Friday, 14 May 2010

Digging into a spy's life

I was more than a year into the research for The Infiltrator, the story of Victorian superspy Henri Le Caron, when I made the bizarre discovery that my central character was, among other things, a body snatcher.

He was also a rather cocky one, once digging up the remains of Congressman John Scott Harrison, son of an American president and father of a future president.

It was also a jolt for me to learn how widespread robbing graves was just less than two centuries ago, and how complicit mainstream authorities were in the practice. Medical schools badly needed bodies for training students, and some students made money as "sack-em-up men," emptying graves at night to provide schools with a steady supply of cadavers.

I enjoyed reading in The Unabridged Devil's Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce that a grave was "A place in which the dead are laid to await the coming of the medical student." Bierce's more serious writing also provided me with excellent descriptions of life for soldiers in the American Civil War, in the operations in which Le Caron was a participant.

As I detoured in my research into a study of bodysnatching, I was surprised to learn that graves have been robbed far longer than they have been respected. On the headstone for William Shakespeare at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon are the words:

"Good friend for Jesus sake forbear
To dig the dust enclosed here!
Blest be the man that spares these stones
And curst be he that moves my bones."

Peter Edwards, author of The Infiltrator

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