"That which was once too shocking for recital, now forms a part of the intellectual regalia which the public appetite demands with a gusto." These words, written in 1831, surely resonate with us in these times, when every nauseating detail of one's private life can be traipsed across the headlines or subjected to prime-time scrutiny - especially if one is accused of high crimes and misdemeanors. This forms part of the thesis of Linda Wolfe's compelling recounting of love, death and justice in post-Revolutionary America.
When you have a handsome and rather smarmy young woman, her older, straitlaced husband, and a male boarder with Latin charms, you can be looking for foul play from page one. Wolfe allows the drama to build from the moment the doctor is first sent for, then takes us back to the events leading up to the fatal poisoning of Dr. William Chapman.
Chapman was an amateur scientist who had found, he claimed, a cure for stuttering, an affliction from which he had suffered until a life-threatening battle experience simply removed the disability entirely. He started a clinic for the treatment of speech disabilities, while his young wife, the intelligent and upwardly mobile Lucretia, ran a successful school for girls.
Things could have progressed slowly and calmly, as this somewhat ill-matched couple strove ever forward in a decent partnership suited to the respectable times, their social station and their residence near Philadelphia, a moral high ground of Quaker sensibilities.
But into the picture came one Lino Espos y Mina, a nasty if sympathetic piece of work, a bounder of the first stripe who had lies and delusions to fit his every whim. A Cuban who had been banished from his native soil, a sociopathic petty criminal who would do or say anything to stay comfortable, Lino happened into Pennsylvania, and took lodging with the Chapmans. He spun them a tale of wealth and promised to pay a princely sum for his lodging and tuition if he were allowed to stay. Both William and Lucretia fell for it, to their peril.
Lucretia became far too intimate with the charming Latin Lothario, taking any excuse to find herself alone with him, that being enough, in those times, to mark her as a bad woman. Her fling with Lino would prove her downfall. Yet when Dr Chapman took sick, there was no suspicion that he might have been poisoned, though it later seemed obvious since Lino had bought arsenic just days before, and the neighbor's ducks, feasting on the remains of the meal so solicitously given to him by his wife, fell over dead, providing one of the only humorous side-bars to this grim reportage.
The faithless Lino immediately married Lucretia - the smitten woman later claimed she was thinking of the children. But very shortly after, Lino took off on a trip - he always had a pretext - and never came back. As evidence mounted that he was a rotter, Lucretia became increasingly hopeless and cast down. The bill from a hotel - "board for self and two ladies" and "the use of a private parlor"- was sufficiently incriminating, as was his claim of having gone to New Orleans by train when there was no train line to New Orleans at the time.
The centerpiece of the book is not the crime, fascinating as it is, but the trial itself, not terribly different from modern-day events, though remarkably swifter. There is forensic evidence, jury selection, in-depth coverage of conditions behind bars for the 19th-century criminal, the personalities of the lawyers, and the daily happenings in the courtroom. In all, a well researched, well-written slice of murder in the first, 1830s-style.