By Tom Richardson, Archivist
Since the 13th century, coroners have been appointed to investigate cases of sudden, violent or unnatural death. The Record Office holds several thousand historic coroner’s inquest papers though very few survive from before the 19th century.
We have recently taken deposit of a file of papers from a coroner’s inquest held in 1758, which is connected to one of the most notorious murder cases of the 18th century, the murder of Daniel Clark by Eugene Aram.
The papers comes from an inquest held at Knaresborough on 12th August 1758, which followed the discovery of a skeleton at Thistle Hill by farmer William Thompson. It contains a series of witness depositions together with a record of the inquest which gives the verdict together with the seals and signatures of the jurors.
In his deposition, Thompson states that he unearthed a human arm bone and splinter bone digging for stones on 1st August 1758. Returning to the same site two days later, he discovered the remaining parts of the skeleton ‘about half a yard and half a quarter’ beneath the ground in a doubled up position. According to his statement, which is signed with a cross, Thompson believed the skeleton to have been a murder victim.
It was supposed that the remains were the body of Daniel Clark, a Knaresborough shoemaker who had disappeared in February 1744. Two local surgeons were called to inspect the skeleton and, having broken the thighbone, concluded that the remains had been in the ground about ‘thirteen or fourteen years’, which fit perfectly with the timeframe of Clark’s disappearance.
Several of Daniel Clark’s neighbours and acquaintances were called to give evidence to the inquest. William Tutin stated that he knew Clark very well in his lifetime, and had last seen him at 3am on 8th February 1744. Talking to Clark in the street he had observed, by moonlight, Eugene Aram and Richard Houseman standing at Clark’s cellar door. Tutin recalled that after their conversation had finished, Clark went away towards them and that he never saw him again.
Philip Coates, who had known Daniel Clark since childhood, remembered that he was also with Clark in the early hours of the 8th February 1744. The next day, Clark was nowhere to be seen, with his maid supposing that he had gone to Newall to be with his wife. In the following days, Coates travelled to Newall to seek Clark though ‘…could not hear of him nor ever did.’. Coates went on to state that as he knew of no other missing persons from Knaresborough or its neighbourhood other than Clark and he had ‘great reason to believe’ that the remains were Daniel Clark who had received a large sum of money prior to his disappearance.
Barbara Leetham and John Yeats also stated that they knew Daniel Clark in his lifetime and, shortly after his disappearance, were passing by Thistle Hill and observed freshly dug ground where the skeleton was found. Yeats ‘presumed it might contain a boy of about twelve years of age’.
Stephen Latham recalled that shortly after Clark’s disappearance he had been employed to arrest local schoolmaster Eugene Aram on charges of debt. Aram, who he had known to be very poor, produced a large sum of money to pay off the debts and had ‘very great quantities’ of Daniel Clark’s goods in his custody.
Anna Aram, the estranged wife of Eugene, claimed that her husband had been at home with Clark and Richard Houseman on the night of Clark’s disappearance. The three men went out at 3am with her husband returning with Houseman two hours later. Anna then overheard her husband discussing with Houseman whether or not to murder Anna, as the two men set about burning some clothes. Anna stated that she never saw Clark again, telling the inquest clearly that she believed him to have been murdered by her husband.
The inquest found that the remains were indeed those of Daniel Clark who had been murdered at about 3am on the 8th February 1744 by ‘…some person unknown to the said jurors not having the fear of god before their eyes but being moved and seduced by the instigation of the devil…’.
We do not hold any records of the subsequent investigation into Clark’s disappearance, though contemporary accounts tell us the next twist in the tale. Under examination, Richard Houseman admitted to being present when Aram murdered Clark though stated that this took place in St Robert’s Cave and that they buried the victim nearby.
Following Houseman’s admission, a second skeleton was found at St Robert’s Cave and Eugene Aram was arrested in Norfolk where he had been working as a schoolmaster. Aram was tried for murder at the Assizes and, despite an elaborate defence, was executed at York on 16 August 1759.
Aram’s body was gibbeted just outside Knaresborough. His skull was acquired by the Royal College of Surgeons, who have since transferred it to Stories of Lynn museum in King’s Lynn.
The case of Eugene Aram continues to fascinate a wide range of writers and researchers. The son of a gardener from Nidderdale, Aram had acquired a deep understanding of Greek, Hebrew and Latin, eventually becoming an accomplished philologist and schoolmaster. It is understood that he taught in Knaresborough for around ten years, leaving shortly after Clark’s disappearance. After a period travelling the country during the 1740s and 1750s, he eventually settled in Kings Lynn where he took the position of usher at the grammar school.
Published accounts of the Eugene Aram trial appeared shortly after the trial’s conclusion and proved popular, remaining in print well into the 19th century. Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s popular 1831 novel Eugene Aram ran to several editions, being adapted into three different silent films in 1914, 1915 and 1924. Thomas Hood’s 1832 ballad The Dream of Eugene Aram relates to Aram’s life as a schoolmaster with a secret past, and is quoted various times in the works of PG Wodehouse.
We do not know if the remains found at Thistle Hill were ever identified, and no record of their burial appears in the parish registers. Nor do we know whether Aram would have got away with his crime if William Thompson had not made his gruesome find whilst digging for stones in August 1758.
The inquest papers we hold have been assigned the reference Z.1721 and can be consulted, by appointment, in our searchroom.
A Murderer in the School: The case of Eugene Aram of King’s Lynn from the Norfolk Record Office Blog
A number of accounts of Aram’s life and trial, including the works by Bulwer-Lytton and Hood, are freely available online.
The National Archives hold some papers relating to Aram’s trial amongst the Assize court records