By Haydn Brown.
The subject of the gibbet has become a topic of correspondence of late. Amongst the names of those who were so called ‘gibbeted’ for a crime is a Eugene Aram of Knaresborough in the County of Yorkshire. He suffered this fate in 1759.
Here, it should first be said that Eugene Aram was born in 1704 in the village of Ramsgill, near Harrogate to a family of labourers, his father being a gardener. But Aram was bright; his intellectual energy and quick mind enabled him to gain an education and to discover and develop a particular gift for languages, especially ancient ones. He was therefore, not the typical eighteenth-century murderer, for he had become an educated professional, a published author of works of philology who, at the time of his arrest at the King’s Lynn Grammar School, was working on his comparative lexicon of Latin, Greek and Celtic.
But before then, and after spending some time without success in London, he returned to Knaresborough and became a teacher, marrying and fathering seven children whilst at the same time gradually running up debts. Matters became particularly sour when he made the acquaintance of a shoe-maker, Daniel Clark, whose wife was a woman of means. Clark was spending lavishly and running up debts with local traders. Then, on 7 February 1744 he vanished. This set tongues wagging and by April 1745, Aram was starting to feel insecure; he abandoned his wife and children, moving from town to town before he was appointment as an usher at King’s Lynn Grammar School in February 1758. At that time the school was housed above the 14th-century Charnel Chapel, alongside St Margaret’s Church on Saturday Market Place. Later it was to become a Workhouse.
At first it was thought Aram had run away to escape his debts; his friends assuming that he had also fled with a quantity of valuable goods he had acquired illegally. At the same time Daniel Clark remained unaccounted for, even a ‘no questions asked’ reward of £15 (more than £3,000 in today’s money) was offered for information, but there were no takers.
Thirteen years later, the discovery of bones in St Robert’s cave. just outside Knaresborough led to speculation that Aram and another man, Richard Houseman, had conspired to kill Clark and steal his possessions. Aram was traced and arrested; this came about when a visiting horse trader to King’s Lynn recognised him, and the wheels of justice began to turn. In the same year, a skeleton was discovered in St Robert’s Cave near Knaresborough which did not do any favours for Aram. At some point his property was searched and some of Clark’s booty was found in Aram’s Garden as well as those of other friends. Aram was later to say that Clarke had left the goods there. Also, Houseman, who seemed by some to be far more suspicious, was to turn King’s Evidence and testified that Aram had murdered Clark.
The saying “hell hath no fury……” seems to have been appropriate for Mrs Aram, Eugene’s abandoned wife; she was quick to accuse him of the murder of Daniel Clark. Added to this was the rumours going around of an affair between her and Clark, which added more fuel to the fire. Aram was taken back to Yorkshire and tried for murder.
At his trial, in August 1759, Aram decided, unwisely as it turned out, to conduct his own defence. He questioned the identification of the bones and asserted his own good character but did not challenge the shaky, inconsistent and unreliable evidence of his former friend, Houseman. Despite the lack of conclusive evidence, Aram was convicted and sentenced to death. Accordingly, Aram was executed at York Castle, after an unsuccessful attempt to end his own life in prison, and his body returned to Knaresborough, where his gibbet was erected close to the scene of crime, overlooking the river Nidd; his body remained there, gradually decomposing, for at least 25–30 years.
There was great public interest in Aram’s crime and trial. The association between the apparently gentle and scholarly man and violent murder for material gain was unusual and, combined with the instability of the evidence on which he was convicted, resulted in a widespread belief that the wrong man had been executed. His biographer, Norrison Scatcherd, even described the riots and threats with which Houseman was greeted on his own return to Knaresborough.
Aram’s story was irresistible to cultural producers of the period. Bulwer-Lytton’s novel ‘Eugene Aram (1831)’, giving Aram a beautiful and brilliant lover, romanticised the story. Bulwer-Lytton’s Eugene Aram, though involved in the death of Clark, was the victim of circumstances and no murderer. The novel was adapted for the stage and had a successful run with Henry Irving in the title role. Thomas Hood’s narrative poem “The Dream of Eugene Aram” (1829) was recited by generations of schoolchildren. PG Wodehouse even has Bertie Wooster quoting Hood’s poem in proper Wooster style – (something along these lines): Tum-tum, tum-tum, tum-tumty-tum, I slew him, tum-tum tum! (PG Wodehouse, Jeeves Takes Charge, 1916) Hood’s Aram, though guilty, was thoughtful, penitent and intelligent: a sympathetic hero. Bulwer-Lytton’s novel and Hood’s poem are the best known of Aram’s literary incarnations, but there were many more – forty-one, including a stage play and at least three films.
At some point, probably before the end of the eighteenth century, a doctor called Hutchinson, then practising in Knaresborough, decided to augment his private cabinet of curiosities with the skull of Eugene Aram and managed to remove it from its gibbet cage. But why was Hutchinson so keen to acquire Aram’s skull? Maybe it was simply that he wanted it as a curiosity because of its association with a significant local event—and one which had attracted national attention – who knows!
The skull resided in Hutchinson’s personal museum until he died, when it passed to his widow’s second husband, and his former assistant, Mr Richardson, a surgeon from Harrogate. When, in 1837, the young Dr James Inglis, burning with phrenological zeal, took up a post as physician at the public dispensary in neighbouring Ripon, it is probable that he found out about Aram’s skull from Richardson, as a fellow medical man working in a neighbouring town. It was Inglis who presented the skull to the Newcastle meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1838.
The skull then passed from Dr Richardson to his step-grandson, John Walker, in whose private collection it remained, first at Malton in Yorkshire and then at Great Yarmouth in Norfolk, when Walker moved house. He presented the skull to the Royal College of Surgeons in 1869, by which date it had become something of a strange embarrassment to its owner, an Anglican minister, who therefore sought to place it in a museum. The skull was included in Sir William Flower’s catalogues of the Royal College collections in 1879 and 1907 and remained in that museum until 1993 when it was given to King’s Lynn Borough Council and passed to the Old Gaol House Museum in the town.
Today, and for anyone who is interested, there are three last bits to this story. In the Stories of Lynn Museum there are exhibited in the old gaol cells: Aram’s skull, a fragment of Clark’s skull, and a small pill box made of the wood from the gallows on which Aram was hung.
Sources: Tarlow S. (2017) The Afterlife of the Gibbet. In: The Golden and Ghoulish Age of the Gibbet in Britain. Palgrave Historical Studies in the Criminal Corpse and its Afterlife. Palgrave Macmillan, London. https://doi.org/10.1057/978-1-137-60089-9_3. Link: https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1057/978-1-137-60089-9_3 Also: https://norfolkrecordofficeblog.org/2019/03/12/a-murderer-in-the-school-the-case-of-eugene-aram-of-kings-lynn/
Banner Heading Image: This is the Caxton Gibbet, which is on the old Ermine Street Roman Road where it crosses the Cambridge to St Neots Road. Wikipedia.