Read, Reviewed, and Recommended: Paul Collins, Blood & Ivy: The 1849 Murder that Scandalized Harvard
Rosa Tremaine, Library Assistant at WHM
In Blood & Ivy: The 1849 Murder that Scandalized Harvard, Paul Collins weaves a complex true crime tale that twists around itself rather like the hangman’s noose that casts a long and deadly shadow over the plot. The book begins and ends with Charles Dickens, a device that is both clever and relevant to the context. I had always assumed Dickens to be exaggerating his characters into caricatures of themselves, but the real-life people in Blood & Ivy are every bit as eccentric and bizarre as any fictional creation, and under Collins’ expert hands they spring to vivid life and march boldly off the page. It is a masterpiece of storytelling but also of historical investigation. The extensive notes in the back of the book are a testament to the author’s dedication to accuracy and detail, yet it never reads as a dry recitation of history. A distinctly Victorian flavour of gruesome fascination pervades the story, but is tempered by a frank modern appreciation of fact as well as how the case of Professor Webster was a legal trailblazer for subsequent trials.
If the conclusion of the case is somewhat unsatisfying, Paul Collins cannot be held to blame for the unanswered questions left hanging in the air – real life does not always provide a tidy and complete explanation for its mysteries.
A touch of local colour is added to my review of this book by our head librarian’s recent serendipitous rediscovery in our archives of a Worcester Daily Spy article from 1850, covering the culmination of the Webster case.