HistoryofScience.com Blog

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Publisher accused of 'grave robbing' for printing last two novels marred by Sir Walter Scott's ill-health

As a specialist in rare books in the history of science and medicine for more than 40 years, I have handled numerous rare items concerning the history of resurrection men, also called resurrectionists, or body-snatchers. These pamphlets, broadsides, and books usually concern the business of illegally supplying corpses to anatomy schools in England and the United States during the early nineteenth century when criminals sentenced to be hanged and anatomized were the only legal supply of corpses, and this supply was insufficient to support the demand from private anatomy schools. The most notorious of all resurrectionists were Burke and Hare, who were able to supply fresh, undeteriorated corpses to the anatomist Robert Knox by smothering their victims. A hero of my youth, the poet Dylan Thomas, wrote a screenplay on this topic entitled The Doctor and the Devils, which was published in 1953. It was significantly re-written and produced as a film with the same title in 1985, starring Timothy Dalton, Jonathan Pryce, and of all actresses--Twiggy. In my opinion, this film is one of the most entertaining and authentic dramatizations relating to medical history. It is available on DVD.

While I have had a lot of business experience with rare material concerning resurrection men, I never imagined that a publisher could be accused of resurrecting a manuscript that rightly should have been left undisturbed in its archival grave. However, that is exactly what happened recently, according to a review published in Scotland on Sunday of Sir Walter Scott's posthumous The Siege of Malta and Bizarro. These unfinished novels were written by Scott in 1831 and 1832 after he had suffered a series of strokes which affected his writing abilities. Because of their obvious major flaws neither Scott nor his descendants believed that they should ever be published. "The late John Buchan read both works while researching a biography of Scott in 1932 and remarked: 'It may be hoped that no literary resurrectionist will ever be guilty of the crime of giving them to the world.' " For decades the manuscripts, with all their limitations, were preserved in the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library.

However history judges these literary "resurrectionists," and I suspect that it will be with tolerance--it should be pointed out that no professional body-snatcher ever wanted to be accused of actual "grave-robbing." That is because punishment for stealing a dead body was a misdemeanor, punishable with a fine or imprisonment, while actually stealing property from a corpse, such as jewelry that might have been buried with a body, was a felony, potentially punishable by "transportation" or even execution.

In keeping with our enlightened, tolerant view of this questionable publishing project, and not wanting the publisher to suffer more than appropriate critical ridicule, would we want to remove the words "grave-robbing" from the headline and revise it as follows: "Publisher Accused of Literary Body-Snatching for Printing Last Two Novels Marred by Sir Walter Scott's Ill-Health?"

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