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the murder of dr. chapman

20 july 2016

The Murder of Dr. Chapman, by Linda Wolfe, is one of those histories where the author patches in all kinds of local color from indirect sources. We learn about stagecoach travel, 19th-century medical and legal proceedings, the geography and customs of Philadelphia and Bucks County in the 1830s, early prisons, Joseph Bonaparte, and many another interesting thing – not as the characters directly reported them, but as they might have experienced them. There's nothing really wrong with this approach, as long as it's lively and the author owns up to the technique in her documentation (check and check). But as history it's a somewhat outmoded style – even while, as true crime, it can be luridly compelling.

Wolfe paints a lurid canvas indeed. In Andalusia, Pennsylvania, in 1831, the Dr. Chapman of the title died a painful death from a stomach ailment. Forensic tests for arsenic were unknown till a few years later. What was known was that Chapman showed all the symptoms of arsenic poisoning and none of the various natural causes that might have put an end to him. Also known was that his lodger, a thief and con man supposedly named Lino Espos y Mina, had recently bought four ounces of arsenic powder. You don't exactly have to be C. Auguste Dupin to put this picture together.

Lucretia Chapman was tried for her husband's murder and acquitted. Mina was subsequently tried, convicted, and hanged. Wolfe concludes that justice was served. She infers from the course of the story that Lucretia didn't know that Mina was fixing to poison her husband – even though she was Mina's lover, and would marry him just nine days after William Chapman's death. Wolfe's theory makes sense. Immediately after marrying Lucretia, Mina started to swindle her blind, and seems never to have lived with her after getting access to her money. Surely an accomplice to a first husband's murder would have had a little more hold over her second. Mina seems eventually to have told Lucretia what he'd done and threaten to take her down with him if she complained. But her defense in court cast blame on him, and the juries believed her.

Mina comes across as a pathological con artist, irrepressibly addicted to fabricating story upon story. The wonder is that anyone believed him, but he seems to have made his way in the world by staying mobile and rarely returning to the same mark twice. But the entire story, as Wolfe tells it, is about the refabricating of selves in the growing republic. William Chapman, for instance, was not really a doctor. As a young man he'd stammered, outgrew or otherwise conquered the impediment, and set up as a patented speech therapist. "Dr." Chapman ran a longer and slower con game than Mina, but a con game of sorts it surely was.

Lucretia Chapman was a more straightforward, if self-taught, boarding-school teacher. She had come from Cape Cod after a failed engagement, and remade herself as a maidenly French teacher despite knowing little French and having uncertain qualifications to maidenhood. She taught herself piano and set herself up as a teacher of refinements to girls, marrying Chapman in the process and teaming well with him at first. But a life in the suburbs as a purveyor of minor social accomplishments left her bored, and she went a bit crazy over the good-looking – Mexican? Colombian? Cuban? – whoever Mina was claiming to be, when he showed up at her door.

Much of Wolfe's information comes from contemporary "trial books" (178-79), which were precursors to later forms of true-crime stories. Conventions haven't changed much in 180 years, so the last third of Wolfe's book covers the two sensational trials. Lucretia's attorney David Paul Brown seems to have been a little fey in his elegant verbiage, but he was undeniably resourceful in the matter of stirring up reasonable doubt. Brown went on to a long career as the archetypal Philadelphia lawyer. Lucretia Chapman was dead within a few years, in uncertain circumstances, having gone off to try to reinvent herself one last time somewhere else. In Wolfe's hands the story is tinged with sadness, but is suspenseful and diverting. It provides yet another window onto the range of cruelty in human experience.

Wolfe, Linda. The Murder of Dr. Chapman: The legendary trials of Lucretia Chapman and her lover. New York: HarperCollins, 2004. HV 6239 .W65