now, I find out that, like Debs, this is a series and is set in Scotland, for which I have a right passion, is historical fiction, and Edinburgh is the focal point. Perfection! I am also drawn to the main character being a woman knowledgeable in anatomy at a time when it was oh so not proper. I will be racing to Amazon to buy The Anatomist's Wife.

    Burke and Hare. Well, apparently they weren't content to just rob graves of the dearly departed. William Burke and William Hare, along with their co-conspirators Burke's mistress and Hare's wife, murdered 16 people to achieve their body count to a Dr. Robert Knox for dissection and lecture material. Luring the victims to Margaret Hare's lodging house and plying them with drink was the modus operandi. I should interject that the first corpse they delivered was actually that, a natural death.

    So, once again, the Reds have brought an awesome author to my attention. To get in on the ground floor, so to speak, of this series is especially exciting. Thank you Reds and thank you Anna.

  14. Deborah - you're certainly right. The body-snatching was sort of a necessary evil of the time, at least until the laws were changed.

    Thank you, Joan, Pat, Christine, Deborah and Kathy! Hope you enjoy! :)

  15. Oops, I should have read just a bit more closely. There are two previous Lady Darby books, The Anatomist's Wife and Mortal Arts. All the better. I still consider myself getting in on the ground level, as I have come to a series with 16 or more books to read before. Three will be lovely.

  16. I just love that term: Resurrectionists. As a burglar were just liberating your belongings?

    Sounds like a terrific book. And you sent me off to Google body snatching. Nowadays I've heard that there's a problem with robbers iin cahoots with cemetery works liberating valuables before burial is completed. I was once at a funeral where the family had paid someone to stay after the burial service until burial was complete to be sure that wasn't going to happen. Paranoid? Maybe, maybe not.

  17. This looks—omgomgomg—such a great book! Thank you, Julia, GREAT blog... sorry too many caps and stuff, but that's what I do, when I am very excited. And omg am I ever excited about this book! I adore Anna Lee Huber!

    Burke and Hare have to be, have to be, have to be Scotland's most notorious reurrectionists, because they became serial killers... oh this is really good history mystery stuff.

  18. Hallie - I hadn't heard about the more recent spate of grave robbers. Knowing that, I don't blame people from wanting to be sure their loved one isn't robbed before burial.

    It's interesting to note that in the early 19th century, robbing a grave of valuables, even clothing, was a much more serious crime than stealing the body. Resurrectionists were usually quite careful about leaving behind all property and only taking the corpse, that way if they were caught the punishment was merely a fine or a short imprisonment. Theft of property resulted in death or transportation.

  19. Marianne in MaineJuly 8, 2014 at 8:41 PM

    Hello, Reds. I've been in the midst of a move and haven't been online much. Between moving, unpacking, and reading there's not much time.

    But I had to stop in when I saw that Anna was today's guest. I love your books and I'm so looking forward to reading the next Lady Darby adventure. Your covers are lovely!

    BTW, Anna is great at social media - like the Reds are. I hope you follow her on FB.

  20. Thank you so much, Reine and Marianne! Hope you enjoy AGM! :)

  21. 53:37 And [of] Abraham, who fulfilled [his obligations] -
    53:38 That no bearer of burdens will bear the burden of another
    53:39 And that there is not for man except that [good] for which he strives
    53:40 And that his effort is going to be seen -
    53:41 Then he will be recompensed for it with the fullest recompense

    Verses from "Ths star" chapter in holy Quran

    Read the story of Abraham Lincoln and his companions in holy Quran with accurate dates and coordinates since 1400 years


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