Tuesday, April 21, 2009

True Crime Writing in 1838

Most True Crime works published prior to 1850 were really half sermon, half cautionary tale. Their basic message was that the devil motivated the perpetrators, and criminal impulses could be overcome if one obeyed their parents and the Ten Commandments. Mitigating circumstances were nonexistant, and sympathy for the criminal out of the question.

Last weekend, while browsing Google's database of digitized public domain material, I found a 62 page volume titled EUGENE ARAM who was executed for the murder of Daniel Clark in 1759. It was published in England in 1838, and so popular during its day that two editions were released. What made the book comparatively unique was that the author, Norrisson Scatcherd, did not write it to preach or condemn. On the contrary, he became fascinated by Aram's story while still a boy, and traces of that seminal awe can be detected throughout the book.

"I became seized with an insatiable curiousity to know something about that extraordinary man (Aram) and the particulars about his case," Scatcherd wrote in the preface. He recalled being laughed at "for hunting after old men and women, to pick up the fruits of their observations, or the traditions of their forefathers." He spoke to an old woman who shook hands with Aram while he was awaiting execution at York Castle, and a man whose relative acted as a maid to the widow of Daniel Clark, Aram's alleged victim.

In my opinion, Norrisson Scatcherd was over a hundred years ahead of his time. He was an investigative writer before the term even existed, refusing to let religious dogma shape his perspective. He believed that Eugene Aram did not kill Daniel Clark, and defended his conclusion with facts taken from personal interviews and the trial transcript. I can understand why the reading public found his book so beguiling: instead of offering yet another execution sermon, Scatcherd breathed life into a man long since consigned to a murderer's grave.

EUGENE ARAM can be read online here. Both writers and fans of True Crime will enjoy this early example of the genre.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Fall River Outrage

Thanks to the Easter Holiday, I've had three days off. When not eating or sleeping, I've had my nose buried in a book given to me as a belated birthday present: David Richard Kasserman's Fall River Outrage: Life, Murder and Justice in Early Industrial New England.

Sixty years before Lizzie Borden and her legendary axe splashed blood over the name of Fall River, Massachusetts, the growing industrial community was the site of a murder whose social implications affected the industrial revolution and an emerging form of Christianity.

In December 1832, unmarried and pregnant mill worker Sarah Maria Cornell was found hanging from a haystack support pole outside Fall River. A prominent Methodist minister named Ephraim Kingsbury Avery was accused of seducing and then murdering her. When Avery went to trial, two large and opposing institutions faced off.

The Fall River industrialists portrayed Sarah Cornell as an innocent victim of a "wicked married man". Kasserman wrote, "In trying to clear her name, they protected their own." Their concerns were valid: in 1832 more women were leaving their parents' homes to take jobs in mills and factories, and if these workplaces became known as hotbeds of immorality, parental intervention could deprive them of badly needed workers.

The Methodist Episcopal Church supported the opposite impression of the victim: the more lascivious she appeared to have been, the less likely it was that Avery alone had a reason to kill her. Methodism, with its emphasis on emotionality and easy salvation, was regarded with suspicion in a society dominated by the austere Calvinist Congregational Church. The Methodist leaders could ill afford to have a scandal topple the precarious position the church occupied in Jacksonian America. Apparently Avery's lawyers, in condemning Sarah Cornell as a harlot, were the first to use the character of the female victim as a defense strategy.

I'm half-way through, and impressed by what I've read so far. Good writers like Kasserman, in reminding us what made these cases so important during their day, contribute greatly to our understanding of early American society.