Sunday 30 June 2019

Murderers who Moonlit as Classicists

Classicists are not always the most virtuous of people, but two classicists have outdone the rest of us mere narcissists, grudge-holders and backbiters by committing murder in England. I don’t know if it’s the heat or the mental strain of the Tory leadership contest, but I have an urge to blog about them today.

Murder Victim
Bionic Translator
The Reverend John Selby Watson, an Irishman, a graduate of Trinity College Dublin, and headmaster of Stockwell Grammar School, was in 1872 sentenced to death, despite his plea of insanity, for battering his wife to death with the butt of his pistol; his sentence was subsequently reduced to life imprisonment. 

Watson had acquired mild fame as a prodigiously prolific classical translator;  he had translated Quintilian, Xenophon, Lucretius, Cicero, Sallust, Florus, Velleius Paterculus, Justin, Cornelius Nepos, and Eutropius for Bohn’s Classical Library. He lived out his last twelve years in Parkhurst Prison, where he died after falling out of his hammock.

Eugene Aram (1704-59), on the other hand, was an entirely self-taught philologist from Ramsgill, Yorkshire. Despite his humble origins (his father worked as a gardener for a clergyman), he became a philologist of a high order. He taught himself Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Arabic and Chaldaean, proved the Indo-European roots of the Celtic languages almost a century before  J.C. Prichard’s lauded Eastern Origin of the Celtic Nations (1831) and was one of the first to dispute the then commonly held view that Latin was derived from Greek.

But Aram was also a murderer, a thief, and reportedly lived incestuously with his daughter. In 1744, he killed his ‘best friend’ Daniel Clarke (nobody knows why although rumours about a woman abounded). He fled to London and earned a living teaching Latin in a school in Piccadilly. He managed to avoid trial until 1759, when Clarke’s body was found in a cave. Aram admitted his crime and attempted suicide by slitting his arm above the elbow. He failed in the attempt and was hanged without delay from the gallows in York.

Would you Learn Latin from This Man?
His corpse was suspended in chains in Knaresborough forest, where his friend’s body had been discovered. The dark philologist’s infamy lived on in Thomas Hood’s ballad The Dream of Eugene Aram, a novel by Edward Bulwer-Lytton called Eugene Aram, a play by W.G. Wills of the same name, and sundry allusions to his exploits in a 1915 silent movie, poetry and fiction. P.G. Wodehouse was fascinated by Aram, and refers to him in several of his novels about Jeeves and Bertie Wooster.

I’m not proposing that we add these two gentlemen unreservedly to the annals and canonical list of Heroes of the History of Classical Scholarship. But they certainly make it a little more colourful. I’d be interested to hear of other dastardly classicists who committed nefarious deeds in other countries.

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