E. J. Wagner on “The Tell-Tale Murder”

Courtesy of E.J. Wagner

E. J. Wagner is a crime historian, author of the Edgar Award-winning book The Science of Sherlock Holmes and the moderator of the forensic forum at the Museum of Long Island Natural Sciences at Stony Brook University. I recently caught up with her about her experience researching her November feature story “The Tell-Tale Murder,” about the death of a wealthy slave trader in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1830, that would inspire the writings of Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne.

How did you first become interested in forensic science?
When I first got out of drama school, I got a job ghostwriting speeches. I got assigned to writing speeches for doctors a lot, and I was invited to go down to the medical examiner’s office in New York City. I became absolutely fascinated by not only the work but also the kind of people who work there. I kept going back. I kept learning more. And when I got a job at the university [Stony Brook], with its outreach science department, I did a lecture on forensic science. The medical examiner’s office in Suffolk County invited me to do research in their facility, and I began to work very closely with them. Medical examiners are very interesting storytellers. Almost everyone in a forensic lab is, because they have to get on the witness stand and explain a complicated, scientific matter to a lay audience.

Where and how do you dig up interesting cases?
The case I wrote about, I literally came across in this anthology of old crime stories in a bookshop in Greenwich Village in the middle of a rainstorm. I happened to go in there. I found it, and I was flipping through it. They had a version of the summation of the case—Daniel Webster’s famous speech—and my immediate feeling was I’ve read this before. Where have I seen it? It finally dawned on me that it sounded incredibly like Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Tell-Tale Heart.” A lot of cases come about just that way.

How did you go about your research?
I went to Salem. I had been there before, researching the witchcraft trials, so I had a good feeling for where things were. The murder house, the jail, the scene of the execution of the convicted and the cemetery where the victim and the executed are buried are all within two blocks of each other. I interviewed the curator at PEM [Peabody Essex Museum]. The museum’s library houses all the primary documents, and I spent a couple of happy days sitting there covered with dust going through these things and finding things that people had just kind of put in a file.

Why was the murder case so quickly forgotten?
It was forgotten because there were people who were very, very eager to make it forgotten. At the time, slavery was common. But as the abolitionist movement grew, no one wanted to remember that. In spite of what Webster said about the victim being this saintly old man, this old man was a slaver. Not only a slaver, but a slaver who said to the minister, I have no problem selling any part of the human race. He had to be a bit of a monster. I think people didn’t want to remember that. The alleged murderers were members of very old, prominent families. No one wanted that talked about if they could avoid it. It was just a giant embarrassment for Salem.

Now, everyone in Salem is so gripped by its witchcraft history, if they are aware of this at all, it’s just this foggy thing—oh yeah, there was something that happened in one of the old houses.

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