Chasing Shadows

Three new books illustrate differing perspectives on historical inquiry, each by examining a different murder case in our nation's history. The similarity ends there, however, for each approaches the task in markedly different ways.

Simon Schama's "Dead Certainties (Unwarranted Speculations)" (Knopf, $21), marks a departure for the author of "Citizens," a revisionist interpretation of the French Revolution, and "The Embarrassment of Riches," a sweeping history of The Netherlands during its golden age. In contrast, Schama focuses his new book on two relatively obscure historical events to illustrate the limits of historical knowledge, the inherent bias of contemporary sources, and the uncertainty pervasive in any attempt to discern historical truth.

He uses two "tales" to make his point. The first involves English General James Wolfe, who was killed while winning the battle of Quebec in 1759. Schama tells of Wolfe's dramatic final days from several perspectives, and working from a variety of sources, he illustrates patriotic fiction in the making.

His second, and somewhat more coherent "tale" tells of the mysterious and gruesome death of George Parkman, whose dismembered remains were discovered at Harvard Medical College in 1849. Professor John Webster, a distinguished chemistry professor was arrested and, in one of the most sensational criminal trials of the 19th century, was convicted and eventually executed for the murder.

Webster's desperate attempts to avoid conviction, and his obvious anguish as he considered the plight of his penniless wife and three daughters, contrast with his popular portrait as an arch villain. In the end, the murder appears to have been less an act of savage calculation than Webster's burst of anger over Parkman's relentless pursuit of a debt; it triggered an accidentally overwhelming blow - and an unsuccessful attempt at coverup.

But even this is uncertain, as Schama "dissolve(s) the certainties of events into the multiple possibilities of alternative narrations." In a poignant passage, he describes his visit to Webster's home more than two centuries later: "One day, of course . . . (t)he pilasters will surrender to the bulldozer. Windows haunted by the white faces of three girls anxiously scanning a catcalling crowd will be smashed to shivers; the entire fabric of history pulverized to dust and expelled into the air."

That, of course, is his entire point: the pulverization of history by the passage of time. As Schama concludes, "historians are left forever chasing shadows, painfully aware of their inability ever to reconstruct a dead world in its completeness . . . We are doomed to be forever hailing someone who has just gone around the corner and out of earshot."

The contrast could hardly be greater with the second book, historian Gerald McFarland's "The Counterfeit Man" (Pantheon, $22.95). In it, McFarland tells the "true story" of the Boorn-Colvin murder case that made headlines in the early 1800s.

The case involved the mysterious disappearance of Russell Colvin after a violent argument with his brothers-in-law on their farm in Vermont. Known for his frequent disappearances, Colvin was not seriously missed until several years later. The Boorn brothers were eventually convicted, one sentenced to die and another sentenced to life imprisonment.

Only at the last moment were the convictions overturned when "Colvin" suddenly appeared and town residents confirmed that it was, in fact, the real Colvin. Doubts, however, have persisted through the years, though McFarland has few. While he purports to tell "the true story," his "startling new solution" amounts to little more than the theory that the accused brothers-in-law hired an imposter. The theory is neither new nor startling, but more fundamentally, McFarland admits to none of the doubt or uncertainty that is the entire point of Schama's work.

The third book, "The Strange Death of Mistress Coffin" (Algonquin, $17.95), avoids both Schama's uncertainty and McFarland's blind faith by reconstructing a 17th-century New England murder as a novel.

The 1640 rape and murder of a young woman, her husband's abandonment of his lawsuit against the most likely suspect, and the suspect's disappearance all provide ample grist for author Robert Begiebing. He offers a tightly written and engaging novel with dramatic portraits of life in pioneer New England.

These three books - to quote Schama - "play with the teasing gap separating a lived event and its subsequent narration." But only Schama admits his own limitations and addresses the complexities of historical research.

Comments are closed.