Wendy Trimboli and Alicia Zaloga’s The Resurrectionist of Caligo has such a killer premise—a Victorian-era grave robber who steals bodies for science winds up accused of the murder of one of the corpses he’s dug up—that we were sold on the book even before we heard about all the other cool stuff it packs in: a rebellious princess, blood magic, class struggles, court intrigue, a killer on the loose, and a splash of romance.
The book arrives next August from Angry Robot, and today, we’re pleased to share with you the official summary, as well as a little something on the history of those “Resurrectionists” we disparigingly call “body-snatchers,” courtesy of one of the co-authors, Wendy Trimboli. Find that essay below the blurb, and preorder the novel now.
With a murderer on the loose, it’s up to an enlightened bodysnatcher and a rebellious princess to save the city, in an wonderfully inventive Victorian-tinged fantasy noir.
“Man of Science” Roger Weathersby scrapes out a risky living digging up corpses for medical schools. When he’s framed for the murder of one of his cadavers, he’s forced to trust in the superstitions he’s always rejected: his former friend, princess Sibylla, offers to commute Roger’s execution in a blood magic ritual which will bind him to her forever. With little choice, he finds himself indentured to Sibylla and propelled into an investigation.
There’s a murderer loose in the city of Caligo, and the duo must navigate science and sorcery, palace intrigue and dank boneyards to catch the butcher before the killings tear their whole country apart.
A Brief History of Grave Robbing…for Science! by Wendy Trimboli
These monsters of mankind, who made the graves,
To the chirurgeons became hyred slaves;
They rais’d the dead again out of the dust,
And sold them, to satisfy their lust.
– excerpt from a broadsheet ballad sold in Edinburgh, 1711
Sometimes, the dead don’t stay buried. For centuries we have tried to prevent this. We’ve locked them in tombs and iron coffins, fortified graves with stone slabs and metal cages, assembled tripwires and spring guns, set out watchmen and dogs. Still they escape, rising from the freshly churned earth or vacating an open coffin at a wake, and assisted by that fascinating gothic monster: the resurrectionist.
Resurrectionists—also called body snatchers, ghouls, or sack-‘em-up gentlemen—were corpse smugglers who haunted graveyards in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In a symbiotic danse macabre with anatomists and surgeons, the resurrectionist waltzed reluctant stiffs away from pointless rot in the sepulcher toward a new eternity on the dissection table. Exploiting common superstitions, they operated in remote churchyards where average civilians wouldn’t venture after dark. The morbid activities of these clever, fearless, and resourceful entrepreneurs of the necropolis cemented them in the public imagination, though rarely as heroes. From Jerry Cruncher in Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities to Robert Louis Stevenson’s titular character in “The Body Snatcher,” literary resurrectionists are a rough-and-tumble crowd.
Gothic fiction helped establish the resurrectionist’s ghoulish reputation. In fact, the word “ghoul” entered the English vernacular in 1786 thanks to the classic gothic novel Vathek by William Beckford. He borrowed the Arabic term ghūl from middle eastern folklore (probably Arabian Nights), referring to an evil spirit that lived in cemeteries and ate the flesh of the dead. Soon resurrectionists, or anyone with “unhealthy” morbid fixations, had the label “ghoul” slapped on them. In 1818, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein illustrated the fraught moral knot of scientific advancement. Victor Frankenstein wears the hat of both resurrectionist and anatomist as he gathers body parts to bring his corpse-creation to life. His monster, created of hijacked corpses, ironically supplies its maker with many more. Victor’s fear and rejection of his monster reflects a cultural dread about “interfering” with the dead, the same attitudes that made resurrectionists (and the surgeons they supplied) into “ghouls” to begin with.
Facing a relentless smear campaign, medical professionals in the early nineteenth century tried to boost their soured public image while also distancing themselves from the lower class of resurrectionist suppliers, whom they needed more than ever. Some gave open-house anatomy lectures, hoping to kindle in the public an interest in medical science. Unfortunately, the average layperson of the time saw dissection as the stuff of nightmares, fit only as a punishment for heinous criminals.
An offended public still didn’t faze teaching-surgeons as much as a lack of fresh bodies. The only legal supply of cadavers came from the gallows. But where a single corpse had once been enough for an entire lecture hall of medical students, new teaching methods imported from Paris required a cadaver for every student. The roughly sixty executions in Great Britain per year were not nearly enough for the estimated five hundred cadavers used in medical schools by the 1820s. In Britain, resurrectionists supplemented this meager supply by exploiting a legal loophole. Officially, corpses belonged to no one. By tossing all clothing and effects back into the coffin, resurrectionists could expect a light misdemeanor charge—if they were arrested. But as demand for stiffs grew, so did preventative measures targeting the naughty local snatcher.
Fresh wealthy stiffs couldn’t take money to the afterlife, but they could afford eternal rest. The upper class protected its dead with ingenious methods: sealed iron coffins, spring guns, metal cage-like mortsafes, and watchmen. Resurrectionists meanwhile had to go farther afield to source bodies, with unfortunate implications for disenfranchised people. British resurrectionists made business trips to poorer churchyards in Ireland and shipped bodies back to Liverpool in barrels, while resurrectionists in the United States targeted slave cemeteries with little fear of retribution. But even these desperate measures couldn’t keep the body snatching economy in the green. As the ready supply of fresh corpses continued to decline in the 1820s, opportunists like the infamous duo Burke and Hare resorted to outright murder.
William Burke and William Hare were more ghoulish than the typical resurrectionist. Though they never robbed a grave to obtain a corpse, their murder spree heralded the end of the “resurrectionist times” in Britain. They famously suffocated at least sixteen victims in Edinburgh in 1828, preying on the weak, elderly, and those easily plied with alcohol. Dr Knox, the surgeon on the receiving end, was so impressed with the freshness of the corpses they supplied, he gave them regular bonuses. Perhaps realizing he might end up on an anatomist’s table himself, Hare turned evidence on his partner Burke before fleeing town. The latter was hanged and fittingly dissected in a lecture hall before a pitiless mob of medical students, who rioted when they couldn’t all fit in the door. In the eyes of the public, every (mostly) law-abiding resurrectionist became a murderer by association—a lasting link that ensured the resurrectionist’s enduring, if somewhat misleading, reputation.
The public anti-resurrectionist frenzy following Burke’s trial paved the way for the passing of the Anatomy Act of 1832, which provided new legal sources of cadavers to medical schools. Now hospitals and workhouses could donate their unclaimed dead to science, putting British resurrectionists out of work for good. The general public still feared dissection due to religious taboos. However, wealthy philanthropist Jeremy Bentham started a new trend when he left his body to science in 1832, and the cultural stigma of dissection has faded slowly ever since.
Like many monsters, the resurrectionist isn’t quite so terrifying when we hold a metaphorical lantern up to his (or, rarely, her) face and stare him down. What do we see? Probably a fit, lower class young man with an ill-paying day job just looking to line his pockets with extra coin. He’s skeptical enough to brave cemeteries after dark, but impressionable enough to drink a pint or three afterward, to forget the clammy flesh he’s touched and sold. Perhaps, like our protagonist in The Resurrectionist of Caligo, he even covets his humble, if necessary, role in the push for scientific progress. And maybe in facing his own mortality, instead of a deathbed religious epiphany, he’ll judge the value of his own corpse-flesh and wonder, if he can just make it to a teaching hospital on his own steam, whether the attending surgeon will pay an extra quid for freshness.
Alicia Zaloga grew up in Virginia Beach not liking the beach, and now moves every few years, sometimes to places near beaches. She has a writing degree from Columbia College Chicago, and when she’s not dealing with life’s chores, she collects hobbies: plucking the E string on the bass, producing an alarming number of artistic doodles, and French beading floral bouquets.
Wendy Tremboli grew up in England, Germany and the United States, and learned to speak two languages well enough that most people can understand her. Determined to ignore her preference for liberal arts, she attended the US Air Force Academy then worked as an intelligence officer, which was less exciting than it sounds. These days she has a creative writing MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts, and lives in Colorado with her family, border collie, and far too many books.