Flat true-crime tale that carries some weight as social history. McFarland (History/U. Mass.; A Scattered People, 1985) had the nifty idea that "a controversial crime could provide an excellent starting point for studying a community and the social tensions that afflicted it. . ." Searching library stacks, he stumbled across the Russell Colvin murder case. The facts mystify: Colvin, a "weak-minded" laborer, vanished from Manchester, Vermont, in 1812. No body was found, but seven years later his brothers-in-law, Stephen and Jesse Boom, were convicted of his murder. As Stephen's date for death by hanging approached, the missing man turned up alive—but was it Colvin or a hired double who stunned Manchester with his reappearance? McFarland, who sees an impostor at work, adds flesh to these bones with a reconstruction of the trial, portraits of the chief players, and ample information on early 19th-century folk beliefs (vampire plagues, ghosts), penal methods (branding), vices (horse-racing, gambling), and so on. The background successfully places the crime in its social context, but McFarland's journeyman prose rarely ventures beyond straightforward reporting of the facts. Good case, dull presentation.
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