A Market for Flesh

Scottish author Nicola Morgan’s love of history and research produced Fleshmarket, a disturbingly vivid piece of historical fiction highlighting the early 19th century medical trade in Edinburgh. Pioneering surgeons often used hangman’s corpses to practice their anatomy skills, and to teach their students. Many doctors found that their one-corpse-a-year allotment was not nearly enough, so they employed “Resurrection Men” who robbed fresh graves and brought back their decaying inhabitants to be used for teaching cadavers. Grave-robbing was a serious offense, and the public looked askance at doctors and medical things in general.

The Age of Enlightenment was upon the larger world, but it moved slowly among certain members of the medical community. Many believed that God brought pain to mankind to test them, and they treated the people with callous disregard as they practiced — and the word “practice” meant that most doctors were still trying to perfect their work while charging their patients to act as guinea pigs. 19th century surgery was a rough science at best, and an inhumane butchery at worse, and at times it was difficult to separate the surgery from the butchery.

Young Robbie hears his mother’s screams as her breast tumor is removed, but she stands and curtseys her thanks when the surgery is over, and dies five days later. Robbie’s confusion, bitterness and grief only deepen through the years, as next fire destroys his father’s business, forcing them into poverty. The father turns to alcohol and basically disappears from the plot, while Robbie plots to kill the surgeon who started the chain of bad luck, one Dr. Robert Knox.

Saddled with caring for his younger sister Essie, despondent over his father’s absence and his mother’s death, Robbie take stupid risks and makes worse choices in order to keep them housed and fed. The stench of the tenements, the watery broth upon which they subsist, the poxy faces and the corrupt and grasping hands of the poor are horrible and memorable. Morgan interweaves factual characters and incidences to create a believably dark tale reminiscent of Dickens, lacking only his satisfying conclusions and unconventional plot twists that make a good tale great. Until its tepid conclusion, this is an excellent snapshot of the unsteady beginnings of medical science as we know it today.

About the author

tanita s. davis is a writer and avid reader who prefers books to most things in the world, including people. That's ...pretty much it, she's very boring and she can't even tell jokes. She is, however, the author of eight books, including Serena Says, Partly Cloudy, and the Coretta Scott King honored Mare's War. Look for the new MG, Go Figure, Henri Weldon in 9/2022 from Katherine Tegen Books.

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