A sordid case that spread sensation like wildfire across an 1830s America just beginning to flex its national brand of jurisprudence.
Historical crime annals can wax dry as a crust unless their contemporary chronicler captures the tenor and texture of the times, the prevailing moods and opinions, and delivers them to the reader without breaking stride. True-crime veteran Wolfe (Double Life, 1994, etc.) gets good grades on all counts. Readers will feel every jolt, jostle, and spasm of motion sickness, for example, on the 1831 stagecoach ride from Albany to Syracuse taken by fallen fugitive Lucretia, widow of William Chapman, whose desperation is underscored by the harrowing journey itself. In addition, the author builds suspense for the fatal encounter by fleshing out the backgrounds of the three main characters literally from the cradle: Lucretia, the comely but imposingly statuesque New England teacher; William, the portly recovered stammerer who envisioned a commercial windfall in curing other sufferers and rescued the schoolmarm from spinsterhood in 1818; and the ingratiating Lino, the very prototype of a Latin lover, whose character flaws ran so deep that he couldn’t help running a scam on any provincial Pennsylvanian standing within earshot, if only for the exercise. To this ménage, add marital discord and a Philadelphia pharmacist willing to dispense four ounces of arsenic to someone claiming to plan a venture in taxidermy. (Remember, at some point in history, every “likely story” could have sounded thoroughly plausible.) The author then unravels agonizing death, growing suspicion, primitively gory forensics, detection, flight, capture, local political intrigues, and prosecution, leading to a pair of trials perhaps exceeded in impact on a fledgling nation only by that of Aaron Burr for killing Alexander Hamilton.
Slightly marred by the author’s tendency to wandering wordiness, but lovers of the genre will certainly forgive her.