Eugene Aram: A Celebrated Murderer

Eugene Aram was an attractive child. He was born to humble parents in Yorkshire, but, in the end, his name would go down in history as a defrauder and murderer. He would also find himself facing the judge and begging for his life, pitifully crying:

“O had I but hearkened to the advice which dear-bought experience has enabled me to give! I should not now have been plunged into the dreadful gulph [sic] of despair, which I find it impossible to extricate myself from; and therefore my soul is filled with horror inconceivable … and in a few hours I shall be exposed a public spectacle for the world to gaze at. Can you conceive any condition more horrible than mine?”[1]

Eugene Aram, Public Domain

Eugene Aram, Public domain.

Aram’s life did not start out horrible. He “received a fair education, became a clerk in London … and [while still young] married unfortunately.”[2] Although his marriage was unfortunate, Eugene Aram was lucky enough to serve as a schoolmaster in Knaresborough, a historic market and spa town located in North Yorkshire, England.  It was in KJnaresborough that Aram befriended a shoemaker named Daniel Clark and a flax dresser named Richard Houseman.

The story of murder began after Clark married. At that time he began to boast “that his wife was entitled to a considerable fortune.”[3] Aram and Houseman heard his boasts and “persuaded Clark to make an ostentatious shew of his riches to induce his wife’s relations to give him that fortune of which he … boasted.”[4] To accomplish this they devised a scheme to defraud people of goods and property and convinced Clark join with them.

Because Clark had good credit, Aram had Clark put the defrauding scheme into effect had had him acquire under false pretense various items. These included:

“three tankards, four silver pints, one silver milk pot, one ring, set with an emerald and two brilliant diamonds; another with three rose diamonds, a third with an amethyst in the shape of a heart, and six plain rings, eight watches, [and] two snuff boxes.”[5]

Then one evening Clark claimed he was going to entertain company and went to several persons in and about Knaresborough. From them he took “great quantities of linen and woollen-drapery goods … a silver tankard … and in order to give a colour to his story, he got of the innkeepers … ale, and other sorts of liquors.”[6]

The following morning after Clark was nowhere to be found, people realized they had been duped. Circumstances were such it “was imagined that he had gone abroad, or at least to London, to dispose of his ill-acquired property.”[7] However, once Clark obtained the goods, Aram and Houseman conspired to eliminate him. They persuaded Clark to take a walk to consult on ways to dispose of their ill-gotten treasure. What happened next is contained in the following description:

“[A]t a small distance from the town, well known by the name of St. Robert’s Cave … they came into the field, Aram and Clarke went over a hedge towards the cave, and when … within six or seven yards of it, Houseman (by the light of the moon) saw Aram strike Clark several times, and at length beheld him fall, but never saw him afterwards.”[8]

Eugene Aram and Houseman then divided their ill-gotten treasure. However, those who had been defrauded soon suspected Aram and Houseman were involved. A search was conducted with some of the goods found at Houseman’s and others discovered in Aram’s garden. Despite the goods being found, authorities still “concluded … Clark was gone off [with the majority of goods] … upon which the strictest inquiry was made after him … but all to no purpose.”[9] With the coast clear, Houseman sold his share in Scotland and Aram sold his in London. Eugene Aram then found work as an usher at an academy in Piccadilly, “where … he made himself master of the French language, and acquired some knowledge of Arabic, and other eastern languages.”[10]

Thirteen years later a man was digging up limestone near St. Robert’s Cave. As he was digging, he came across a human skeleton. 

“[A] conjecture hereupon arose that they were the remains of the body of Clarke [sic], who, it was presumed, might have been murdered [as there was no other person in the area missing].[11]

St. Robert's Cave, Courtesy of Wikipedia

St. Robert’s Cave. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

As Houseman was the last person to be seen with Clark, he was arrested on suspicion, “and, on his examination, giving but too evident signs of his guilt, he was committed to York castle.”[12] Houseman soon broke down and implicated Aram and told officials where they had buried Clark’s body. A warrant was then issued, and Eugene Aram was taken into custody and conveyed to York, “and likewise committed to the Castle.”[13]

At trial, Aram’s wife implicated both Houseman and her husband. She had been suspicious that something bad had happened to Clark when Houseman and her husband returned home without him. She also admitted that she had investigated and found several burnt pieces of clothing in the fireplace and a handkerchief stained with blood. She also overhead Houseman telling her husband that he was worried and that he wanted something done about her.

She claimed that Aram reassured him he had nothing to worry about. Later, she bravely confronted Houseman. She maintained that she told him that “she was afraid they had done something bad to Clark. But Houseman … pretended he was a stranger to her accusation.”[14]

Eugene Aram served as his own lawyer at the trial. He claimed he was “so macerated, so enfeebled, … and so far from being well … [that he could not have killed Clark and asked,] ‘Could then a person in this condition take anything into his head so unlikely?'”[15] Aram also further suggested that the prosecution offered nothing but circumstantial evidence against him. Unfortunately, for Aram, the jury thought otherwise.

They found Aram guilty and condemned him to death on 6 August 1759 and the night before he was hanged, he unsuccessfully attempted suicide. He did this by “by cutting his arm two places, with a razor [just above the arm but missed the main artery].”[16] He also wrote a letter to a friend shedding light on his real motive for killing Clark. Apparently, robbery had nothing to do with it. It seems Aram’s wife and Clark and were having an affair.

After Eugene Aram’s death, his story became highly publicized partly because people were fascinated by Aram’s conflicting nature. Moreover, as author and stage actor Harry Brodrib Irving noted in 1900:

“But it not infrequently happens that in disengaging fact from fable, the plain truth from the attractive lie, real circumstances come to light as interesting and extraordinary as any that can be invented by the imagination of the story-teller. To record as distinct and yet present in the one man the attributes of the thoughtful and gifted scholar and those of the sordid and deliberate murderer must surely yield a more profitable and singular result than the endeavour to blend the two into a sympathetic whole by melting together in the crucible of lachrymose heroism those discrepancies which lie at the very root of character, and everlastingly mock the effectors of the methodical biographer to force consistency upon inconsistent.”[17]

People found such elements present in Aram because he was noted to be a mild manner scholar who after the murder of Clark escaped detection and began conducting linguistic studies of seven languages. One person fascinated by Aram was Thomas Hood, an English poet, author, and humorist. He wrote a ballad, The Dream of Eugene Aram, originally published in 1831 that centered on Aram’s activity as a schoolteacher and contrasted his scholarship against his hidden murderous urges.

Thomas Hood. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

A year later Edward George Early Lytton Bulwer-Lytton wrote a novel titled Eugene Aram. In it Bulwer-Lytton depicted the events leading up to Aram’s execution while also creating a romantic figure torn between violence and visionary ideals, an image that was also portrayed by dramatist W.G. Wills in his 1873 play Eugene Aram, in which Henry Irving took the principal role.

Frances Hodgson Burnett, a British-American novelist and playwright, also mentioned Eugene Aram. She did so in an autobiographical novel titled The One I knew the Best of All a year after novelist Mark Twain finished Tom Sawyer Abroad. It was then, in 1893, that Burnett wrote an account of her childhood and described her own guilty feelings after she hid a cake in a cupboard as a child:

“[I] was an infant Eugene Aram, and the body of [my] victim was mouldering in the very house with [me].”[18]

Frances Hodgson Burnett. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, known as P.G. Wodehouse, mentioned Eugene Aram in several of his fictionalized works. He also often quoted the last two lines of Hood’s poem:

“And Eugene Aram walk’d between, / With gyves upon his wrist.”[19]

References:

  • [1] New, Original, and Complete Wonderful Museum and Magazine, 1805, p. 1280.
  • [2] “The True Story of Eugene Aram,” in Oamaru Mail, October 24, 1898, p. 4.
  • [3] Caulfield, J., The Lives and Portraits of Remarkable Characters, Drawn from the Most Authentic Sources, 1819, p. 9.
  • [4] Ibid.
  • [5] Ashton, J., Eighteenth Century Waifs, 1887, p. 87.
  • [6] Aram, E., Genuine Account of the Trial of Eugene Aram, 1882, p. 3.
  • [7] Caulfield, J., p. 10.
  • [8] New, Original, and Complete Wonderful Museum and Magazine, p. 1270.
  • [9] Aram, E., p. 10.
  • [10] Granger, W., The New Wonderful Museum, and Extraordinary Magazine, 1805, p. 1270.
  • [11] Caulfied, J., p. 11. 
  • [12] Ibid., p. 12.
  • [13] Aram, E., p. 14.
  • [14] Ibid., p. 6.
  • [15] Ibid., p. 18.
  • [16] Ibid., p. 31.
  • [17] Irving, H B., The Nineteenth century: a monthly review, Mar. 1877-Dec. 1900; London Vol. 42, Iss. 246, (Aug 1897), p. 280. via proquest.
  • [18] Burnett, F.H., The One I Knew The Best of All, 1893, p. 39.
  • [19] Hood, T., The Dream of Eguene Aram, Bartleby.com.

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