Eugene Aram (1704 – 16 August 1759) was an English philologist, but also infamous as the murderer celebrated by Thomas Hood in his ballad, The Dream of Eugene Aram, and by Edward Bulwer-Lytton in his 1832 novel Eugene Aram.
Aram was born of humble parents at Ramsgill, Yorkshire. He worked in a counting house in London as a clerk, then returned to Yorkshire to set up a school. Whilst still young, he married and settled as a schoolmaster at Netherdale, and during the years he spent there, he taught himself Latin, Hebrew, and Greek.
In 1734 he removed to Knaresborough, where he remained as schoolmaster till 1744. In that year a man named Daniel Clark, an intimate friend of Aram, after obtaining a considerable quantity of goods from some of the tradesmen in the town, suddenly disappeared. Suspicions of being concerned in this swindling transaction fell upon Aram. His garden was searched, and some of the goods found there. As, however, there was not evidence sufficient to convict him of any crime, he was discharged, and soon after set out for London, leaving his wife behind. In London he found employment as an usher in a school at Piccadilly and learned Chaldee and Arabic.
For several years he travelled through parts of England, acting as usher in a number of schools, and settled eventually at the Grammar School at King's Lynn, in Norfolk. During his travels he had amassed considerable materials for a work he had projected on etymology, entitled A Comparative Lexicon of the English, Latin, Greek, Hebrew and Celtic Languages. He was undoubtedly an original philologist, who realised, what was then not yet admitted by scholars, the affinity of the Celtic language to the other languages in Europe, and could dispute the then accepted belief that Latin was derived from Greek.
Aram's writings show that he had grasped the right idea on the subject of the Indo-European character of the Celtic languages, which was not established until JC Prichard published his book, Eastern Origin of the Celtic Traditions, in 1831. But he was not destined to live in history as a pioneer of a new philology.
In February 1758 a skeleton was dug up at St Robert's Cave in Knaresborough, and some suspicion arose that it might be Clark's. Aram's wife had more than once hinted that her husband and a man named Houseman knew the secret of Clark's disappearance. Houseman was at once arrested and confronted with the bones that had been found. He affirmed his innocence, and, taking up one of the bones, said, "This is no more Dan Clark's bone than it is mine." His manner in saying this roused suspicion that he knew more of Clark's disappearance. When questioned, he contested that he had been present at the murder of Clark by him and another man, Terry, of whom nothing further is heard. He eventually implicated Aram and also gave information as to the place where the body had been buried in St Robert's Cave, a well-known spot near Knaresborough. A skeleton was dug up here, and Aram was immediately arrested, and sent to York for trial. Houseman's testimony was admitted as evidence against him.
Aram conducted his own defence, and did not attempt to overthrow Houseman's evidence, though there were some discrepancies in that; but made a skilful attack on the fallibility of circumstantial evidence in general, and particularly of evidence drawn from the discovery of unidentifiable bones. He brought forward several instances where bones had been found in caves, and tried to show that the bones found at St Robert's Cave were probably those of some hermit who had taken up his abode there.
He was found guilty, and condemned to be executed on 6 August 1759, three days after his trial. While in his cell he confessed his guilt, and threw new light on the motives for his crime, by asserting that he had discovered an affair between Clark and his own wife. On the night before his execution he made an unsuccessful attempt at suicide by opening the veins in his arm with a razor.
Eugene Aram was hanged at York's Tyburn on 16 August 1759. His skull is preserved in King's Lynn museum.
Aram in literature
Thomas Hood's ballad, The Dream of Eugene Aram centres on Aram's activity as a schoolteacher, contrasting his scholarship with his hidden murderous urges. Bulwer-Lytton's novel Eugene Aram creates a Romantic figure torn between violence and visionary ideals, an image that is also portrayed in W.G. Wills's play Eugene Aram, in which Henry Irving took the principal role.
|“||I am the worm who never turned,
P.G. Wodehouse's character Bertie Wooster recalls in the story "Jeeves Takes Charge", first published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1916, that he memorised a poem about Eugene Aram when he was a boy. He says that he cannot remember much of the poem, and the words he does remember are not in Hood's ballad. Bertie has stolen his uncle's manuscript memoir and is worried about hiding it when he recalls the story of Aram.
|“||Fellows who know all about that sort of thing – detectives, and so on – will tell you that the most difficult thing in the world is to get rid of the body. I remember, as a kid, having to learn by heart a poem about a bird by the name of Eugene Aram, who had the deuce of a job in this respect. All I can recall of the actual poetry is the bit that goes:
Tum-tum, tum-tum, tum-tumty-tum, I slew him, tum-tum tum!
But I recollect that the poor blighter spent much of his valuable time dumping the corpse into ponds and burying it, and what not, only to have it pop out at him again. It was about an hour after I had shoved the parcel into the drawer when I realized that I had let myself in for just the same sort of thing.
Bertie mentions the poem again in Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves when he recalls being recently "entertained" in Totleigh Towers.
|“||'The word "entertained" is not well chosen, Jeeves. If locking a fellow in his bedroom, as near as a toucher with gyves upon his wrists, and stationing the local police force on the lawn below to ensure that he doesn't nip out of the window at the end of a knotted sheet is your idea of entertaining, it isn't mine, not by a jugful.'||”|
|“||A morning spent in solitary wrestling with a guilty conscience had left Ronnie Fish thoroughly unstrung. By the time the clock over the stable struck the hour of one, his mental condition had begun to resemble that of the late Eugene Aram.||”|
Wodehouse referenced Aram even earlier, in Chapter 21 of his 1905 novel The Head of Kay's, when the hero Fenn loses his school cap in a possibly incriminating situation, and notes, when it reappears, that:
|“||He had been expecting the cap to turn up, like the corpse of Eugene Aram's victim, at some inconvenient moment.||”|
|“||'A little trouble last night with the minions of the Law, Jeeves,' I said. 'Quite a bit of that Eugene-Aram-walked-between-with-gyves-upon-his-wrists stuff.'
'Indeed, sir? Most vexing.'
Eugene Aram is also referenced in the eighth chapter of E. Phillips Oppenheim's novel, The Great Impersonation:
|“||'Roger Unthank was a lunatic,' Dominey pronounced deliberately. 'His behaviour from the first was the behaviour of a madman.'
'The Eugene Aram type of village schoolmaster gradually drifting into positive insanity,' Mangan acquiesced.
|“||The essential permanence of the human body is well shown in the classical case of Eugene Aram; but a still more striking instance is that of Sekenen Ra the Third, one of the last kings of the seventeenth Egyptian dynasty.||”|
|Wikisource has the text of the 1885–1900 Dictionary of National Biography's article about Eugene Aram.|
|Wikisource has the text of The New Student's Reference Work article Aram, Eugene.|
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.