Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Aram, Eugene

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ARAM, EUGENE (1704–1759), was born in 1704, probably in September, at Ramsgill, Netherdale, Yorkshire. His father was gardener to Sir Edward Blackett, of Newby; and after receiving the elements of education at Ripon, he went to London to be placed in the counting-house of a member of the family. An attack of small-pox occasioned him to lose his situation. Returning into Yorkshire he applied himself to study with so much diligence that he was soon able to open a school at his native place, where he married, very unfortunately as it would seem; thence he removed to Knaresborough in 1734. He there continued to teach, occupying his leisure hours in the study of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, until, in 1745, he left the town under suspicion of being concerned in a fraud practised by a man named Daniel Clark, who, having borrowed a large quantity of valuable property under various pretexts, suddenly disappeared, and was not again heard of for many years. Aram now led a roving life, teaching in various schools, at one time earning his bread as copyist to a law stationer in London, but continually prosecuting his studies, to which botany, heraldry, French, Arabic, and the Celtic tongues were added, and laying the foundation of a comparative dictionary of all European languages. In August 1758, while usher at a private school at Lynn Regis, he was arrested on the charge of having murdered Clark, on the information of an acomplice named Houseman. Houseman had been long suspected, and the discovery of a skeleton supposed to be Clark's had led to his apprehension. 'This,' asseverated Houseman, 'is no more Dan Clark's bone than it is mine.' His peculiar manner warranted the inference that he at all events knew where Clark's remains were, and upon being pressed he acknowledged that Clark had been murdered by Aram and buried in St. Robert's Cave, near Knaresborough; where, upon search being made, a skeleton was actually found. Aram was consequently apprehended, and tried at York on 3 Aug. 1759, Houseman appearing as the sole witness against him. He defended himself with extraordinary ability, laying but little stress on the tainted character of Houseman, who, he probably thought when he prepared his speech, would not be admitted to give evidence, but insisting on the fallibility of circumstantial testimony, and adducing numerous instances of the discovery of human remains. His speech, however, does not breathe the generous indignation of an innocent man; and though it is said to have impressed the jury, it did not influence the summing up of the judge. Aram was convicted, and executed on 6 Aug., after having attempted suicide by opening his. veins with a razor. Before his death he acknowledged his guilt to two clergymen, but alleged, no doubt truly, that Houseman had had the principal hand in the deed, and ascribed his own share in it to the desire of avenging his wife's infidelity with Clark, The body was conveyed to Knaresborough and hung in chains. Ghastly stories are told of his wife, who continued to live at Knaresborough, picking up the bones as they dropped one by one, and of his children taking strangers to view their father's gibbet. The eldest daughter, Sally, however, appears to have been a very interesting person, with a strong resemblance to her father. After several adventures she married comfortably in London. The last known descendants of Aram emigrated to America.

Aram was undoubtedly convicted on the testimony of a greater criminal than himself, and his talents and misfortunes excite so much interest that it would be satisfactory to be able to concur with Bulwer's view that he was merely guilty of robbery. Unhappily all external evidence tends to fix upon him the charge of participation in deliberate fraud and murder, and there is little in his general conduct to rebut it. His indulgence to children and his kindness to animals are indeed amiable traits attested on good authority, but such as have frequently been found compatible with great moral obliquity. As a self-taught scholar he has had many equals: but his peculiar distinction is to have lighted upon a truth of the greatest moment, unrecognised in his day by any scholar — the affinity of the Celtic to the other European languages. He had indeed been anticipated by Edward Lhuyd, and to a less extent by Davies and Sheringham; but their observations had passed unregarded. Aram's fragment on the subject, though marred by fanciful analogies between Celtic and Hebrew, proves that he had thoroughly grasped it. He had a clear perception of the importance of local names in etymology, and he was perhaps the only man. in his age who disputed the direct derivation, of Latin from Greek. It is hardly too much to say that had he enjoyed wealth and leisure he might have advanced the study of comparative philology by fifty years. Nothing of any scientific value was done to establish the Indo-European affinities of the Celtic languages until the publication gf Prichard's 'Eastern Origin of the Celtic Nations,' in 1831. Aram's name does not appear in Prichard's book.

[The most copious authority for Aram's life is Norrison Scatcherd (Memoirs, 2nd edition, 1838; Gleanings, 1836). Scatcherd is a writer of great industry, but little judgment, whose romantic interest in Aram led him to collect everything referring to him in the slightest degree. A contemporary account, carefully compiled by W. Bristow, and including Aram's defence and most of his other compositions, was printed at Knaresborough and in London in 1759, and often since. The best edition is that printed at Richmond in 1832. See also the Annual Register for 1759, pp. 360-65. Aram is probably best known from the highly idealised portrait in Bulwer's brilliant novel. Bulwer derived the idea of this work from Godwin, who had meditated a romance on the same subject, but he departed from his original. Bulwer makes his hero, temporarily bewildered by sophistry, a malefactor on utilitarian principles for the general good of mankind. Godwin aimed at inculcating that 'no man shall die respecting whom it can be reasonably concluded that, if his life were spared, it would be spent blamelessly, honourably, and usefully' (Kegan Paul, William Godwin, ii. 305). Hood's Dream of Eugene Aram is known to all readers of poetry.]

R. G.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.7
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

Page Col. Line  
54 i 1 Aram, Eugene: for Netherdale read Nidderdale
30 for a private school at Lynn Regis read the corporation school of Lynn Regis