When the Upper Classes Commit Crime: Eugene Aram (1704–59)

By Stephen Basdeo

The ‘Romantic’ explanation of criminality tells us that oppressive or unjust laws drove a person to become criminals. This was, and perhaps remains to this day, a suitable explanation for when sympathetic ‘heroes’ like highwaymen, who were drawn primarily from the labouring classes, turned to crime. Yet this romantic explanation of criminality did not explain why seemingly respectable people turned to crime and commit offences of the most hideous nature. The writer Edward Bulwer Lytton took it upon himself to grapple with this question in his novel Eugene Aram (1832), which retold the life of the eponymous killer who died in 1759.

But first, let us look at the life of the real Eugene Aram.

Aram was born at what is now Nidderdale, North Yorkshire, to ‘an ancient and highly respectable family’.[1] By 1734 Aram become a private tutor to a faily in Knaresborough, convinced one of his associates named Daniel Clarke, a shoemaker, to borrow a considerable sum of money from the bank and, with the money, buy a significant quantity of silver plate for extortion. Aram, and another associate named Richard Houseman, presented this to Clarke as a business opportunity. Then Clarke suddenly went missing. A search was conducted and some of Clarke’s plate was found buried in Aram’s garden and he was arrested, but there was no indication that Aram had committed a murder so he was allowed to go free.

One of many criminal biographies which retold Aram’s life and trial

Aram moved away but fourteen years later a body was found which everyone agreed was that of Daniel Clarke. A country-wide search for Aram was instigated and he was finally found in Norfolk, where he was serving as a teacher at a local grammar school. He was arrested, brought back to York where, although the evidence against him was highly circumstantial, he was condemned to death—he did, however, mount quite an impressive defence speech; the text of it is reproduced in The Newgate Calendar and stretches over a good five pages.

Of his death, the same The Newgate Calendar tells us that

When the morning appointed for his execution arrived the keeper went to take him out of his cell when he was surprised to find him almost expiring through loss of blood, having cut his left arm above the elbow, and near the wrist, with a razor; but he missed an artery … when he was taken to the place of execution he was perfectly sensible, though so very weak, as to be unable to join in devotion with the clergyman who attended him. He was executed at York, August 6th, 1759, and his body was hung in chains in Knaresborough Forest.[2]

Aram might have been entirely forgotten and left to languish as an entry in The Newgate Calendar were it not for the fact that the Romantic poet Thomas Hood (1799–1845) wrote ‘The Dream of Eugene Aram’ in 1831. The poem recounts Eugene’s nights alone in Norfolk, where, on retiring to sleep, he is perpetually haunted by visions of the man he has murdered:

“All night I lay in agony,

  In anguish dark and deep,

My fever’d eyes I dar’d not close,    

  But star’d aghast at Sleep:

For Sin had render’d unto her

  The keys of hell to keep.

“All night I lay in agony,

  From weary chime to chime,

With one besetting horrid hint,

  That rack’d me all the time;

A mighty yearning like the first

  Fierce impulse unto crime;

“One stern tyrannic thought, that made

  All other thoughts its slave:

Stronger and stronger every pulse    

  Did that temptation crave,

Still urging me to go and see

  The Dead Man in his grave![3]

Aram knows that it is only a matter of time before the body is found. The officers of the law soon come for him!

This is providence at work; the idea that God would intervene in the detection and punishment of murderers, even though it might take years, was apparent since at least the early modern era. As Thomas Beard and Thomas Taylor, in The Theatre of God’s Judgements—a publication that went through several editions in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries—wrote:

The justice of God riseth up, and with his own arme he discovereth and punisheth the murder; yea, rather than the murderer shall go unpunished, senceless creatures and his own heart and tongue rise to give sentence against him.

‘Senceless creatures’ did indeed haunt Aram in Hood’s poem—he might have gotten away with the murder but contemporary thinkers knew that his mind would be unsettled. Murder ‘would out’ in the end. As Andrew Knapp and William Baldwin explained in 1824:

Murder may, for a while, be concealed; but the foul deed rarely remains long in darkness … this guilty wretch, taken by surprise, betrayed that which led to his accusation and punishment.[4]

And the poem ends, of course, with Aram being led away by officers of the law.

Bulwer Lytton’s novel Eugene Aram (1832)

While Hood exposed the Aram’s inner torment Bulwer Lytton portrayed him as reclusive man who endeavoured to atone for the murder he had committed in the past by living a good and honest life. The novel also hints that he might have had some mental disturbance, and that his madness stemmed from the fact that he was, by all accounts, not only a learned man but a genius.[5] For Bulwer Lytton, Aram was at heart a good individual who had made a terrible ‘mistake’ when he was young. Bulwer Lytton had especial interest in Aram’s history because the tutor was a regular visitor at the home of Bulwer Lytton’s great grandfather, who had nothing but good things to say about him.[6] This probably accounts for the following passage in the novel’s preface where Bulwer Lytton declares that he thinks Aram was in fact Not Guilty of the murder imputed to him:

In this edition I have made one alteration somewhat more important than mere verbal correction. Ongoing, with maturer judgment, over all the evidences on which Aram was condemned, I have convinced myself that though an accomplice in the robbery of Clarke, he was free both from the premeditated design and the actual deed of murder. The crime, indeed, would still rest on his conscience and insure his punishment, as necessarily incidental to the robbery in which he was an accomplice, with Houseman; but finding my convictions, that in the murder itself he had no share, borne out by the opinion of many eminent lawyers by whom I have heard the subject discussed.[7]

Lest anyone should scoff at this suggestion, Bulwer Lytton reminded his readers that there was in fact a small company of people who, even in 1831, were dedicated to proving Aram’s innocence, although they had not met with any success thus far. This group, if it existed, is an early instance of a posthumous exoneration society, the type of which still exist in countries with the death penalty, like the United States. It is a difficult process even now to prove someone’s innocence after they have been executed,[8] and would have been more so in the 1800s.

Yet if Aram really was guilty, Bulwer Lytton tells the reader, then his criminality is merely an aberration because he was of a different class of criminal to those who occupy the cells of Newgate and the prison hulks.[9] The theme of upper class criminals being merely ‘bad apples’ recurred frequently in crime literature throughout the Victorian era; many authors were willing, not to dismiss the crimes committed by the upper middle and professional classes, but like Bulwer Lytton, to treat it an aberration.


[1] Camden Pelham, The Chronicles of Crime; or, The New Newgate Calendar, rev. ed. 2 vols (London: T. Miles, 1887), I, p. 169.

[2] Andrew Knapp and William Baldwin, The New Newgate Calendar, 4 vols (London: J. Robins, 1824), IV, p. 284.

[3] Thomas Hood, The Dream of Eugene Aram (London: Charles Tilt, 1831), pp. 27–28.

[4] Knapp and Baldwin, The New Newgate Calendar, IV, p. 284.

[5] Edward Bulwer Lytton, Eugene Aram, rev. ed. (London: George Routledge, 1856), p. 33.

[6] Bulwer Lytton, Eugene Aram, p. ix.

[7] Bulwer Lytton, Eugene Aram, p. xii.

[8] Samuel Wiseman, ‘Innocence After Death’, Western Case Law Review, 60: 3 (2010), 687–750 (p. 693).

[9] Bulwer Lytton, Eugene Aram, p. xi.

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