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Local Playwright Digs Up Morbid History With Humor

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Vigo Jansen (played by actor Evan Crump) was D.C.'s most notorious resurrectionist, or grave-robber.
Rebecca Sheir
Vigo Jansen (played by actor Evan Crump) was D.C.'s most notorious resurrectionist, or grave-robber.

Steve Spotswood, the playwright of "The Resurrectionist King," offers a bit of context for those unfamiliar with the term "resurrectionist."

"[In the 19th century], doctors needed to test out their anatomical theories and actually practice surgery, and it was before there was any access to bodies. People were not donating bodies," Spotswood says.

So sometimes people would be hired to sneak into cemeteries and dig up corpses. And Washington's most legendary resurrectionist, the king, if you will, was Vigo Jansen.

"[Jansen] was such a huge personality and he loved publicity. So anytime he ever got in trouble he would run to The Washington Post and he told them these fantastical stories and they loved it, they printed it," Spotswood says.

In 1884, he decided to grace his adoring public with what he intended to be a very serious, very straight, one-night, one-man show. Spotswood says Jansen intended to inform people "why he did what he did and why it was necessary."

And it was this show that helped inspire "The Resurrectionist King," Spotswood imagines what would have happened during the 24 hours before the curtain went up.

"There is actually a review in The Washington Post, and it was awful. It was honestly one of the worst reviews I've ever read," he says.

Apparently, Jansen was drinking in the wings, staggering all over the stage, slurring his speech.

"They said that his performance degenerated into a farce," Spotswood says.

Tom Prewitt, the director of "Resurrectionist King," loves to recount one part of the review in particular.

"My favorite part...was that the onstage actor, stagehand, who was playing the body being resurrected. He kept giggling during the show," he says.

Jansen wanted to use a real live body in his show, but the manager of D.C.'s Theatre Comique was totally wigged out. So as Spotswood imagines it, Jansen's stage manager comes up with an alternative: getting someone to play the corpse. So she asks a stagehand named Saul, who just happens to be the son of the theater manager, who is less than thrilled.

But, says Spotswood, there is a serious side to the play, for all its slapstick, screwball humor.

"I get to insert all of these very, very dark elements because his profession is digging up corpses, which if you actually start thinking about it, it's an incredibly morbid, terrible thing that this man did," Spotswood says.

And Jansen's fate in real life was pretty morbid and terrible too.

"Also in The Washington Post, there's his obituary. And in 1887, he was found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound at a fleabag motel in New York City," Spotswood says.

And yet, more than a century after he walked –- and dug up –- the earth, Jansen still goes down in local history as a resurrectionist who truly was larger than life.

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