Desktop version

Home arrow Language & Literature

  • Increase font
  • Decrease font

<<   CONTENTS   >>

Classicist criminals and lunatics

A few classicists have unambiguously joined the underclass in being convicted of violent crimes and/or confined in asylums. Eugene Aram (1704—1759) was a self-taught philologist from Ramsgill, Yorkshire, who, despite his humble origins (his father worked as a gardener for a clergyman) and scanty education, became a philologist of a high order.7’ (Figure 17.5) He compiled extensive evidence for the Indo-European roots of the Celtic languages almost a century before J.C. Prichard’s Eastern Origin of the Celtic Nations (1831). Throughout his life, Aram taught himself Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Arabic and Chaldee. One of his major feats

‘Eugene Aram (1704—1759)’ by Becky Brewis (2019). © Becky Brewis 2019

FIGURE 17.5 ‘Eugene Aram (1704—1759)’ by Becky Brewis (2019). © Becky Brewis 2019.

as a philologist was to dispute the then accepted notion that Latin was derived from Greek.76

But Aram was also a murderer, a thief and reportedly lived incestuously with his daughter.77 In 1744, when he had been working as a schoolmaster in Netherdale, he was arrested in connection to the disappearance of his close friend Daniel Clarke. Although the local authorities found Clarke’s possessions in Aram’s garden, they had insufficient evidence to convict the teacher of his murder. Newly freed, Aram quickly abandoned his wife and began a new life in London, where he continued his philological research and taught Latin at a school in Piccadilly. In 1759, however, 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 before his corpse was suspended in chains in Knaresborough forest, where his friend’s body had been discovered.78 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 20th-century poetry and fiction.79

The other murderous classicist was born exactly a century later, in Ireland. The Reverend John Selby Watson, a graduate ofTCD 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.80 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 12 years in Parkhurst Prison, where he died after falling out of his hammock.81

Classical studies are sometimes associated with damage to mental health. At least two of the ‘Ragged-Trousered Philologists’ discussed in Chapter 15, Richard Jones and Andrew Donaldson, suffered from psychological disorders. The Norwich-based poet (and coincidentally student of Professor Dalzel), Frank Sayers, was reported by his friend William Taylor in the early 1829s to have suffered a breakdown while at university due to an excess of classical studies, no sunlight and no exercise.82 At around the same time, one patient straitjacketed at Dr. Edward Fox’s Brislington asylum was a red-faced lawyer whose principal symptom was jabbering passages from Virgil.83 In 1840, at Bethlehem, St. George’s Field, Southwark, Professor Edward Peithman was (probably without due cause) committed for lunacy after harassing Prince Albert with his eccentric schemes for educational reform; his diagnosis was much discussed because his ability to read Latin and Greek seemed at odds with his ‘uncouth’ appearance and ‘indecent propensities’.84 A sign of Georgina Weldon’s incipient derangement during her affair with the composer Charles Gounod, whose most famous work at the time was Sapho [sic], was that she renamed the destitute girls in the orphanage she ran ‘Sapho-Katie’ and ‘Sapho-Baucis’.85

One of the earliest adaptations of a classical text for young children, Charles Lamb’s The Adventures of Ulysses, commissioned by William Godwin, is associated with both lunacy and alcoholism. At this time Charles was drawing strength from his unorthodox religious convictions in order to keep control both of his own drinking and of his sister Mary’s sanity; after stabbing their mother (who had neglected her as a child) to death in 1796, Mary had only been allowed out of the asylum because her brother had promised to oversee her. Mary’s input into Charles’s writing during these years was immense; much of the first children’s version of the Odyssey may therefore have been written by a childless manic depressive who had murdered her own mother.86

But the most famous lunatic classicist by far was Edward Oxford, who allegedly tried to assassinate the young Queen Victoria in 1840. His supposed madness was cured after he learned languages including Latin and Greek in the State Criminal Lunatic Asylum at Bethlehem and in Broadmoor. Oxford was born in Birmingham in 1822, became a barman as a teenager and by 1840 was working in the Hog in the Pound pub just off Oxford Street, London.87 On 10th June he fired two shots from separate pistols at the pregnant young monarch as her carriage was driven out of Buckingham Palace. Although no bullets were ever found, he was tried for treason at the Old Bailey. His family gave evidence that he was insane. He was a model student in the asylum, becoming an excellent scholar of languages including the classical ones;88 doctors remarked on his intelligence and regarded him as hardworking and sane.89 Three years later he was released on condition that he emigrated forever to a colony, and he sailed for Australia. He lived in Melbourne, writing a book under the name of John Freeman, entitled Lights and Shadows of Melbourne Life (1888). This is an amusing and class-conscious piece of social analysis, which includes a comparison of a travelling winkle-seller to ancient ascetic philosophers, and a discussion of a wealthy snobbish female under the soubriquet ‘Volumnia’.90 It thus bears several traces not of an Oxford classical education, but of Oxford’s classical education in the asylum.

<<   CONTENTS   >>

Related topics