I spent my morning in the tiny reading room of the History of Medicine division of the Edward G. Miner Library at the University of Rochester, reading through several editions of an apparently very popular work of popular medicine called The People’s Medical Lighthouse. My interest in the Lighthouse is somewhat tangential: in fall of 1855, Josephine McCarty, an abandoned wife and bereft mother recovering from personal tragedy and about to enroll in medical school as a preface to a long career as an abortionist, made some cash selling copies of Dr. Harmon K. Root’s “Series of Popular and Scientific Essays” on a wide (and I do mean wide) variety of medical topics.
A few weeks ago, I drove through Albany on my way back from a visit to my fiancée’s cozy fifth-floor apartment in New York City. It was fall break, a welcome breather in my first semester teaching, ever; a chance to lie on the couch and read comics instead of trying to look and sound professional in front of a room of twenty people barely four years younger than myself. It was also, as luck would have it, a day of unpredictable New York weather: an clear, unimpeachable autumn morning as I crossed the Hudson and rounded the long curves of Palisades Parkway heading north, but by the time I rolled into Albany at noon the clouds were beginning to threaten with that weird electric energy that comes before a hard rain.
I was in Albany with a mission, and at the same time with no idea of what I was doing. I had a notebook and two addresses, one for a house I wasn’t sure existed and one for a 400-acre graveyard that almost certainly didn’t hold the name I was looking for. I had the bare outlines of a story, the full details of approximately half a murder trial, painstakingly copied from old newspaper scans, a car full of luggage and old wrappers, and not a lot else.