People & Events: Edgar Allen Poe, Detective Fiction, and the Parkman Murder
Sam Spade, Charlie's Angels, Nero Wolfe, NYPD Blue, Sherlock Holmes, Easy Rawlins, Chinatown, Miss Marple, The Silence of the Lambs, Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, Precious Ramotswe, even Scooby Doo...the list is endless. Detective stories captivate us today in books, on television, and at the movies. Fictional policemen, FBI agents, lawyers, criminal profilers, private investigators, or savvy kids who unravel the layers of a crime have become stock entertainment characters. Yet it was not always so. The roots of modern detective fiction go back over 150 years to a Boston-born master of the macabre, Edgar Allan Poe. And the most shocking true-crime story in Poe's day was the Parkman murder.
The First Detective Story
Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin, a Frenchman of unusually acute -- if almost "diseased" -- intelligence, informs the police that an orangutan committed a seemingly unsolvable murder. Thus is born, in Edgar Allan Poe's The Murders in the Rue Morgue, the world's first sleuth, and the first story of detective fiction. Poe's focus on the gruesome nature of crimes -- and the intellectual triumph in their solution -- opened a door for readers to approach their fears and fascinations about crime and death.
The Murders in the Rue Morgue was published in 1841. Eight years later, when the Parkman murder shocked the nation, detective fiction was well-established in America. Readers approached morbidity and murder all the more easily because the stories were fictional -- and they were learning to fancy themselves sleuths in their own right. Thanks to Poe, many Bostonians doubtless would have been familiar with crime tales when the grisly details of the Parkman murder began to unfold.
In 1846 Boston placed its first official police detectives on the city payroll. Over the preceding hundred years, police work had mainly relied on the evidence brought forth voluntarily by witnesses. As cities grew larger -- and law and order became harder to maintain -- professionalized police forces emerged. Boston was one of the first American cities to realize the value of hands-on "detection" of criminal activity. Boston's elite citizens could scarcely believe one of their own was capable of murder, preferring to suspect the city's immigrants. But Boston's tough young police marshal, Francis Tukey, sent his men to inspect John Webster's laboratory for clues -- and ended up arresting the esteemed Harvard professor. The true story of a crime in their midst fascinated Bostonians, who lined up to rotate through the spectators' gallery at the trial, and eagerly read newspaper accounts.
Poe's works seemed to obsess about fear and death. He was not afraid to face these themes head-on, or to offer them to the reading public. It was an age when death lurked much closer to human life -- at birth, Americans only had a life expectancy of about 40 years, and diseases including cholera, smallpox, measles, and tuberculosis regularly culled the population. Even diarrhea, followed by dehydration, could kill; nearly one in four American babies died in infancy. Poe's stories dwelled on the physical appearance of death and visited sinister realms of human psychology, especially the workings of fear in people's minds. Primed by such writings, the American public received the story of George Parkman's murder, and its grisly details of dismemberment and corpse destruction, with shock, disbelief -- and avid interest.
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