A young Walt Whitman battles conspiracy, corruption, and wrongful execution.
Scandal roils New York City in 1843 when Abraham Stowe, co-founder of the Women’s Medical College of Manhattan and cousin by marriage to Harriet Beecher Stowe, dies of poisoning. His wife, Lena, stands trial for murdering him, supposedly in a jealous rage over his infidelities; Stowe himself had been accused of killing a young mistress in a botched abortion. An idealistic 23-year-old reporter for the New York Aurora, one Walt Whitman, doesn’t believe either of the Stowes capable of those crimes. As their lodger and friend, he feels closer to them than to his parents. Despite all his efforts, however, Lena is convicted and hanged. With the help of his boss, Henry Saunders, who is also his tentative lover, Whitman dedicates himself to clearing her and her husband’s names. The Stowes had their enemies: anti-dissection protesters who try to destroy the college and opponents of Stowe’s latest draft of the Bone Bill, legislation that would have provided legal means for medical students to get cadavers for their research. Without that bill, body snatching remains a thriving industry in New York, and Walt suspects that one of the so-called resurrectionists could have killed Abraham. Henry helps Walt set a trap that leads to a powerfully connected body snatcher, Samuel Clements, and another murder that Walt witnesses. He escapes from Clements, but only just. As he digs more deeply into the past and present murders, wallows through the boss-run politics of New York City, and tries desperately to exonerate the Stowes, he realizes how dangerous an enemy he’s made.
Squeamish readers will probably want to skip first-timer Sanders’ many loving descriptions of dissection. Further attention to detail and setting, the historical characters, and the hero’s string of perils unfortunately don’t quite add up to a compelling narrative.