Posts Tagged ‘ASH’

The Importance of Keeping a Record of Old Cases

September 26, 2009

The Importance of Keeping a Record of Old Cases
E. J. Wagner

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2009 issue of The Serpentine Muse, a quarterly publication of the Adventuresses of Sherlock Holmes.

I was honored this autumn to be invited to join ASH, and to chose a nom d’aventure. It seemed fitting to choose the investiture name “The Record of Old Cases,” because I keep such records myself. It is a habit I acquired from reading the Canon, and writing about these matters has become my vocation.

Sherlock Holmes, as his many admirers know, kept a comprehensive, alphabetical record of intriguing antiquarian crimes. The Great Detective was well aware that a careful analysis of old cases may serve to illuminate new ones—particularly given the depressing lack of originality demonstrated by the modern criminal. Contemporary criminous events often show unnerving similarities to those of the past.

The lavishly publicized and enthusiastically attended murder trial, of O. J. Simpson for the slaying of his estranged wife Nicole and her friend Ron Goldman, springs to mind. It is inevitable that the Simpson murder would at once recall for a crime historian a similar Massachusetts case—I refer, of course to the Fall River Unpleasantness of 1892.

In the hot August of that year, Miss Lizzie Borden of Fall River suffered the massive embarrassment of having both her father and step-mother murdered in a single morning. As in the Simpson matter, the homicide scene was domestic, the victims male and female, the weapon missing, the wounds vicious, and the suspect both well-known and wealthy. Both trials saw the public riveted, the press ubiquitous, the accused deftly and expensively defended. The defendants achieved both acquittals and the disdain of society, and went on to live unhappily ever after.

In 1983, the disappearance of a young woman named Robin Benedict led to a charge of murder against Dr. William H. Douglas, a professor of anatomy at Tufts University Medical School. Although there was no identified body, there was sufficient biological evidence of homicide in his car for the prosecutors to be confident. Douglas eventually confessed to the killing with a sledge hammer in a sudden burst of passion.

Disciples of Mr. Holmes, familiar with his index of biographies, would at once recognize the parallel to the famous Boston case of 1849, in which a Professor Webster at the Harvard Medical School was charged with the murder of disappeared Dr. George Parkman. Dr. Webster, too, confessed, claiming he killed the victim by striking him with a stick of wood, in an explosive rage.

As I write this in the spring of 2009, a jury considers the fate of a well-known rock music impresario, famous for his highly original coiffures as well as for his innovative recording technique. He stands accused of the murder of a woman who was alone with him when she died of a gunshot wound to her head. The defense, bolstered by an impressive array of forensic specialists, argues that the lady impulsively committed suicide.

This tugs at the memory of connoisseurs of crime—we can picture Mr. Holmes “looking lovingly over the record of old cases” and musing “My collection of M’s is a fine one . . . Morgan the poisoner . . . Merridew of abominable memory . . . Mathews who knocked out my left canine in the waiting room at Charing Cross . . .” and this train of thought of course brings us to the 1926 Merrett case in Scotland.

John Donald Merrett was alone with his mother when she suddenly collapsed with a gunshot wound in her head. Attended by a panoply of famous forensic specialists and attorneys, the young man claimed maternal suicide as a defense. Merrett was rewarded by the charmingly genteel Scottish verdict, “Not Proven.” He went on to live an adventurous life which culminated, amazingly, in his killing his wife and mother-in-law.

It is obvious that a thorough knowledge of old crimes is a most useful thing, and one wonders why criminal history is so sadly neglected by our educational system. I presume the Master would explain, “The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes.”