Friday, October 19, 2012

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

It’s October, and that means Halloween and things that go bump in the night—or, sometimes, bang in the night. Did you know that until 1827, it was legal in England to booby trap a gravesite with a set gun, a cocked and loaded firearm attached to a trip wire? If anyone drew too close to the booby-trapped grave, he’d be shot. Just why a nineteenth-century Englishman would want to booby trap a grave is a matter for history.

In the early nineteenth century, medical schools had two sources for the cadavers they needed in order to train new doctors: those rare altruistic individuals who left their bodies to science, and executed criminals. In the case of those who volunteered their bodies, any objection from a surviving relative could block the donation. In 1752, the British Parliament passed “An act for better preventing the horrid crime of murder.” It decreed that the bodies of executed killers should be delivered to surgeons, and “dissected and anatomized...but that in no case whatsoever the body of any murderer shall be suffered to be buried; unless after such body shall have been dissected and anatomized as aforesaid.” At the same time as medical education began to advance, however, the rate of executions declined, until by the early 1800s the need for bodies far exceeded the available supply of anatomical specimens. Thanks to this ever-increasing shortfall, medical schools paid top dollar for donor cadavers—eight to ten guineas a corpse—and tended not to ask questions.

"The Anatomist Taken by the Watch...Carrying off Miss W--- in a Hamper" shows Dr. William Hunter and an accomplice caught in the act of bodysnatching, 1773.
As a result, a flourishing trade developed in human bodies. Armed with lanterns, shovels, and a ghoulish degree of daring, body snatchers slipped into graveyards by night to dig up the freshly buried. Although stealing the clothing or jewelry from a body amounted to a felony, stealing the body itself was a mere misdemeanor.

Body snatchers, also known as “resurrection men,” were especially active in London and Edinburgh, the two principal centers of British medical education. To fight back, area graveyards built watch-houses and hired armed security guards called beadles. Some of the bereaved even encased their loved ones’ graves in iron bars called mortsafes, or employed the kind of booby-traps mentioned above. Bodysnatchers responded by bribing the beadles and tunneling into fresh graves from a careful distance.

Dr. Robert Knox dissecting a cadaver. The caption "Nox, somni genetrix" means “Night, the mother of sleep,” playing on Knox’s name and his role in the Burke & Hare murders.
In Edinburgh, two particularly unscrupulous bodysnatchers, William Burke and William Hare, realized that it was easier to create dead bodies than to smuggle them out of graveyards. Between November 1827 and Halloween of 1828, they sold seventeen bodies to anatomist Dr. Robert Knox. Most of the bodies were victims Burke had smothered to death. The pair were finally caught when tenants at Hare’s lodging-house discovered a freshly-murdered body temporarily stored under a bed. The case became a media sensation, even spawning a popular jump-rope rhyme: "Burke's the butcher, Hare's the thief, Knox, the boy that buys the beef." Hare received immunity in return for testifying against Burke, who was hanged on January 28, 1829, whereupon he himself was dissected at the Edinburgh Medical College.

Burke and Hare’s murders were so well known that they inspired copycats. One group called the London Burkers began as ordinary bodysnatchers, later admitting to having stolen between five hundred and a thousand bodies before they decided to take the lazy way out and augment the supply of dead bodies. The group committed at least four murders before the ringleaders, John Bishop and Thomas Williams, were caught and tried. They were hanged at Newgate on December 5, 1831, then their bodies were sent to medical colleges for dissection. In another case, a woman named Elizabeth Ross murdered a Whitechapel woman called Catherine Ross in order to sell her body to surgeons; Ross was subsequently hanged.

Alarmed by this emerging trend, the public sent up such an outcry that Parliament was compelled to pass the Anatomy Act of 1832. The act made it lawful for licensed anatomists to collect and dissect any body that went unclaimed, including those who died in prison or the workhouse. No longer did medical schools have to depend on executions—and bodysnatchers—to obtain anatomy specimens.

And what does any of this have to do with romance? Well, nothing much. But I personally believe that there’s no better excuse for cuddling up on a cold autumn night than sharing a scary story.

Alyssa EverettAlyssa Everett's debut regency romance, Ruined by Rumor, is currently available from Carina Press, and her second regency will be out in March of 2013. She hopes you'll visit her website and follow her on Twitter and Facebook, where she promises not to spam you relentlessly.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Beignets: New Orleans Treat

A few weeks ago I went to New Orleans and spent a few days in the French Quarters.  Besides history, food was the next best thing in the Quarters. I fell in love with beignets.

Beignets were brought to New Orleans by the French colonists where they became part of the local cuisine. These tasty treats are French donuts and not to be confused with American donuts. I love donuts but beignets are different. They have a different taste, they are crispy and coated in confectioners sugar.  I loved them. Of course, they didn't do my thighs any favors!

I brought home a box of beignet mix from Cafe Du Monde. The Cafe Du Monde is located in the French market and all they sell is beignets and coffee 24 hours a day year round. Also, I have found that you can buy the mix at Kroger and the instructions are simple enough.

I have yet to give making my own beignets a try but I'm hoping to do so this weekend. Of course, many times my cooking adventures turn into disasters so I'm prepared for flat and chewy instead of light and fluffy! Have you ever tried making beignets?

Friday, October 12, 2012

To Stick to the Facts or to Not Stick to the Facts?

Back to the FutureWriting historical fiction can sometimes be a tightrope walk between presenting the past as it actually was, and presenting the past as people have come to believe it was. Movies are largely to blame for most people’s perceptions of the past. Set a story in any time period from the old west to ancient Egypt and readers will expect certain tropes thanks to TV and film. Who can imagine the 1950s without poodle skirts and a bunch of James Dean lookalikes, or hear the word pirates and not think about handsome swashbucklers like Johnny Depp or Errol Flynn? In reality, most pirates were dirty, desperate men and, as my mother who attended high school in the 1950s will attest to, girls did not walk around in poodle skirts.

Choosing between accuracy and entertainment wasn’t created by the invention of the motion picture camera. Shakespeare had this problem when he was writing his plays. He knew his audience, the Tudors, and he wasn’t against twisting history to make their ancestors look good. His desire to entertain often overcame whatever desire he may have had for historical accuracy. Poor Richard III’s reputation suffered for it, and will probably never recover, no matter what archeologists find under that parking lot in Leicester (read more about that here).

viking_brigade.jpgSometimes these tropes can work in a writer’s favor by allowing us to establish a setting with just a few words. For example, if I say Colosseum, you instantly imagine a massive arena in ancient Rome. If I say Vikings you automatically think of warriors wearing horned helmets when in reality, there is very little evidence that they actually wore them. And there’s the rub. As historical fiction writers, when do we write to be accurate and when do we write to fulfill reader expectations?

Click image to view full coverI faced this challenge in an early draft of my ancient Rome novella, Mask of the Gladiator after my sister reminded me that the capital “C” Colosseum wasn’t built until 30 years after my story took place.  This proved a bit of a conundrum. After all, I knew readers would expect to read about gladiators fighting to the death in an impressive arena and such a venue also added to the drama of my opening.  So, after doing some research to back up my decision, I did a quick find and replace and set the opening in an unnamed lowercase “c” colosseum. It was historically accurate since there were large arenas in use by gladiators during Caligula’s reign. Also, by using the word colosseum, I instantly created a picture in reader’s minds, even if it may not be the exact, historically accurate one.

When to be accurate and when to write to readers’ expectations is a hard call, but in the end, I think the decision comes down to the story. As writers, when do you make the call? As readers, how accurate do you want your history, or do you actually expect certain tropes?

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

A Sacred Site

I entered a contest after I wrote Knight of Runes not with hopes of winning, which would have been awesome, but rather for feedback. More than anything, I wanted feedback.
I did very well in the contest actually. Well, according to two of the three judges anyway. The swing in the third set of scores was, well that is a blog for another day. Suffice it to say, I placed well but didn't win. But I did get the feedback. Awesome!
My story is a time travel. Our heroine says the right words, carries the correct talisman, and is standing in the right spot, a constellation of events that transports her back in time 400 years. I set the magic place at Stonehenge.  I know it's been used before by some great authors and  I did take some ‘poetic’ license. The great stones now stand protected behind a fence. Visitors can't walk up and around them.  One judge noted that she lived near some great stones that were older than Stonehenge and didn't gave any barriers. The stones stand proudly amidst the village of Avebury, Wiltshire County in southern England.
 Avebury is impressive. While erosion and vandalism, to say nothing of religious persecution, has reduced the henge, it is breathtaking. Like other henges, construction at Avebury started with deforesting the area somewhere about 3700 B.C. Archaeologists estimate the actually setting of the stones began about 3000 B.C. when the central Cove, the early part of the Sanctuary, was built. Construction moved outward and lasted for several centuries. The circle covers almost 29 acres with a circumference of almost 1 mile. Concentric circles of stones defined the borders of the circle. These circles are much larger than the more famous Stonehenge. As a matter of fact, Stonehenge would fit into the outer stone circle at Avebury around 130 times.
 A large portion of village resides inside the Avebury circle.
The Cove is the area of the henge where Rebeka, my heroine, is drawn into the time portal.  Like the rest of the henge, it’s been a long held belief that the stones represent male and female characteristics. A male scientist must have done this designation as male stones are long and thin while the female is short and square. The two surviving primary stones at the Cove are perfect examples.  I thought the Cove the perfect place for Rebeka’s adventure to begin.

Saturday, October 06, 2012

Your Peninsular War veteran hero: common errors and how to avoid them

Every once in awhile, when I'm judging the historical category of an unpublished romance contest or even reading a published book, I'll encounter something like this in a story set in 1812 or so:

"Sebastian Grey has just come home to claim his title as Earl of Wolfcliff. I wonder what he's like now. He's been with the Duke of Wellington on the Peninsula since 1805."

This inevitably sets me to sputtering because there are two glaring errors that tell me the author didn't do the research, even to the most basic degree--i.e. checking Wikipedia.
Sir Arthur Wellesley in 1804

First of all, there was no such person as the Duke of Wellington in 1805--nor, indeed, in 1812, though by that point I'll admit I'm splitting hairs with that statement. Of course the man known to history as the Duke of Wellington was around then, that just wasn't his name yet. Arthur Wellesley was born the third son of an earl, so he didn't inherit his titles--they were granted to him as a reward for his service and accomplishments. In 1805, he was still a young major-general whose talents were just beginning to become apparent, and he'd recently been made a Knight of the Bath. So if you met him in a ballroom, you'd call him Sir Arthur.

But you'd be unlikely to meet him a ballroom in 1805, and you certainly wouldn't find him on a battlefield in Portugal or Spain. He began the year in India, where he'd been serving since 1797, and spent months of it on a ship returning to England.

In fact, you wouldn't find ANY British troops fighting the French on the Iberian Peninsula at that point. You see, in 1805, Spain and France were allies. The force Horatio Nelson and the British navy defeated at Trafalgar was a combined French and Spanish fleet. That alliance didn't break until 1808, when Napoleon, not content with simply marching through Spain on the way to Portugal (which he'd successfully invaded in 1807), began pushing more troops into Spain and meddling with Spanish court politics--which, admittedly, were such a mess before he stepped in that he seems to have honestly expected to have been greeted as a liberator when he put his brother Joseph on the throne.
Joseph Bonaparte in 1808

Instead, his actions triggered a popular uprising...and made the Spanish willing to work with their long-time enemies from Britain and Portugal to gain their liberation. All of which gives us the Peninsular War--which from a British perspective ran from August 1808 till April 1814.

As for Arthur Wellesley, you and your characters can begin calling him Wellington as of the latter part of 1809, when he was made Viscount Wellington after his victory at the Battle of Talavera. He then became Earl of Wellington in early 1812 and Marquess of Wellington a few months later, but he wasn't created Duke of Wellington until May 1814.

Because I've researched the Peninsular War and Wellington in some depth, I know everything in the quick summary above off the top of my head. But you know where I went to confirm I had my dates right? Wikipedia.

I'd never counsel using Wikipedia as your only source for any piece of history that plays more than a superficial role in your writing, but it's a good place to start. Really, if you have an internet connection--and you must, if you're reading this blog--there's not much of an excuse for botching names and dates as in my Sebastian Grey example above. And while I made up that quote, I've seen those two errors again and again.

The thing about the Napoleonic Wars, and the French Revolutionary Wars that preceded them, is that they're plural, and with a few brief interruptions lasted a quarter of a century. Alliances shifted, dissolved, and re-formed, and the theater of war encompassed pretty much all of Europe and a good chunk of the rest of the world. (Just to name two well-known examples, Napoleon invaded Egypt, partly because he hoped it would be a gateway to breaking the British hold on India. And in a world with no Napoleon, the War of 1812 wouldn't have happened.) 

So if you want to have a hero with a military or naval background in a Regency, the possibilities are all but infinite--but keep in mind that what works for 1810 wouldn't make sense in 1805 or 1800, and do a little homework. Trust me, it's fun, and if you want to go deeper than Wikipedia, I'd be happy to point you toward some good sources.

Susanna Fraser's next Carina release, An Infamous Marriage, is now available for preorder from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and

Monday, October 01, 2012

Hygiene Regency Style

It's often been said that in the early part of the nineteenth century you would have been well advised to stand up wind of anyone with whom you were having a conversation. Hands, necks and arms might have been frequently washed, but as for the rest of the person...well, probably better not to ask. Washing all those heavy delicate gown would obviously be a challenge, even in the best-equipped houses.

Fashionable ladies got round the problem by wearing several layers of undergarments to protect their gowns from, less acceptable aspects of being in crowed rooms with a lot of smelly people.
The first layer was a chemise, or shift, a thin garment with tight, short sleeves and a low neckline if worn under evening wearing. It was usually made of white cotton and finished with a plain hem that was shorter than the dress. They were obviously washed far more frquently than the outer clothes. Washer women of the time used coarse soap when scrubbing these garments, then plunged them into boiling water, hence the absence of colour, lace or other embellishments that would have been damaged under such treatment. Shifts also prevented transparent muslin and silk dresses from being too revealing.

The next layer was a corest, the forerunner to the bodern bra since it was designed as an undergarment that served to separate a woman's breasts. And made it impossible for her to breathe half the time, I would imagine! Short stays were often worn over the shift as well.

The final layer was the petticoat, which had a scooped neckline and was sleeveless, and was fitted in the back with hooks and eyelets. The lower edge of the petticoat was intended to be seen, since women would often lift their outer dresses to spare the delicate material of the outer dress from mud.

'Drawers' were only beginning to be worn by a few women during the regency period.

Blimey, no wonder it took ladies so long to get dressed in those days. And they had to change several times, as well!