Is it possible that a true academic genius – “a finished artist, in philology, a true pioneer, genuine scholar” – could commit a brutal, premeditated murder? That is the question raised by British Trial of Eugene Aram in 1759.
The alleged victims’ skeletons were discovered 15 years after their murders. Houseman incriminated Aram, swearing that he observed the foul deed. Both Houseman and Aram were charged with murder, though Houseman sought to barter his own life for that of Aram. A deal was struck; Houseman was acquitted despite the judge’s conclusion that he was “deeply implicated”. He then testified against Aram, who had pleaded not guilty. Houseman was a weak witness, he swore that he witnessed Aram kill the victim and was then threatened with “vengeance” if he disclosed what he had witnessed. There were other witnesses as well, but they provided ambiguous circumstantial evidence.
Aram’s defense was straightforward. He had led an exemplary life as a scholar and would have no reason to commit so heinous a crime. He should be believed over Houseman, who was a scoundrel, a fraudster and a liar. Moreover, there was no conclusive evidence that the bones were those of the alleged victim, who some claim to have seen alive after the date of the alleged crime.
Despite this, Aram was sentenced to be hanged. The lesson of this sordid tale, at least to the author who is convinced of Aram’s guilt, is that “homicide is not to be allowed even to the most amenable genius.”
– Alan Dershowitz