852 RARE: The Weekly Special – Studies in Scarlet Revisited

Nesbett Murder
Hand-colored illustration accompanying the account of James Nesbett's murder trial

On my desk sits “The Cuckold’s Chronicle,” a handsome little volume comprised of 14 accounts of scandalous early 19-century English trials. The Harvard Law School Library’s collection contains many such accounts, including books, pamphlets, and Harvard’s online collection, Studies in Scarlet. The title “Studies in Scarlet,” by the way, comes from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1886 detective novel, “A Study in Scarlet.” According to Wikipedia, the book’s title is taken from a speech by Sherlock Holmes in which the latter “describes the story’s murder investigation as his ‘study in scarlet’: “There’s the scarlet thread of murder running through the colourless skein of life, and our duty is to unravel it, and isolate it, and expose every inch of it.”

The contributors to our little volume had no such lofty intentions. They merely wanted to give their readers a salacious thrill, as in “A Correct Account of the Horrible Occurrence … in which it was discovered that The Right Rev. Father in God the Bishop of Clogher … was a principal actor with A Common Soldier!” Or perhaps a good laugh, as in “Funny Trials!!! Justice Shaking her Sides and The Court Convulsed with Laughter, in A Select Collection of … Trials, for Robberies, Rapes, Bigamy … and other Offenses.”

Powlett v. Sackville
Illustration accompanying the account of the trial of Powlett v. Sackville

But the best parts of this book may be the illustrations. Most of them are printed on fold-out paper larger than the book itself. Many are hand-colored, as in this illustration of “The Discovery” and “The inquisitive Chamber Maid” from the trial between Col. Powlett and Lord Sackville for criminal conversation with Powlett’s wife. For good gory fun, one cannot beat the large fold-out illustration accompanying the trial of James Nesbett for the murder of Mr. Parker and Sarah Brown. Though rather crudely drawn overall, the colorist took great care to add copious amounts of blood gushing from the heads of Nesbett’s victims.

If you have a scholarly interest in historical trials or are just plain curious, we hope you will enjoy browsing through Studies in Scarlet.


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