Speakers of the Dead: A Walt Whitman Mystery

Speakers of the Dead: A Walt Whitman Mystery

by J. Aaron Sanders

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Overview

Lambda Award Winner 

Speakers of the Dead
is a mystery novel centering around the investigative exploits of a young Walt Whitman, in which the reporter-cum-poet navigates the seedy underbelly of New York City's body-snatching industry in an attempt to exonerate his friend of a wrongful murder charge.

The year is 1843; the place: New York City. Aurora reporter Walt Whitman arrives at the Tombs prison yard where his friend Lena Stowe is scheduled to hang for the murder of her husband, Abraham. Walt intends to present evidence on Lena's behalf, but Sheriff Harris turns him away. Lena drops to her death, and Walt vows to posthumously exonerate her.

Walt's estranged boyfriend, Henry Saunders, returns to New York, and the two men uncover a link between body-snatching and Abraham's murder: a man named Samuel Clement. To get to Clement, Walt and Henry descend into a dangerous underworld where resurrection men steal the bodies of the recently deceased and sell them to medical colleges. With no legal means to acquire cadavers, medical students rely on these criminals, and Abraham's involvement with the Bone Bill—legislation that would put the resurrection men out of business—seems to have led to his and Lena's deaths.

Fast-paced and gripping, Speakers of the Dead is a vibrant reimagining of one of America's most beloved literary figures.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780143128717
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/01/2016
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 1,172,788
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

J. Aaron Sanders is Associate Professor of English at Columbus State University where he teaches literature and creative writing. He holds a PhD in American Literature from The University of Connecticut and an MFA in Fiction from The University of Utah. His stories have appeared in Carolina QuarterlyGulf CoastQuarterly West, andBeloit Fiction Journal, among others. This is his first novel.

Read an Excerpt

***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***

Copyright ©2016 J. Aaron Sanders

In the dream, Elizabeth Blackwell sits opposite Jane Avery’s deathbed. She dabs Jane’s furrowed forehead with a wet cloth and whispers that all will be well. Jane tilts her head toward Elizabeth and tries to speak through her cracked lips caked in muck. Then Jane slips into an irreversible coughing fit—

And that’s when a noise wakes Elizabeth.

She opens her eyes, relieved. She hates that recurring dream, the helpless feeling of watching her friend die. It’s been six years since Jane Avery’s death, and not a day goes by that Elizabeth doesn’t believe she might have saved her had she been properly trained as a physician.

The noise sounds again.

Around her, in the dormitory of the Women’s Medical College of Manhattan, the other four students do not stir. Perhaps it was nothing.

She closes her eyes and summons the image of Jane in her prime,
her long, elegant frame and creamy skin. After Latin class at the Cincinnati English and French Academy for Young Ladies, Jane is cleaning the blackboard. She erases the word mulier. She senses Elizabeth watching, turns and smiles—

There it is again. A metallic banging this time.
Elizabeth reaches for her robe and slippers. She lights a candle, waking Miss Zacky in the bed next to hers.

“Lizzy.” Miss Zacky checks her pocket watch. “It’s three in the morning, and Abraham’s trial begins at nine.”

Abraham Stowe, cofounder of the women’s college and a married man, has been accused of manslaughter, the result of a botched abortion performed on Mary Rogers, with whom he admitted having a love affair. In his defense, and for the sake of Abraham’s wife and college cofounder, Lena, the students stayed up late preparing anatomical diagrams outlining the effects of abortion on a woman’s body. The diagrams would be compared with the Mary Rogers autopsy report, which Lena and Elizabeth believed had been altered to implicate Abraham.

“Be that as it may, I heard a noise downstairs. I should have a look.”

Miss Zacky groans. “You know that means I have to accompany you.”

“I also know that you are capable of making your own decisions.”

The two women skulk across the room into the stairwell, closing the dormitory door behind them. They make their way down the stairs past the third-floor maternity ward, all silent, then to the second-floor infirmary.

Inside, the patient nearest the door, Mrs. Cook, sleeps soundly. Mrs. Stephens, a few beds over, also lies still. Mrs. Dowd, in the bed next to the window, shifts at the sound of their entrance. She sits up straight, struggles to breathe through the dehydration associated with the cholera-like symptoms that landed her in the sick- room the day before.

Elizabeth props Mrs. Dowd with a pillow while Miss Zacky goes for laudanum.

“There, there, Mrs. Dowd,” Elizabeth says. “Take your time.” But Mrs. Dowd’s deep, panicked breath can’t catch up to itself, and suffocation is closing in. Elizabeth keeps talking, rubbing her back. “You can do it,” she says.
Mrs. Dowd’s eyes roll back, and she heaves.

Elizabeth doesn’t hesitate. She slides onto the bed and wraps her arms around her patient. She finds the sternum and pushes hard. Nothing happens, and so she repeats the move. This time, Mrs. Dowd coughs up a bite of meat, which lands on the white sheet at the end of the bed. Elizabeth holds the woman until she catches her breath. “Didn’t quite finish our supper, did we?”

While Elizabeth holds her upright, Miss Zacky raises the glass to Mrs. Dowd’s mouth. She struggles to swallow at first, but then works it down.

When the laudanum takes effect, the results are swift. Mrs. Dowd’s body weight collapses into Elizabeth’s lap. She looks at Miss Zacky, who mouths the words Her eyes have closed.

Relief washes over Elizabeth. She has the fleeting thought that healing is what God put her on earth to do. She eases out from behind her patient, tucking the blanket under the sleeping woman’s chin.

Back in the stairwell, Miss Zacky whispers, “You’re going to be an excellent doctor, Lizzy.” Elizabeth smiles in response.

Back in her dormitory, Elizabeth observes the rise and fall of the sleeping bodies and contemplates the miracle that is a medical college for women. And it’s all thanks to Abraham and Lena Stowe. Later this morning, they’ll begin the work of proving Abraham’s innocence, and the college can return to its primary mission: to advance the welfare of women through medicine and education. Slipping beneath the covers, she lays her head on the straw pillow, and closes her eyes to dream of Jane once again.

Suddenly, loud and chaotic noises, a string of grunts and screams, ascend from the first floor.

She glances at Miss Zacky, eyes wide. The other students pop up, one after another: Karina Emsbury, Olive Perschon, Patricia Onderdonk. What is it? they want to know, and Elizabeth bids them

Wait here.
She and Miss Zacky hurry down the stairs to the dissection room on the first floor. Elizabeth puts her ear to the door. Nothing.
From behind her, Miss Zacky whispers, “The body snatchers . . . ?”

A scream sounds.

Elizabeth throws open the door, searching for signs of the fear- some resurrection men who dig up fresh graves and sell the corpses to medical colleges like this one. A single candle on the back wall illuminates the familiar sight of a large central table ringed by shelves and counters. A lone figure hunches over a body, laid out as if for dissection.

It’s Lena Stowe, gazing down at her dead husband. His eyes and mouth are open, and his chest has been split apart, his rib cage sawed in two. Blood is everywhere. On Abraham. On Lena. On the table and floor.

Elizabeth wraps her arms around a sobbing Lena, and while they cry together, she can’t help but stare at the monstrous carnage.

It’s not yet morning on February 12, 1843.





TWO WEEKS LATER

Chapter 1




They are going to kill her.

Walt Whitman, reporter for the New York Aurora, is standing in the courtyard of the Tombs, with several hundred New Yorkers who have crushed past his cold, aching body for a glimpse of the execution.

The sun is at the halfway point on its short cycle through the winter sky, and its low angle casts long shadows from west to east, shadows that cover all but the east wall of the prison. It is on this wall that Lena’s large and lonely shadow is cast as if by stage light.

The noose dances in the harsh winter wind, and below the gallows, a layer of frost blankets the dirt. Walt pushes his way to the front of the crowd, the ice crystals crunching beneath his boots. They are all waiting for Sheriff Jack Harris to return from his meeting with Mayor Morris about whether or not to grant Mrs. Stowe a stay on her execution because of her pregnancy. Walt worries that the decision to deny the stay is a fait accompli, which is why he brought with him a sheaf of testimonials from Lena’s medical students in which they argue that the fetus has quickened, a legal problem for the city, because if the fetus has begun to move, New York would be executing two of its citizens instead of one.

The sheriff’s coach, a new yellow phaeton, rumbles through the prison gates, around the crowd, and skids to a stop. Jack Harris’s silver hair is stuffed under a top hat, his bearded face deceptively slight compared to his stout body. By reputation, he is a man who sometimes puts instinct before protocol.

Whitman calls out to the sheriff, and when he tries to follow the lawman, two guards block his way. He scurries back around to the front of the gallows for a better view. The arrest and trial were rushed affairs, rigged against her from the beginning, it seemed, and her defense never gained real traction with anyone but those closest to her. The students know Lena and Abraham. They spent time with them every day for months, and they saw what Walt saw: a couple who despite their problems had become closer. None of them even considered Lena as a suspect until Sheriff Harris arrested her.

At the sheriff ’s appearance atop the gallows, the crowd quiets.

The silence presses down on Walt, and he fights back feelings of despair. The woman who treated him like a son is beautiful and haggard, still wearing the medical school–issued black dress and white apron stained with her husband’s blood, having refused to change since her arrest. Her long black hair ribbons stream in the wind, and her dark eyes are red and swollen. His heart aches to see her suffer like this.

The sheriff approaches the condemned woman, her body quivering, and he whispers in her ear.

There is a moment of nothingness—
—and then she reels backward, emitting a preternatural scream that convulses Walt’s soul.

Lena flails until the wiry priest powerfully grips her shoulder. “And God hath both raised up the Lord,” he calls out in his baritone voice, “and will also raise you up by his own power.”

“But the baby!”

Whitman rushes the stairway but is again blocked by the two guards. He shuffles backward, stands on his tiptoes. Behind him, the bloodthirsty crowd stirs.
Harris pauses for a moment, then nods to the jailer, Little Joe, who holds Lena fast while the sheriff ties her hands behind her back.

Walt’s heart races.

This time Whitman charges, using his large frame to knock one guard to the side, the other to the ground, before ascending the staircase, two steps at a time.
On the hanging platform, half a dozen coppers line the back end. There’s the priest, wide-eyed and hunched over. There’s Little Joe, twice as big as any other man in the city, and there’s Sheriff Harris. Walt holds up the leather-bound sheaf. “These medical testimonies demonstrate that Mrs. Stowe is quick with child.”

The sheriff shakes his head. “Mr. Whitman, our medical expert reached a different conclusion.”

A few feet away, Lena’s sobs are muted by the wind.

Walt takes a step toward the sheriff, and two policemen meet him. “Mrs. Stowe’s colleagues disagree.”

“Those women are not doctors.”

The sheriff turns away, but Whitman catches him on this shoulder. “You’re a good man. I saw how you restored order after the cigar girl was murdered.”

“The law is the law.”

Whitman pushes a little harder. “This city does not need another controversy.”

At the delay the crowd jitters, the kind of tottering that precedes a mob action.

The sheriff briefly looks Walt in the eye, then gestures to two of his men, and they promptly take Walt into custody.

“Her death will be on your watch,” Whitman shouts.

Knowing that Walt has failed, Lena resumes her struggle to get free. She rolls toward the edge of the platform and nearly goes over—

But Little Joe grabs her from behind and lifts her to her feet.

During the commotion, Walt wrestles away, but a third man kicks him in the stomach, and the other two retake him. The pain is searing. He rolls to the side. The watchmen have the platform covered, and there are more of them on the ground for crowd control and even more at the gate. He is surrounded.

The sheriff slips the black hood over Lena’s head and reaches for the noose, and that’s when the men holding Whitman loosen their grip just enough—

He wiggles free, dodges Harris, and scoops up Lena, black hood and all. She is heavy in his arms, but the adrenaline drives him to brave the blockade of six men, their Colt pistols drawn, their faces blank. He charges through them, and miraculously sees daylight between him and the stairway. If he can only make it down—

—and then the space closes, and the men are upon him. Walt clings to Lena with all his might until she whispers, her voice strong and deliberate from beneath the hood, “It’s over, Walt. You did your best.”

He holds back his tears. “But you’re innocent.”

“Keep the college going so our deaths are not in vain.”

He holds her tighter.

It takes four men to hold Whitman, and two more to pry Lena away from him. The men push him to the ground and cuff him, the metal cutting into his wrists. Walt screams, curses, thrashes about, mad with rage over what is about to happen.

He watches as the sheriff slips the noose over Lena’s head, positions her over the trapdoor, and addresses those who condemned her to this fate: “For the murder of Abraham Stowe,” he bellows, “you have been sentenced to death by hanging, after which your body will be dissected at the Women’s Medical College of Manhattan.”

The crowd roars.

Walt breathes in.

The sheriff claps three times, the lever is pulled, and the floor falls away—

Lena’s body drops.

—her neck breaks.

—and Walt Whitman collapses on the platform, sobbing now, and waits for his friend and her unborn child to die.

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