Articulated. That’s what Dr. White called the brand new skeleton that moved joint by joint and was now hanging prominently in his private office. Henry Webster’s eyes were wide as he took in the skeleton, reaching out to stroke the ulna, to flex the phalanges. Most doctors didn’t have a skeleton, but then most doctors didn’t have their own apothecary shop or office. Dr. White wasn’t most doctors, and that’s why Henry liked him so.
Originally hanging in the front window, Dr. White moved the skeleton to his examination room under intense community pressure. The good people of Gilmanton, New Hampshire, were fervent in their belief that the dead should be buried as soon as possible and most certainly not desecrated, and that this monstrosity was simply not for the eyes of God-fearing people. Interested less in educating the masses and more in maximizing his profits with best-sellers like “Dr. White’s Soothing Syrup for Babies and Toddlers, pat. pend. 1873,” the doctor acquiesced to his paying public.
When Henry had tired of hearing his mother prattle endlessly about yet another ailment he stared politely past the brass mortar and pestle, past the small brass pill maker, and at Doc White until he received a knowing nod. Then, through the open door across from the apothecary’s cabinet, Henry wandered toward the skeleton’s new place of residence. He let his fingers trace the length of the examination table on his way to the adjacent private office. It was here that Henry did what he normally did under these circumstances: looked in on the perfectly preserved specimens floating in liquid. There was an eyeball, a heart, a lower jaw, a malformed foot, and, Henry’s personal favorite, an infant who died at birth—and its parasitic twin—on full display.
Henry could hear his mother asking for more laudanum. She was going on and on, questioning how people could have a funeral when they hadn’t even found the body to know he’s dead.
He’s dead, mother. He’s been missing for three weeks.
“I just don’t understand, Doctor. How can they do that? How can they give up hope?” Mrs. Webster’s voice rose hysterically.
Because they know he’s too stupid to last this long on his own. Henry snorted, then felt a twinge of guilt. It’s true. The guilt disappeared.
“I’m just not sure how I’ll get through Olin’s funeral without more laudanum, Doctor. It sounds devilish of me, but I’m thankful it’s my nephew and not one of my children. But these children–first Austin Bunker, then little Georgie Foss, then my dear niece Mary, and now–” She sobbed.
Henry closed his eyes tightly and allowed his thoughts to drown out his mother’s voice. It didn’t take long, for Dr. White’s office was a place of respite for him. He enjoyed making himself at home while he perused the specimens. Dr. White had given him free reign of the office long ago after learning of the boy’s interests. When Henry’s nosy sister Ellen discovered he was dissecting animals and told their parents, they promptly consulted Dr. White. The doctor dismissed their concerns about his mental well-being. In fact, he told them to encourage Henry’s curiosity. He even suggested they allow the boy to come round so that the doctor could teach him all he knew. Henry’s first lesson was how to make the mercury and alcohol concoction used in the preservation of specimens.
“You have a brain built for the scientific method, Henry,” the doctor told him one warm afternoon. “You aren’t bothered by the sight of the unusual, nor do you let our religious underpinnings trap you into thinking this is wrong. Your mind is open enough to see that our old ideas about the body being made of humors is incongruous with what we know–and can see.”
Soon thereafter, Dr. White presented him with a book by Andreas Vesalius called De humani corporis fabrica: On the Fabric of the Human Body. Henry was just ten but was fascinated with Vesalius’ depictions of the dissected human body. Bones, cartilage, ligaments, muscles–it was all there, and it enthralled Henry. He knew with this knowledge, things would never be the same.
Henry gingerly touched the bones one by one, flexing the joints to make each dance its individual dance. He thought back to the time when he feared the doctor’s office, before he’d found the human body fascinating, before Dr. White became his friend. Only three years ago, it now seemed to Henry like a dream.
A group of his classmates had walked home from school just behind Henry. As the group dwindled down to three of his cousins–Olin Mudgett, Samuel Whitehouse, and Josiah Webster–their abuse of Henry began. At 9, Henry was in the same grade as Olin, though Olin was 12. The boys usually picked on Henry about his intelligence, but anything was fair game to them, from Henry’s appearance to his sister taking a job cleaning for Dr. White.
“Henry, are you ever going to grow, or will you always be scrawny and skinny?” Olin started. Olin always started. He was pulling a small strip of leather through his fingers absentmindedly, like a mother would stroke her daughter’s hair.
“He’ll always be scrawny and skinny. He doesn’t even look like a Mudgett,” Samuel said.
“He doesn’t look like a Webster either,” Josiah added. “Maybe someone left him on Uncle Levi’s doorstep and Aunt Theodora felt sorry for him.”
Olin snorted. “Aunt Theodora wouldn’t remember if she gave birth or not, what with all the laudanum she takes.”
Henry kept his head down and continued walking. He didn’t stop even when he felt the crack of the leather sting his neck.
“You know your father really made mine mad, Henry,” Olin said, slowly drawing the leather through his fingers. It was attached to a stick, making the ‘whip’ part of a whip-and-top toy. He’d stopped playing with the top long ago and instead used the whip to torment weaker living beings. “He made it sound like our family’s not as good as yours, but father reminded him that we’re the same family.”
Henry rolled his eyes. He felt the leather take another bite of his neck. He kept going.
“I told my father our family is better than yours.” Olin jumped in front of Henry, forcing him to stop. They were next to Dr. White’s. “I think you’re a chicken, just like your father.”
Henry glared at him.
“Want to prove you’re not?”
“Too bad.” He flicked the whip at Henry’s face, but Henry jumped out of the way just in time.
Josiah added, “I heard he’s afraid of Doc White.”
“I am not,” Henry said, glancing sideways at the doctor’s office. The boys were right. He was afraid. His mother came home from there once and didn’t know who Henry was. And whenever she took spoonfuls of Dr. White’s syrupy liquid in the brown bottle, she often fell asleep so hard Henry couldn’t wake her up.
“You’re afraid of what goes on in there.” Olin pushed his finger into Henry’s chest. “So I think you should go in.”
“No.” In spite of his best attempt to slow it, Henry’s heart was racing.
“If you don’t go in, I’ll make you go in.”
“I heard Miss Oberhund after school saying that Doc White got called to Old Man Wissen’s farm to help deliver a calf. So guess who isn’t here?” Samuel taunted.
Henry grimaced, but his patience was extraordinary. The boys hadn’t laid hands on him up to this point, and he was used to their verbal abuse. He could wait anything out, just like his father’s punishments in the attic.
Suddenly, Henry felt several hands on him, pushing and pulling and forcing him to the door of the doctor’s office. The small leather whip bit into his face and neck. He saw the solid wood counter go by. The glass in the apothecary cabinet glinted in the sun. Before he knew it, the boys shoved him into the doctor’s private office and pulled the door shut. Henry’s eyes roved all over the room, looking for an exit, but something on a shelf arrested his eyes. He blinked and cocked his head. He gingerly took a few steps forward, shortening the distance between him and the oddity floating in liquid in a huge glass jar. He let out a gasp. He clenched his eyes shut, but they flew open in seconds.
Is that the devil? he thought. It looked like a baby, but it had part of another tinier baby growing out of it. Only part–two legs, an arm, and part of a head. Atop the head was a small tuft of hair and a single tooth. That’s not the devil, he told himself. It’s just not normal, that’s all.
It grew dark, but Henry didn’t notice, for all he could see were the parts and pieces of humans in the other jars, labeled and lined up beautifully.
“What are you doing in here, young man?”
The voice startled Henry back to reality. His stomach rumbled. What time is it? He turned to see Dr. White.
“I say, what are you doing in here?”
“I’m sorry, Doctor White. My cousins, they–” Henry hesitated. He didn’t want any more tricks from the boys if he told.
“Three of ‘em?” Doc White asked, his voice turning friendly. “Another Mudgett boy, a Webster, and a Whitehouse?”
“What’d they do, son?”
“They shoved me in here and shut the door on me.”
Dr. White nodded. “Ruffians. I know they’re your cousins, but they’re ruffians.” He walked over to the specimen jars. “Henry, isn’t it?”
“Do you find these interesting, Henry?” The doctor put his large paw-like hand on Henry’s shoulder.
“You don’t find them scary?”
“No, sir. Why should they be scary? They’re just, well, they’re–” His nine year old brain couldn’t find the right word. “Like me. Like my brain. Different.”
“Anomalies, Henry. Anomalies. Not usual, different. And you’re right. They should not be scary, yet many people find them so. There are worse monstrosities walking this earth than that poor baby there.”
From that point on, Henry respected Dr. White more than anyone else, and not solely because he understood Henry’s preoccupation with the human body or because he assured his family that boys dissecting animals was a sign of robustness. Medicine was on the cusp of changing. Phrenology was on its way out, and real medicine was on its way in. In England, Dr. Lister championed for cleanliness in surgery. Many doctors thought him a quack until post-surgery mortality decreased.
The feeling was mutual. Doc White looked at Henry as his potential protégé, a boy beyond his years in intelligence and maturity, a boy who was not surprised by medical findings, a boy who was not deterred by what others found gross or against God. Henry thrived under Dr. White’s tutelage.
“Henry,” Dr. White called, breaking the boy from his reminiscence. “Are you–there you are, son.” He smiled at the boy. “I think your mother is ready now.” Henry winced at the reminder.
“Did you give her more laudanum?” Henry asked. He’d told Dr. White about his mother’s attentiveness to the little brown bottle.
The doctor nodded. “But–” He put one finger to his lips. “It’s diluted.” He winked. Henry winked back. “Remember, Henry, your mother has many difficulties in her life. Few people are as rational as you. And now, with your cousin, Olin…”
“I understand, sir,” he said. “I’m an anomaly.”
Doc White patted him on the shoulder. “It’s not a bad thing, Henry. Say, Mrs. Oglesby’s sow should be giving birth in the next couple of days. Want to help?”
Henry’s eyes widened. “Really? I can?”
“I think you’re ready. Have you been studying up on Vesalius’ book?”
“Every day, sir. Every day.”
“I’ll send for you when I get the news.”
“Oh, thank you, Dr. White. Thank you.” Henry was beaming. He was on his way to becoming a doctor.
“Off you go, son.”
Henry had skipped all the way home, circling back when he strayed too far from his mother. He didn’t care who saw him. He didn’t care that he was supposed to be in mourning like his mother and the rest of his family. He was going to get to see the inner workings of a real, live pig. He was happy being an anomaly.
“Henry!” His father’s voice boomed up the stairs. “Change into your Sunday clothes. Olin’s funeral starts in forty minutes.”
Up in his attic bedroom, Henry sat on his floor and pulled out the small wooden box from under his bed. He opened it and smiled as he admired Austin’s favorite marble, Georgie’s sweater button, and Mary’s white leather glove. He carefully made space for the strip of leather from Olin’s whip. His collection was growing.
J.J. Fletcher is an English teacher, writer, and dog rescuer. “Anomalies” is part of a short story collection that re-imagines the childhood of Dr. H.H. Holmes–Chicago’s (allegedly) first serial killer. Fletcher is currently at work on a crime novel, The Devil Inside Me, in which a descendant of Holmes resurrects his duplicitous and murderous legacy in the Windy City. Learn more at www.jjfletcherbooks.com.