Do you know who the Resurrection Man was? I guess I had never really thought about the connection between grave-robbing and medical schools. Oh yeah, that was a real thing. Sack-em up gentlemen or Resurrectionists were men who had the job of digging up bodies and supplying cadavers for medical schools.
I bought my copy of Gravely Mistaken by Janis Ann Parks upon a suggestion by Amazon! I had no idea that she was an author from Augusta, Georgia when I first found her book. Body-snatching was in full effect over at the Medical College of Georgia in the 1800’s. Gravely Mistaken is a work of historical fiction, but Ms. Parks conducted extensive research (more on that below), into the life of Grandison Harris, the Resurrection Man. According to Parks, the Medical College of Georgia purchased Grandison Harris in 1852 for the specific purpose of “procuring subjects for anatomical study.” This is not a typo.
Parks weaves several story lines and characters throughout her book that make for an educational, sometimes morbid, and always entertaining book. My personal copy is full of highlights. One of my favorites, from Page 10, tells us what Burking Mania or Burkophobia was. Burking = to kill for the sake of obtaining a body. I had no idea. After finishing this book, I knew I had to get Janis on the line.
She indulged me. Enjoy!
What inspired you and sparked your desire to write this book?
I was working at the Medical College of Georgia (MCG) and saw an article in “The Beeper” (our institutional newspaper at that time) about a slave named Grandison Harris, who was purchased in 1852 as a janitor, but whose real primary job was grave robbing to provide cadavers for the anatomy classes. I thought it was fascinating. Dissection was illegal at that time; so many medical schools had clandestine programs to provide specimens to teach their students. The fact that the MCG bought a dedicated individual who worked in a body snatching capacity for many years, concentrating his efforts in the African American cemetery, Cedar Grove, in downtown Augusta, where I have frequented, made it all the more interesting. Also, in 1989, during a building project at the old Medical College on Telfair Street, human bones were unearthed. There was an investigation and subsequent archaeological study which revealed the extent of the grave robbing with an estimate of 600 individuals. The details of the findings led to a book called Bones in the Basement, which includes a series of scientific essays, and also information about Mr. Harris. In 1998, the bones were re-interred in a sealed vault in Cedar Grove Cemetery with a headstone inscription that reads “Known but to God.” After digesting all those details, I thought it might be possible to weave a good story together.
Tell us about the research process and the time you spent conducting background research for the book, and into the real life of Grandison Harris (the “Resurrection Man”), the medical treatments of the time, and the grave-robbing phenomenon that was going on to support the anatomy demonstrations going on over at the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta.
I was aware of the Greenblatt Library on the campus of MCG and its special collections section. After retiring from work at MCG, I went there to do research. The library is a wealth of information, especially in the special collections where old equipment, artifacts and books are housed. It was there that I found old volumes of the Southern Medical and Surgical Journal, dating back to its inception in 1836. I found it fascinating to have such a complete look back at medical history. There were case studies explaining different medical conditions and the current treatment of the day for each. I utilized information from those articles, created characters and put them into scenarios, but attempted to stay true to the details about how medicine was practiced in those years. Wearing the white gloves to preserve the volumes felt like a privilege and I had a profound sense of awe handling volumes that old. I found several articles about Grandison Harris which allowed me to put together some of the facts about his background. He learned to read, so he could follow the obituaries and with his acquired knowledge of anatomy, became so respected by medical students that he was considered by some to be a mentor.
I thought it was fascinating to read about the historical medical treatments in the 1800s. As a nurse, can you tell us if any of the old practices have stood the test of time?
Actually, the rationale for treatments back in the 1800s was realigning the body’s humors back into balance by bleeding and/or purging. Today we may use similar treatment for specific conditions, but for different rationale. As an example, bloodletting has gone by the wayside as a common treatment, but therapeutic phlebotomy (blood-drawing) can be used as treatment for high amounts of iron in the blood. Purging agents such as laxatives (still used and sold as over the counter meds), diuretics (drugs that pull fluid from the body and make the kidneys excrete are still used in the treatment of congestive heart failure) and emetics (drugs that induce vomiting are still used as a treatment for certain types of non-caustic poison ingestion). Plasters were used to create blisters and cause pain in an area of the body as a distraction to pain occurring in another. One of my main points, that I hope comes through, was considering the thought that we’re practicing cutting edge medicine in the current moment. What was thought to be best practice 150 years ago looks fairly archaic now and I wonder if 150 years in the future will give rise to seeing our current therapies, as archaic? When I sign books, a lot of times I’ll add the phrase, “It’s amazing we survived!”
The story line regarding John and Harris was very suspenseful and kept me turning those pages and squirming a bit! Is it based on any fact, or is this one of the examples of the “fiction” in historical fiction writing?
John and the other medical students were creations of my imagination to tell the story, while Grandison Harris was a real person. I attempted to keep Grandison’s character true to things I read about him. When I started doing the research, I found a story in the Augusta Chronicle about one night when two medical students wanted to play a trick on the janitor. While Grandison was in the saloon, getting whiskey to preserve the bodies, they took a body from his wagon, stashed it in an alley and one of the students got in the bag, thinking he’d scare the big slave when he came back. Of course as a writer, I thought, what a great story, but “what if, instead of that, this…” and that’s really how the story got its start. The “what if” and the medical students story became the inspiration of the main mystery plot in my imagination and the fiction in the historical fiction. And even though it is fiction, I added some brief anecdotal notes to further explain some subjects and a selected bibliography at the end of the book.
The stories about the mill workers in Augusta still resonate today as far as a worker’s struggle to make something out of themselves in the world. Obviously, conditions have much improved for workers, but what do you think about the struggle today for “getting ahead?”
I wanted to add the story of immigrant workers who came to this country looking for a new and better life, although they took an extreme risk to do so. With our current political officials focusing on immigration, it is still a relevant topic. Desperate people continue to seek better lives by escaping poverty, political and/or religious oppression by making perilous crossings of deserts or seas and we hear about it in the news. I wanted to depict a “coffin ship,” as it was called back in the day, crossing the Atlantic Ocean, where folks were crammed in and disease was rampant. There was a large Irish contingent in Augusta that worked in the textile mills. Child labor was also an issue. I did research on that subject at the Enterprise Mill, which has an interactive museum. It is located on the Augusta Canal, which is also featured in my book.
On page 150, there is a discussion between John and Doctor Dugas, and the senior physician makes a remark about not encouraging the mill worker too much to go to medical school. Later in the chapter, Aunt Erin makes a remark about “Maybe that’s it. We need to settle for better and not hold out for best.”
One of the great opportunities of a writer is being able to inject a bit of your own philosophy into subject matter. I wanted to give Tommy hope after his accident. (And perhaps set the stage for a sequel?) I gave Erin’s character a sense of gratitude for what she had accomplished, and the thought that perhaps she should accept rather than seek perfection. She had endured a great deal, emigrating from Ireland, losing her sister and being in charge of raising her sister’s children in the new country. My mother and her parents emigrated from Scotland in the 1930’s, so some of that research had a bit of a personal connection.
I have to ask you about a passage on page 178. There is a great passage about how nurses should be. Namely, that dumb nurses are ideal in critical cases, because a smart nurse will only question the doctor’s judgment. “As long as a nurse is obedient, the more ignorant she is, the better.” You have to elaborate on this theme for us, because I am sure that this is still a dynamic that goes on between nurses and doctors in the present day!
Good pick-up. That was a bit of my own nurse cynicism. I was trained in the belief that the smartest of us rose to the ranks of ICU nurse, stethoscope around neck and head held somewhat higher than others. And we did sometimes have issues with some (not all) doctors, feeling taken for granted and disrespected. After working in that environment for several years, it became apparent that being smart wasn’t the issue or the answer. It’s an extremely stressful (adrenalin pumping) kind of situation. I spent another ten years of my nursing career working in drug and alcohol rehabilitation, where adrenalin addiction was also treated as a problem. But, I wanted to depict a contrast with the above quote by showing the dynamic of mutual respect between the midwife and Dr. Eve in the Monsters chapter.
What were your biggest challenges in writing this book? Looking back, how was your experience with the publishing process, and what have you learned over the years about publishing and marketing?
Gravely Mistaken actually started out as a short story. I approached a local publisher who is no longer in business, but he suggested that I expand it. That’s when I got the idea to add medical vignettes about diseases, conditions and the practice of medicine at the time. I focused on Augusta and its local history, too, and dedicated the book to the city, which has been my home for over thirty years. After I expanded it, (and it took about a year), I searched for a publisher. It was at a time when the whole publishing industry was undergoing extreme change. I got a lot of nice rejection letters. I had an agent located in California for six months, but she couldn’t land a publisher, either. So I put the manuscript on a shelf for several years. Then came a time when it was either do something with it or get rid of it, so I decided to take a chance on myself with CreateSpace. Back in 2010, it was a more novel (no pun intended) idea to go with a print on demand firm, but it also felt quite green, by printing only the number of books that are ordered and making it available on Amazon in both paperback and electronic formats. I had a friend help me convert my file to PDF. I hired photographers who went with me to Cedar Grove Cemetery where we took pictures of some gravestones and then they formatted the cover. Marketing is a whole other subject. These days, we writers need to be chief, cook and bottle washer.
Take us through your writing process for a non-fiction book. (Do you write by hand or always type? Do you keep a writing schedule? Do you have a certain number of drafts you complete before turning in final copy?)
I’d call myself a “binge writer” and I always type. My fingers can just about keep up with my mind, most of the time. I was doing all my research, taking notes on a laptop in the library, and then writing on computer in my home office. There was a time when I had things spread out all over the floor for several weeks. I was eating, drinking and sleeping the story. Afterward rehashing and making certain there are no loose ends is the most difficult part to me. There’s no certain number of drafts, because that number might be infinite. It seems as though there is always something that could be changed. But, there comes a time to put the words out into the world, let the universe have it and see what happens.
Tell us how to keep up with you and about your upcoming projects/happenings.
Gravely Mistaken is picking up local Augusta tourist momentum and I’m thrilled. It’s being promoted by the Augusta Ghost Trolley Tours (best of Augusta tourist attraction), run by Michael Wolff. The tours include a stop at the old Medical College and while there, focus is on the MCG history of Grandison Harris and his grave robbing. In the fall of the year, especially around Halloween, Mr. Wolff runs a special Gravely Mistaken tour which features after hours access to Cedar Grove Cemetery. The Book Tavern, our downtown independent book store, is owned by David Hutchinson and he has also been a big supporter and supplier of copies. It’s available at The Augusta Convention and Visitors Bureau, thanks to Toni Seals-Johnson. And there have even been occasional sightings of me in period costume around town. Read more about me (and see some photos) on my Amazon “More About the Author Page” and I also have a website: www.gravelymistaken.com