2014 was tumultuous but productive, marked by the the kind of brush fires that are essential for clearing out the old and propagating the new. And while it hasn’t always been an easy year, one of the things I most enjoyed was getting to write slightly longer pieces that combine my curious cross-section of interests: history, place, memory, mourning, and the failed ideas of science and medicine. I love discovering overlooked people and places that have something to say about the folly of the human condition, our attempts to cure and fix and master ourselves. People like Grandison Harris, the African-American man enslaved by the Georgia College of Medicine to steal bodies for the medical students, or Julia Pastrana, the 19th century Mexican bearded woman who became a sensation on stage even as doctors debated whether she was fully human. Places like Hart Island, New York City’s potters’ field, which feels like something out of Soviet Russia but is just a boat ride away from Manhattan, or like London’s Cross Bones graveyard, which a modern shaman has helped rescue from obscurity, revealing layers upon layers of that city’s darkest social and sexual histories.
Stygian as these stories may seem, there is usually some light along the way: reversals of fortune, friends who appear just when they’re needed most, criminals put behind bars, forgotten graves finally marked, promising lawsuits. Here are my favorite stories from 2014; I hope I’m lucky enough to find and produce more like them in 2015.
Julia Pastrana: A “Monster to the Whole World” The Public Domain Review
The Doctor Who Starved Her Patients to Death Smithsonian.com
The Graves of Forgotten New Yorkers New York Times
How the Ouija Board Got Its Name Atlas Obscura
The Gory New York City Riot that Shaped American Medicine Smithsonian.com
Maude Paris Review Daily
Of course, none of these articles would appear without the community of writers and editors who inspire me, edit me, and publish my stuff. If places like the Smithsonian Magazine’s website, Atlas Obscura, and Lapham’s Quarterly didn’t exist, I’d probably still just be a disgruntled teenager scribbling in her notebook. At least now I can write on a laptop!