November 17, 2013

Book Review: The Resurrectionist
A Novel and Art Book by E.B. Hudspeth

Ad: I use Grammarly for online proofreading because dangling participles make me blush.

"Philadelphia, the late 1870s. A city of gas lamps, cobblestone streets, and horse-drawn carriages—and home to the controversial surgeon Dr. Spencer Black. The son of a grave robber, young Dr. Black studies at Philadelphia’s esteemed Academy of Medicine, where he develops an unconventional hypothesis: What if the world’s most celebrated mythological beasts—mermaids, minotaurs, and satyrs—were in fact the evolutionary ancestors of humankind?"

So begins this extraordinary book -- part  fictional biography, part illustrated scientific notebook.  E.B. Hudspeth's The Resurrectionist (Quirk Books, 2013) tells the story of Dr. Spencer Black, a genius and a madman, a scientist and a showman -- P.T. Barnum meets Dr. Moreau.  It's a beautiful, macabre, and haunting book set in a time when the public fascination with medical curiosities was at a fever pitch, and legitimate medical science was still in the cradle of infancy.

Black's biography is the result of extensive "research" that was collected over the course of fifteen years by the curators of the Philadelphia Museum of Medical Antiquities.  The lost journals, letters, and drawings are artfully woven together to give readers an intimate view into the life of the "Western world's most controversial surgeon".  

The son of a prominent Massachusetts surgeon, Spencer Black became a resurrectionist (a period term for a grave robber) when he was a mere eleven years of age, when he began helping his father unearth the freshly buried dead to advance his medical research.  As a young doctor, he developed an interest in physiological abnormalities and began to dedicate his studies to researching the cause and treatment of birth defects.  In the course of his studies, Black developed a theory that such abnormalities were in fact the manifestation of latent genetic memories awakened from the time when more fantastical creatures roamed the earth.  He asserted that rather than being mistakes, these so-called defects were the body's way of attempting to grow what it once had thousands of years ago.

As years pass, Black's convictions grew stronger, his tale stranger, and his designs darker.  The madness and magnificence of Black's mind come alive in the second half of the book in Black's magnum opus, The Codex Extinct Animalia -- a Grey's Anatomy of mythological beasts, rendered in exquisite anatomical detail.  

I've been intrigued by this book since first I laid eyes on the cover -- a sneak peek on the Quirk Books website -- nearly a year before its spring 2013 release. This modern-day sideshow barker lured me into the tent, past the silken cover and into a page-turning cabinet of curiosities.  I was transported back in time, and as I read was reminded of other dark and delightful literary classics:  Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Christine Sparks' The Elephant Man, and Poe's The Murders in the Rue Morgue.  I marveled at the breathtakingly detailed anatomical illustrations, left in the end with the only regret that I devoured the book too quickly. 

Uniquely beautiful, and hauntingly real, E.B. Hudspeth's The Resurrectionist is a personal library must-have for anyone with a passion for natural history, historical fiction, and for tragic tales of scientific genius gone awry.  


  1. I love historical fiction... and I used to live in Philly. This sounds like a win-win book for me! Thanks for the awesome recommendation, Jenn!

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