Murder most foul! The life and crimes of King’s Lynn teacher Eugene Aram

The skull of notorious 18th-century murderer Eugene Aram, who was arrested in King's Lynn. Also pict

The skull of notorious 18th-century murderer Eugene Aram, who was arrested in King's Lynn. Also pictured is curatorial advisor Dayna Woolbright. Picture: Ian Burt - Credit: Ian Burt

It was an 18th-century tale of murder which became a classic story of 19th-century retribution. Trevor Heaton explores the story of the Norfolk teacher who tried - and failed - to hide his deadly secret.

How the Norwich Mercury reported Eugene Aram's trial. Photo: Sonya Duncan

How the Norwich Mercury reported Eugene Aram's trial. Photo: Sonya Duncan - Credit: Sonya Duncan

In another life, Eugene Aram might have been hailed as an 18th-century intellectual great, a man of keen intellect who was one of the first to spot the way European languages linked together.

His master work – A Comparative Lexicon of the English, Latin, Greek, Hebrew and Celtic Languages – hints at a brilliant insight which put him decades ahead of his time in the study of philology, the science of language development. Perhaps in time he would have produced even more celebrated books.

In another life, perhaps.

But in this one, there was to be no sequel. Because in this life, the disgraced teacher was in jail awaiting his trial; a trial for murder.

Eugene Aram: The King's Lynn murderer as depicted in an 1805 illustration. Photo:

Eugene Aram: The King's Lynn murderer as depicted in an 1805 illustration. Photo: - Credit: Archant

The one-time King's Lynn teacher had been hauled back to Yorkshire to face his accusers, following the discovery of a skeleton thought to be one of his former associates.

The story of Eugene Aram is one of the most famous from the 18th century, a tale of greed, murder and retribution, of a seemingly implacable justice catching up with a killer desperate to flee its grasp.

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No wonder it became one of the most celebrated of its age, and long afterwards. In East Anglia perhaps only the notorious Murder in the Red Barn in Suffolk or Stanfield Hall Murders in Norfolk come close in their hold on the popular imagination.

Aram had been born in 1704 in the tiny Yorkshire village of Ramsgill. He came from a humble background – his father was a gardener – but belied his roots with a brilliant mind which led him to teach himself Greek, Latin and Hebrew.

Inside the old Gaol Cells at the Stories of Lynn museum in King's Lynn is this Gibbet, used for puni

Inside the old Gaol Cells at the Stories of Lynn museum in King's Lynn is this Gibbet, used for punishment after death - Eugene Aram's body would have been displayed in such a device. Picture: Ian Burt - Credit: Ian Burt

Unfortunately, without the benefit of a private income he stood no chance of the academic career to which he was clearly suited. He moved to London to work as a clerk, but returned to Yorkshire after a bout of ill-health.

There he married and became a teacher, living in the small town of Knaresborough, just outside Harrogate. And there he might have remained, leading an unassuming life of study and work.

But then he became friendly with a young shoe-maker, Daniel Clark, who had married a woman with a fortune in trust.

Clark began to spend freely, running up credit with local tradespeople. And then, on February 7 1744… he vanished.

At first it was thought he had simply absconded with his purchases. Aram and another associate of Clark had their property searched. Some of the missing items were found in Aram's garden as well as other friends' properties. Aram's story was that Clarke had left them there.

Still the missing man failed to materialise. Even a 'no questions asked' reward of £15 (more than £3,000 in today's money) failed to provide a lead.

There were more than a few raised eyebrows when Aram started to clear his debts. Where had the money come from? By April 1745, Aram was clearly starting to sense the number of questions being asked was becoming uncomfortable. Without any warning, he abandoned his wife and children and headed off for a life on the road, moving from town to town as a teacher.

He was appointed the 'Usher' (deputy headmaster) of Lynn Grammar School in February 1758. In those days the school was based on the first floor of the 14th-century Charnel Chapel, alongside St Margaret's Church on Saturday Market Place. The chapel – demolished in 1779 - had been built in medieval times to house the bones of the dead. By the 18th century its first floor was given over to the school.

If he thought that by accepting this post far away from Yorkshire he would be safe from any awkward inquiries, he was soon to be proven completely mistaken. He had already been recognised by a visiting horse trader from the county who took the news back north.

A skeleton was discovered close to Knaresborough by a workman in the summer of the same year, reviving memories of Clark's mysterious disappearance 14 years earlier. Mrs Aram – truly a woman scorn'd – immediately accused her errant husband of murdering Clark with the help of one Richard Houseman.

At the inquest into the skeleton the coroner ordered Houseman to pick up one of the bones and admit his guilt. He did - but not in the way anyone was expecting. He said the skeleton was not Clark's… because he knew where Clark's body really was and – yes – he had helped Aram dispose of it after the teacher had murdered him with a pickaxe. The second skeleton was duly found in a nearby cave.

Two constables – 'stern-faced men' according to the famous Thomas Hood poem - were sent to Norfolk to arrest him.

Aram, an expert on classical languages, will have known well the Greek word for this sort of retributive justice: nemesis. And when the officials arrived, Aram would have known that his nemesis had, at last, arrived.

It took a year for the case to be heard at York castle – plenty of time for Aram to ponder his defence. It was typically ingenious. The 'evidence' was all circumstantial, he said, and there was no proof the skeleton was even Clark in the first place.

And would a man of good character like himself really carry out such a shocking crime? At the time of the supposed murder he had been using crutches – could he really have overpowered the younger man? Also, where were the riches that he had allegedly stolen?

It was all in vain. At the back of the minds of the jury must have been that Biblical proverb 'The wicked flee when no man pursueth'. Aram was duly found guilty.

He tried to cheat justice by making an unsuccessful suicide attempt on the morning of his execution, August 6 1759. But Aram did not escape the noose.

Justice in this era, naturally, had not only seen to be done, it had to be seen to be witnessed, both at the time of the execution and long afterwards. As was the custom, the murderer's body was taken to the scene of the crime, where it was hung in chains in a gibbet as a terrible warning to others.

And then, 234 years later, Eugene Aram came back to Lynn. Or rather, his skull, gifted to The Old Gaol House (now known as Stories of Lynn) in 1993 by the Royal College of Surgeons. You can see it there, a few feet from where the school once stood, alongside a skull fragment from Daniel Clark; murderer and victim reunited.

• My thanks to Dr Paul Richards. Find out more about Eugene Aram at Stories of Lynn, based at the historic King's Lynn Town Hall, Saturday Market Place.