"Oh! What a tangled web we weave, When first we practice to deceive."  Sir Walter Scott

Web Mystery Magazine, Summer 2003: Volume I, Issue 1

Rodney Noon is an attorney in private practice in Harrogate, North Yorkshire. After doing criminal defense work for 15 years, now ("poacher turned gamekeeper") he acts from time to time as a freelance prosecutor. Mr. Noon has written for Family Law, Justice of the Peace, and Solicitors Journal. This article on the perennially interesting case of Eugene Aram draws together all the available evidence and reviews it with a trial advocate's eye. "Was there," asks Mr Noon, "a miscarriage of justice?"

Currently chairman of the Harrogate Writers Circle, Rodney Noon's poetry has been published in various small press magazines in the UK, USA, and Canada, as well as on the internet. Direct correspondence to Rodney Noon or Editor.

Should Eugene Aram Have Hanged?

           On 3rd August 1759, Eugene Aram, a teacher and brilliant linguist, was brought before the York Assizes charged with the murder of a Knaresborough shoe maker called Daniel Clarke some fourteen years earlier. He defended himself and, despite the judge describing his case as one of the most ingenious pieces of reasoning he had ever heard, he was convicted and sentenced to hang.

           Men did not stay long on death row in the eighteenth century. Three days later, on 6th August 1759 Aram was hanged. The following day his body was brought back to Knaresborough where it was suspended in chains on Thistle Hill just outside the town as a warning to others and left there to rot on public view.     

           The story caught the popular imagination. What could turn a respectable academic into a violent thug who killed for money? Thomas Hood set the story to verse in "The Dream of Eugene Aram" and later Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton used the events as the basis for his novel Eugene Aram. In 1816 the story was chronicled amongst the histories in the Newgate Calendar.

            For the last eighteen years I have practised criminal law, both for the defence and prosecution in Knaresborough and Harrogate. I have dealt with homocide, wounding, rape, theft, and fraud. I have often appeared in cases at the Castle in York where Aram was convicted. I often drive up Thistle Hill. Had the events arisen two hundred and thirty years later, he might well have been my client. Would it have made any difference to the verdict if he were?


historic drawing of Eugene Aram

Eugene Aram,
hanged for murder


The Evidence

             Knaresborough is an ancient market town in the West Riding of Yorkshire. It grew up around the castle which stands on the limestone cliffs above the Nidd Gorge and was a royal arsenal and centre for hunting in the adjoining Forest of Knaresborough during the Middle Ages. By the eighteenth century however, the castle was a ruin and the town a busy commercial centre.

             Daniel Clarke was a shoe maker in the town; he was well thought of and had recently married a woman from a wealthy local family. He was a good friend of the local school master Eugene Aram. The two men were keen gardeners and had a reputation for stealing roots and cuttings from other people's gardens to improve their own.

             In January and February of 1745 Daniel Clarke became involved in what was clearly a fraud. It is unclear how far he was aware of the fraud or indeed whether he was the dupe or one of the plotters. Clarke seems to have been ill at ease with a wife who was rather better off than he, but using this, he let it be known around the town that she was soon to come into a considerable fortune. His stock (and with it his credit) quickly rose.

             On the strength of these false assertions Clarke was able to borrow a large amount of property from his neighbours. With each the story varied. Some were told that he wanted to copy a pattern, others that he needed something for his new home and others gave him goods to take to London and sell on their behalf. The haul was at once substantial and yet, in terms of the consequences, rather paltry. It is believed that Clarke managed to acquire three silver tankards, four silver pots, one silver milk pot, nine rings, eight watches, two snuff boxes, some books and various pieces of silver plate which he said had been ordered for export and he bought on credit. Daniel Clarke was last seen alive on 7th February 1745 after which he vanished with all the goods he had obtained.

             The townsfolk of Knaresborough wanted their property back and, although the clear implication was that Clarke had just taken the goods and absconded, matters were not allowed to rest there. Clarke was last seen alive in company with Eugene Aram and a man called Richard Houseman. People suspected that Clarke had not done this on his own and the suggestion was that Aram and Houseman were implicated.

             Aram must have seemed an unlikely candidate for fraud. A balding figure, 41 years of age, he seems by all accounts to have been a gentle and studious man with what must have been an exceptional mind. His father had been a gardener at one of the great houses in the area and apart from some rudimentary schooling as a child Aram was entirely self-taught. By the time he came to Knaresborough he had become fluent in Latin, Greek and Hebrew, as well as having made a detailed study of mathematics. Nothing suggests any propensity for violence or any desperate concern for worldly wealth.

             A search carried out not long after Clarke disappeared turned up some of the missing property in Richard Houseman’s house and some concealed in Eugene Aram’s garden. Although the owners were glad to recover even a small part of their belongings, there was not enough evidence to bring proceedings against either of them and there the matter might well have ended. Very soon after this and to everyone’s surprise, Aram paid off his debts, including the mortgage on his house, and left the area, leaving his wife, Anna, behind. Nothing was heard from him or of him and many assumed that he must have died.

             He was in fact very much alive, travelling around the country working as an usher in various schools and continuing his researches and studies into ancient languages. By 1758 he was working at Lynn in Norfolk and close to completing a comparative lexicon of Latin, Greek, and Celtic. Had it not been for the events which followed, he would probably have been remembered for his work as a philologist who first realised that the Celtic language was related to other European languages and that Latin was not, as then thought, derived from Greek. His research, however, was interupted and he never had the chance to complete it and bring it to publication.

             It was on 1st August 1758 that a man was digging for stone on Thistle Hill on the south bank of the River Nidd in Knaresborough. Two feet below the surface he found a human skeleton which was apparently not of great antiquity because the joints were still held together by the vestigial remains of ligaments. The body seemed to have been concealed in a hurry as it was folded in half.

             People remembered the sudden and unexplained disappearance of Daniel Clarke and an inquest was opened by the coroner. The relationship between Aram and his wife is one of the great unknowns in this case. Ostensibly deserted by her husband,it seems that she bore him no great love since, at the time of his departure, she had been hinting that she knew more than she was saying about Clarke and that her husband had a hand in his disappearance.

             She was summonsed to the inquest and told the coroner that at about 2.00am on 8th February 1745 her husband had come home with Daniel Clarke and Richard Houseman. She described how she lent Houseman a handkerchief. The three men stayed until 3.00 am when they all went out. Houseman and her husband came back without Clarke two hours later. She told the inquest how she was listening to Houseman and her husband talking in the room below her and, so she said, planning to shoot her if she didn't keep quiet about what she had seen and heard. She further told the inquest that next day she found pieces of cloth in the hearth which someone had tried to burn and Richard Houseman's handkerchief with blood on it.

             Eugene Aram was missing but Richard Houseman was easier to find, still living in Knaresborough and working as a flax-dresser. He was brought before the coroner and the reports describe him as being ashen faced and agitated although with the prospect of the noose not far away this is perhaps not suprising. The bones were laid out before the coroner who seeing the fear on Houseman's face asked him to pick one up to see if some further reaction might be provoked. Houseman did as he was asked before announcing to the expectant crowd "This is no more Dan Clarke's bone than it is mine." The implication was seized upon: he could say that only if he knew where Dan Clarke's bones were. Houseman was trapped. Despite protesting his innocence he was sent in custody to York Castle to wait in the dungeons for his trial.

             About half way to York, at a place called Green Hammerton, a strange thing happened. Those transporting him ‘became aware’ that he now wished to make a confession and so, when they arrived at York, he was taken before a Justice of the Peace where he made and signed a statement. What had happened on that journey to make him so eager to speak we can only speculate about.

             Houseman's statement explained how Daniel Clarke had been killed by Eugene Aram. According to Houseman, the three of them had gone to a place called St Robert's cave which is close to the river in the limestone cliffs of the Nidd gorge. He claimed that he had seen Aram strike Clarke several times and that Clarke fell to the ground. He did not know what Aram hit Clarke with or what he did with the body. Subsequently he corrected this by describing exactly where Clarke was buried with his head to the right in the turn at the entrance to the cave.

             Richard Houseman was then sent on the remainder of his journey to the cells to await trial at the next Assizes. A warrent was issued for the arrest of Eugene Aram, who was traced, arrested, and brought to York Castle to stand trial jointly charged alongside Houseman with Clarke's murder.

             There was no police force in 1758 to investigate crimes and interview suspects. So, after his arrest Aram was put before a Justice of the Peace in Knaresborough for interview and to give a statement. In his first interview he denied any knowledge of Clarke's murder. Like Houseman he was sent in custody to York.

            The road from Knaresborough to York seems to have had a peculiar effect on people's memories at this time since it is recorded that only a mile into the journey, Aram wanted to go back and make a new statement, which he duly did.

            This second statement is probably as close as we shall ever come to knowing what really happened. Aram accepted his involvement in the fraud with Clarke, Houseman, and a local publican called Henry Terry. He described how they all met at Aram's house on the night of 7th February 1745 with Houseman having to make several trips to carry all the silver plate Clarke had been able to obtain.

            The four of them then walked down to St Robert's cave taking the plate with them and there, away from the sight and hearing of anyone else, they spent the night beating it all flat so that Clarke would be able to carry it away and sell it. It was 4.00 am by the time they had finished and too close to dawn for Clarke to start out on his journey. They agreed that he should stay hidden in the cave with the loot until evening and that Terry would bring him some food under the pretence of going out shooting.

             The following evening Aram, Houseman, and Terry returned to the cave. Aram claimed that he stayed outside on watch and the other two went inside. He heard noises that he thought was more plate being beaten flat before Houseman and Terry came back out with a bag of plate. They told him Clarke had gone and when Aram queried the bag they said that they had bought those pieces from him. He never saw or heard from Daniel Clarke again.


historic drawing of the scene of the crime

Exactly who
did commit
the murder?


The Trial

             The problem facing the prosecution at the trial was a lack of evidence. Anna Aram, as the wife of Eugene, could not give evidence against him nor was her evidence sufficient in itself to convict Houseman. At that time a Defendant was not allowed to give evidence at all and so the jury would never hear what Houseman had to say about the killing he claimed to have witnessed. The prosecution took a cold blooded, pragmatic view. Someone had to hang; it was time to make a deal.

             If Housemen's evidence became part of the prosecution case there was a chance that it would convict Aram. Aram's evidence on the other hand was insufficient to convict anyone of murder. Houseman was offered the chance to turn King's evidence, which means to be acquitted and then become a prosecution witness. It was a high risk strategy all round. Because Houseman had been indicted, the prosecution would have to formally offer no evidence against him and allow him to be acquitted before he took the stand. Once he was acquitted, he could never be tried for the murder again. He might suffer a loss of memory. From Houseman's perspective the attraction of avoiding the noose must have been very compelling but giving evidence was not without risk. Although acquitted of murder, if he accidently incriminated himself regarding anything else (such as theft or fraud) he might still hang for that.

             Aram was representing himself. It is unclear whether this was of necessity or choice. The eighteenth century had no legal aid or public defender but, on the other hand, Aram cannot have been without means. In addition to this he was clearly well thought of by those whose children he tutored and he seems to have owned a house as security for a loan. If the decision was made from choice, it was a bad one. Whatever his skill with languages, he was no lawyer and no strategist, and one's own capital trial is no place to start learning.

             The prosecution case was entirely dependant on the jury accepting Houseman as a reliable witness to the point where they could accept his word beyond reasonable doubt. No other witness linked him to the killing. The first plank of the defence should have been to attack that credibility in cross-examination. There was material in abundance to mount such an attack.

             Houseman told the court that on the night of 7/8th February 1745 he had gone to Aram's house where he met Eugene and Daniel Clarke. Later that night, Aram proposed that they should go for a walk and so the three of them went to St Robert's cave. He saw Aram and Clarke go over the fence into the field where the cave is and then he saw them quarrelling. He saw Aram hit Clarke several times. Clarke fell to the ground. Houseman left the scene fearing he too would be attacked. He did not raise the alarm or report what he had seen.

             This was the fourth version of events Houseman had given since the original inquest. Each time the story was different. This version could not possibly be true. We know that Houseman witnessed the disposal of the body at close proximity. He must have been very near to give the detailed description of where and how the body lay, given that all this took place in a heavily wooded gorge in the middle of a February night. Yet in his evidence to the jury he maintained that he left before the body was buried. Any advocate worth his salt should have been able to utterly demolish Houseman's testimony by putting to him, one at a time, each of his previous inconsistant accounts. This never happened and one has to wonder whether Aram was even aware of the previous accounts which had been given.

             In a world of ever-present sodium lights we tend to forget just how black an unlit night can be. Even with the benefit of a moon it would have been very hard to see what was happening at the sort of distance Houseman suggested he was from the crime. A 1758 jury would have understood this much better but the simple point was never made: how could you possibly see all this in the pitch dark of a wooded gorge?

             Neither in cross examination of Houseman nor in his later address did Aram make any issue of Houseman's former position of joint defendant and how this might have a bearing on his reliability.

             Despite all of this, Aram let the evidence of Richard Houseman go unchallenged. Although he could not go into the witness box and give evidence he was, as his own advocate, allowed to make submissions to the jury as to whether or not the Crown had proved their case. At this point Aram read a carefully prepared statement to the court. He made two points. The first, which was valid enough, was to rely on his previous good character. He effectively said "I am not the sort of person who could do something like this." As a secondary (or even tertiary) point this is fine, but I would have advised him in the strongest terms against making this the main line of defense.

             The second point was, superficially, ingenious but, on reflection, fatally flawed. Aram's point was this. Here you have a pile of bones. They are indistinguishible from any other heap of bones. There is no proof that they are Clarke's and therefore no proof that he is dead and so no murder. He pointed out that the cave had been the home of a hermit and that such people were often buried in their cell. Moreover, in the seventeenth century during the Civil War Knaresborough Castle had been beseiged and in battle men were often hurriedly buried where they fell.

             Yet for all the ingenuity of the argument it overlooked one thing. The prosecution could prove whose bones they were because Richard Houseman identified them and Aram had failed to challenge that evidence.

The Verdict

             The jury did not take long to reach their verdict. Aram was convicted and sentenced to hang. Looking at the case with a modern lawyer's eyes, the conviction is plainly unsafe and Aram should have been acquitted. He was not, I think, an entirely innocent man. He may very well have had some involvement in the earlier fraud; he might have been the murderer but so might others. Did the prosecution prove their case beyond reasonable doubt? Certainly not. Without that proof he should not have hanged

             Houseman is not a reliable witness and had very compelling reasons to see Aram take all the blame. What though of Anna Aram and her evidence to the inquest? Firstly she could not say who actually killed Clarke but, in any event, she might have had an agenda of her own. There is a suggestion made later that Aram killed Clarke because he was having an affair with Aram's wife. If that were true, her position was a very precarious one. The divorce laws of the 1700's were very harsh in their treatment of an adultress. Had Aram divorced her she could have found herself homeless and penniless. As a widow however, she could inherit. This is speculation but it does suggest that in this case we should be very careful before we accept anyone's testimony at face value.

The Confession

             On the night before he was due to hang Aram attempted suicide by cutting his wrists. The jailers found him just in time. He almost saved the hangman a job. Aram wrote a suicide note which is preserved and which makes it clear that he regarded himself as the victim of a miscarriage of justice. A further letter is also supposed to have been written at the same time confessing to the crime. It is almost certainly a forgery. The sale of such "authentic" documents supplemented many a gaoler’s income and even the "tabloid" writer of the Newgate Calendar is sceptical about it. The local historian Norrison Scratchard writing in the 1830's when the original papers were available is clear that Aram "considered himself unfairly tried and improperly convicted." On that, at least, he was right.


             Richard Houseman returned from prison to Knaresborough where he lived for the rest of his life as an outcast.


The Newgate Calendar; George Theodore Wilkinson 1816.

The Singular Story of Eugene Aram; Alyson Jackson (Knaresborough Online)

The Genuine Account of the Trial of Eugene Aram; 9th Ed 1808

Memoirs of Eugene Aram; Norrison Scratchard, 1871

Copyright 2003 by Rodney Noon


"Oh! What a tangled web we weave, When first we practice to deceive."  Sir Walter Scott

Web Mystery Magazine (ISSN: 1547-9609) is an on-line quarterly dedicated to investigating the mysterious genre in print, in film, and in real-life. Web Mystery Magazine welcomes well-researched, well-written articles, reviews, and mystery fiction. Writers are invited to send comments and inquiries to editor@lifeloom.com.
Copyright 2003-2005, Lifeloom Press


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