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History Buff is a site for history lovers everywhere. It is also a site very interested in women of the past. Although I (sadly) no longer have time to continue these interviews, here is an archive of Q&As about women's lives in history. And please feel free to stop by History Buff's sister site for archaeological discoveries making news today. Enjoy!

Michelle Moran
Historical fiction author

As an historical fiction writer I am fascinated by news stories featuring the past as it's unearthed and reimagined and brought to life. I spend a
large quantity of time searching for news in archaeology and history. Once in a great while a new archaeological discovery will act as an inspiration for what I'm currently writing. But most of the time the news stories I read are simply interesting tidbits of history. Unfortunately, I have disallowed comments because I travel so frequently that I can neither monitor nor respond to them. But I would still love to share the history that I find fascinating each day. So welcome! And feel free to visit my website at or contact me at authormichellemoran at hotmail dot com.

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Sunday, September 16, 2007

Q&A With Historical Thriller Author Tess Gerritsen

* Your thrillers have become NYT Bestsellers, but THE BONE GARDEN is your first historical thriller. The novel is set in both the present day and 19th century Boston where a seventeen year old seamstress named Rose Connolly must try and stop a killer. What was it about the 1800s that fascinated you?
It was medical history that first attracted me to this time period. I was fascinated by an illness called childbed fever, which was rampant in that era. Up to a quarter of women admitted to hospitals for childbirth died from the disease, and it was truly an excruciating death. Soon after giving birth, a woman would develop shaking chills, her abdomen would swell with bacterial gases, and pus would flow from her uterus. Often there’d be intractable vomiting, and the pain was described as so horrible that just to stroke the skin of the abdomen would cause the victim to shriek. Almost inevitably, she would die. And here’s the most horrifying detail: The illness was spread by doctors, who did not know enough to wash their hands. They would walk straight from the autopsy room to the lying-in wards, and with filthy hands would examine women in labor, spreading death straight down the rows of beds.

The first American doctor to realize that the contagion was being spread by physicians was Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, who in 1843 presented a scientific paper advising his colleagues to wash their hands. I wondered how he’d come to his conclusions. Was there a particular case or incident that opened his eyes to the doctors’ role in disease? I wanted to explore the circumstances of his revelation, and I wanted to see Holmes as a brilliant young man. In 1830 he was a medical student, and it was an era of real medical horrors, when doctors in training sometimes had to dig up cadavers for anatomical training. It was an era before anesthesia, before antibiotics, even before microbial theory. There was so much about medicine then that was truly grotesque, and I was fascinated by the challenges that doctors faced. It seemed like the perfect era in which to set a serial killer story.

* How much of THE BONE GARDEN is based on fact and how much is fiction?
I tried to stick to the facts when it came to details of Holmes’s life. His penchant for reciting poetry, for instance, and his longing to study medicine in Paris. I also tried to be as realistic as possible about 1830’s medicine and the gruesome realities faced by student doctors. I read 1830’s medical treatises and published speeches given by medical faculty. When I wrote the amputation scene in the story, I used instructions from an 1809 surgical textbook by Dr. Samuel Cooper (a textbook that was still in use during the Civil War.) I also used maps and newspapers of the time, and read both the works of Holmes and Nathaniel Hawthorne, to absorb as much of the rhythm and floweriness of the language.

* Tell us something surprising about women in 19th century America.
It was the era of the Transcendentalists in Boston, and I was surprised by how women were such a vibrant part of the intellectual scene at the time. I had assumed that their accomplishments were discounted and ignored, but in fact, there were a number of well-respected women contributing to the arts and to education. Already, there was pressure to admit women into the ranks of physicians, and that would soon follow with the establishment of a women’s medical college in Boston. Of course, things were different for the lower classes. Poor Irish girls (such as Rose Connolly, my heroine) were still invisible for the most part, except for their back-breaking contributions to the labor force.

* One of your characters, Norris Marshall, is a “resurrectionist.” Can you explain what a “resurrectionist” is to our readers, and why being one would have been profitable at that time?
Because of a shortage of anatomical specimens, medical schools of that era were forced to scrounge up cadavers from wherever they could find them. Executed criminals were automatically relegated to the anatomist’s knife, but there weren’t nearly enough of those to fulfill the needs of the schools. So a ghoulish trade sprang up involving body snatchers, otherwise known as “resurrectionists,” who’d sneak into cemeteries after dark and dig up newly interred bodies. The going rate for a body at the time was around $20 – a large enough sum to keep the trade thriving. Students themselves would often do the snatching themselves, and in fact it became something of a rite of passage for doctors-in-training, to sneak into cemeteries and dig up their prizes. So many medical schools were springing up in New York and Pennsylvania that the schools began to import bodies from the south, many of them no doubt deceased slaves. As the trade of snatching grew, naturally the parallel trade of grave protection also grew, paid for by families anxious to protect their deceased loved ones. Wealthy families could pay for armed guards and iron cages or locked tombs to protect the dead. It was the poor – isn’t it always the poor? – who suffered the worst indignities.

* Is THE BONE GARDEN the beginning of a series, and if not, what are you working on next?
No, it’s a stand-alone. My next book will be back to the Jane Rizzoli and Maura Isles crime series. But I’ll be bringing in a bit of history into the new story, in the form of archaeology!

Thank you Tess! And feel free to visit Tess Gerritsen online for more information about her novel The Bone Garden.