Ooh, I do love a good period true crime drama. From Erik Larson’s much-lauded Devil in the White City, to Kate Summerscale’s lesser-known The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, to Bruce Chadwick’s I Am Murdered (which I reviewed all the way back for CBR5), you take a murder that’s at least a century old, add some period costumes, a few blue collar witnesses pitted against high-brow lawyers, and a lot of research, mix well, and you have a perfect cocktail of historical entertainment. I especially enjoy reading such books at night while drinking a perfect cocktail.
Author Paul Collins is becoming one of my favorite non-fiction writers, almost rivaling Erik Larson in his ability to tell a story that’s so engaging you forget that the events truly happened. In Blood & Ivy, he sets the historical stage by describing the scene at Harvard University in 1849. One Professor John Webster (who figures prominently in the tale) ponders the changes that have come to the university over the past several decades. “When he graduated with his MD in 1815. . . the AMA hadn’t been founded, and the stethoscope hadn’t even been invented yet. And now? In just the last three years alone, ether had revolutionized surgery, doctors were beginning to wonder whether they should wash their hands before treating patients, and a woman–a woman–had graduated from a medical school in New York.”
“What’s next? A female superhero???”
Collins also spends some time describing life at the Cambridge university, worlds away from Boston proper, located just over the bridge. In July 1849, four months before the book’s main event occurs, young men, eager and hopeful, arrive at Harvard for an intense, two-day admissions exam, comprising Latin translations, mathematical quizzes, and lots of sweat as they faced a room full of faculty that included such giants as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Writes Collins, “Parents and other family were left outside, the applicants were on their own.”
They do things a little differently today!
Once the stage is set, Collins introduces the cast of characters. There’s Dr. George Parkman, a serious, ever-punctual businessman who goes missing one day while making his rounds and collecting rents. Parkman is not only a physician but a real estate magnate! Parkman is last seen at a grocer’s, where he leaves a bag of lettuce with a promise to return to pick it up in five minutes (spoiler: he never comes back for his produce). Next, there’s the suspect, the aforementioned Professor Webster, who coincidentally has run up quite a number of debts, including to Parkman, and who suddenly takes to locking his the door to his lab after Parkman’s disappearance, much to the chagrin of the university’s janitor, who is just trying to do his job. Speaking of which, janitor Ephraim Littlefield is my favorite character in this drama. Littlefield is the first to become suspicious of Webster and decides to poke around. He is certain that Webster is up to something in that lab that ain’t exactly copacetic. What he discovers. . .well I don’t want to spoil it for you, but where would you hide body parts that you didn’t want anybody to accidentally find?
Now you’re thinking like a janitor!
Following this gruesome discovery is the high-profile trial, in which the defendant’s attorneys try to smear our hard-working janitor by suggesting that he likes to drink and maybe even gamble on occasion. Loquacious and eager to tell his story up to this point, Littlefield becomes more tight-lipped when the attorneys started asking about his own whereabouts the week before Parkman’s disappearance. Pressed for details about whether he might have been playing cards, Littlefield declines to answer, much to the general amusement of the court room spectators.
“Do you know,” [the attorney] asked triumphantly, “that the Doctor found out you were gambling?”
“I don’t know,” the janitor shot back. “He never said anything to me about it.”
As is the way in these cases, the public divides itself into anti-Webster and anti-Littlefield factions. One of the more serious themes in this book is about the power that rich people have over the poor. Not only did Webster receive preferential treatment in the way his trial was handled (for example, he was granted a private arraignment due to his position in society) but, as one editorial from the time put it, the pro-Webster group attempted to “throw a deed of blood from a man in high society upon the head of a poor man.”
The trial of John Webster is historic for another reason: Chief Justice Shaw provided the jury with instructions on what it meant to have a “reasonable doubt.” Remarkably, up to this point neither the state of Massachusetts nor the federal government had a standard definition for this concept. Shaw’s description became the standard “and a staple of law school instruction across the country.” As late as 1994 the U.S. Supreme Court studied what had become known as the “Webster charge” and couldn’t come up with anything better. The language has since been modernized, but the fundamental principle remains consistent with Shaw’s original instruction.
Blood & Ivy does not disappoint. One of Collins’s strengths as a writer is his ability to create a world that is cinematic. Whether he is actively trying to tell a story that would transfer well to film, I’m not sure, but he has an eye for little details that would play for laughs or suspense on screen. In a delightful scene in which Charles Kingsley, Parkman’s agent, is retracing his employer’s steps and questioning a local shopkeeper about his boss’s whereabouts, Kingsey is about to leave when a clerk stops him.
Wait, a grocer’s clerk said before Kingsey left.
It was a mere boy working in the store–but sometimes they were the ones who noticed the most important clues of all. Finally, the lad spoke.
Can you take the lettuce with you?
That, my friends, is a Hitchcockian one-two punch of suspense and comedy, created out of a mundane detail. Bravo!
So is justice served? Does the professor confess to the deed? Is the working-class hero scapegoated? Does Harvard survive the scandal to endure more scandals in the twenty-first century? I suggest you read this book while you’re waiting for the film adaptation!