True Calling

          So, after years of reading magazines for serious writers and reading many books and more books and reading other magazines and majoring in English Literature and studying Shakespeare and learning Latin and Greek and Babylonian, yes, I have read the Code of Hammurabi in the original, and going to writing workshops, all in preparation for writing THE GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL, I discovered this past weekend that my true calling is writing trashy romance novels with Victorian-like erotica and pirates.

             It was Friday night. I had worked all day. The boys were in Vermont and the girl was out with friends. It was me, the computer and a glass of wine.  I had slogged away for two weeks writing everyday on my WORK IN PROGRESS for #novelpi on Twitter, a fun challenge to write a certain number of words each day and report in.  My goal was 250, I know, pretty low, but I had never written EVERYDAY so set the bar low and the writing was going well. I was making quota and a bit more.

             It was then, alone on Friday in the empty house, that I realized out of nowhere that I could write ANYTHING I WANTED.  I picked a scene for my WORK IN PROGRESS that I had thought would end with some significant eye contact.  And I wrote it out. O.M.G.  I had never written a sex scene, ever, but, after this I felt I had to take a shower, but I figured while I was in the mood I’d try the pirate scene.  O.M.G.  Then I did take a shower. 

           On Saturday more pirates, though not more sex.  But the damage was done, it’s been TRY TO STOP ME ever since.  I have found my niche.  I thought it would be horror.  I really, really like horror.  Or, maybe mystery.  I really, really like mysteries.  Or just a literary novel that would receive critical acclaim, but would not sell well.  But, no – romance, sex and pirates.  That’s what I seem to write well in abundance. 

           I spent Sunday coming to terms with my new found talent.  After writing a scene  about pirates and whips (it’s not as kinky as it sounds), I walked around encouraging myself – say it loud, say it proud – “I write trashy romance novels.”  I’m going to a writing workshop in a week and, in preparation to “what are you working on?” I practiced, “a well-written trashy romance novel” but that sounds like I’m embarrassed about the subject, and have to justify it by adding well-written.  So just, “trashy romance novel” will have to do.  Now I could say just “romance novel,” but there are many out there without sex and I don’t want to be confused with those, because this novel seems destined to have a lot of sex – with a plot; and not a pizza delivery boy kind of plot either, but a real plot where no one has sex for pages and pages. More like a combination of Daphne DuMaurier, Treasure Island and Anonymous.   I can deal with that. 

Directions Home

          Depending on what route I take to drive my children to school and to my office each day, I pass by the house of Robert Hayes on Main Street in Amesbury, Massachusetts.  It’s a lovely house overlooking the Merrimack River, across the street from Lowell’s Boat Shop which was built in 1793 and is the oldest operating boat shop in the United States. There are other lovely houses along this route, but I notice this one each day because Bob Hayes, 37 years old, walked through Logan Airport for the last time on the morning of September 11, 2001 headed to Los Angeles on American Airlines Flight 11 for a business meeting. He left behind his wife, Debbie, who he ironically met at Logan Airport in 1989 and two small boys, Robbie who was 4 years old at the time and Ryan who was 8 months old. Tomorrow there will be a memorial there where Debbie still lives with her sons; but I don’t need a memorial to remember.  I remember each day as I drive by his house.

          After I pass the house of Bob Hayes I continue over the Hines Bridge. In the winter bald eagles come to nest in the tall white pines on either side of the bridge. We even have an Eagle Festival in February each year.  Derek Hines was 21 years old on September 11, 2001.  Four years later, on September 1, 2005 1st Lt. Derek Hines, from Newburyport, Massachusetts, was killed in Afghanistan in a firefight.  He left behind his parents and siblings. The bridge was dedicated to him in 2006.  Each time I cross the bridge I am grateful for those who serve and sad for those who gave their lives in that service, and for those left behind.  I would not want to be the mother of bridge. Not even one where eagles fly in winter.

          Immediately following the Hines Bridge is the Chain Bridge, the oldest suspension bridge in the United States, which signals the crossing into Newburyport.  After I drop off my children at school, I continue along High Street past the Newburyport Superior Court, the oldest regularly operating courthouse in the United States that opened in 1805 and where John Quincy Adams, Daniel Webster and Rufus Choate argued, to my office downtown.  In my office I have a copy of the Bill of Rights on the wall.

          In the afternoon I pick up my children from school and follow the same route in reverse.  Coming home I also pass Holy Family Church, and the house where John Greenleaf Whittier lived and wrote “Snowbound.”  When we arrive home I get the mail and the newspaper. 

          On September 11, 2001 Jordan Shay was 14 years old.  He graduated from Amesbury High School in 2005, the same year Derek Hines was killed in Afghanistan. In the newspaper I read that on September 3, 2009 Spc. Jordan Shay, 22 years old, was killed in Iraq on his second tour of duty.  He came home today.  He will be buried this Saturday following a service at Holy Family Church.  In between will be another September 11th.

The Fish Day of Summer

          Some things you just can’t explain.  So when the cop standing on my porch asked, “Did your husband threaten to kill the family?” I could have said a lot of things.  I could have said, “You know it’s actually a funny story.” Or “He didn’t mean it like that. Or “It was a mistake.”  In the interminable moments between the question and my reply I thought “this is stupid, Michael is an idiot, Laura is an idiot, where’s William?,  someone shut the dogs up.”  One thought overshadowed all, “DON’T SAY ANYTHING.”  I had done enough Motions to Suppress Statements to know that when a cop is standing on your porch because your 14-year old daughter called 911 you don’t let him in and you DON’T SAY ANYTHING.  Of course I also knew that there are times when saying nothing is worse than saying something.  So I said, “It’s hot.”
            It had been hot for three days; really hot, sticky and humid and there was no escape.  The news story on TV all weekend was about Neil Entwistle who had just been convicted of killing his wife and baby daughter.   My husband, Michael, and I were watching TV when Michael noticed that a catfish in the fish tank had died and was floating at the top.  The thermometer on the tank was way up in the red and the plecostomus was sucking frantically on the glass.  Michael turned off the heater, but the damage was done, within moments the other two catfish were dead and floating.  My daughter, Laura and I immediately began accusing Michael of KILLING THE FISH. The heater had been his idea.  Why didn’t he turn it off when it got so hot outside?
          He would have none of it.  “The tank got hot because it was near a sunny window.”
          No, it’s ALL YOUR FAULT.  If the tank hadn’t been heated to begin with, it wouldn’t have gotten so hot and KILLED THE FISH.”
          Michael did not understand the logic of this.  It was not his fault.  It was at this point that Laura had HER BRILLIANT IDEA.  She started to empty the tank water into a container.
          Michael asked, “What are you doing?”
          “I’m going to take some water and put it in the fridge to cool the water and then put it back in the tank.”  She explained that cold water from the tap had chlorine that was bad for the fish.  I expressed my opinion of the soundness of her idea. She then walked toward the kitchen with the container.
          Michael cut her off right around the bathroom. “You are NOT putting filthy water in the refrigerator.”
          “Yes, I am.”
          A struggle ensued.  There were muffled noises from the bathroom then, “Now, look what you’ve done.” This from Michael.
          “What I’ve done? You KILLED THE FISH and now you spilled the water all over the bathroom.”
          Michael came out of the bathroom to where I was sitting in the living room.  “Why don’t you back me up?”
          “Because you KILLED THE FISH, and I thought putting tank water in the fridge was fine.”
          It was then that under his breath, quite calmly and not even in anger, but with some exasperation about being labeled a fish murderer, unjustly in his mind, and finding himself alone in his protestations he said to me, “Now, I know why people kill their whole families.”   Laura, who had not been watching TV and did not know or care about Neil Entwistle overheard this statement.  She was angry that her father had KILLED THE FISH, thwarted her plan and then accused her of spilling tank water all over the bathroom when it was ALL HIS FAULT.   She went to the kitchen and picked up the phone, brought it to the living room and announced, “I’m calling 911.  You just threatened to kill the family.”  When she actually got the police station she hung up.
          DEAD SILENCE.
          “Laura, you didn’t actually call 911, did you?”  I asked.
          “Yeah, but when I call usually no one answers.”
          “What do you mean when you usually call?”
          “I’ve called before from my cell-phone and I didn’t get a person answering.”
          “Cell phones work different . . .”
          The phone rang in Laura’s hand. 
          “That’s the police calling back.” I said.
          Laura now panicked, “What do I do. Here you answer it.”
          “Hello,” I said in my best “Oh, everything’s fine, nothing’s going on here” voice.
          “We received a 911 call from your address.”
          “My daughter called 911 by mistake.”
          “Can I talk to her?”
          “Sure.” 
          “Yes, yes.  Yes.  Everything’s OK.”  Hang up. Done.
          Until the cruiser pulled up in front of the house.  Michael looked around like he was NEVER going to see us again and said, “I’m sorry.  I shouldn’t have said that.  You know I didn’t mean it.”  By then my eleven-year old son, William had joined us and he blamed Laura for being stupid.  Always a reliable go-to accusation.  “Tell the truth,” was the last thing Michael said to us as he walked out to the porch like someone going to his execution. 
          Truth.  The truth is not always your friend.  It will not always set you free, sometimes it will get you into a lot of trouble and even arrested.  A child knows this.  And the truth in this case required a lot of back-story and explaining.  This is how our family resolves things.  We say things.  We’re dramatic.  Especially, Laura, she wants to be an actress, you know. 
          Michael came back in.  But I could tell from his look that it wasn’t over.  “Laura, he wants to talk to you.”
          “What do I say?”
          “Tell the truth.” Michael repeated.
          “But only as much as you need to.  The less you say the better.” I added.  Trust me on this.  Then Laura came back in and it was my turn.  I do not know what Michael or Laura said but “It’s hot” pretty much said it all for me and it was the truth.
          “Well, I’m hot too, but I don’t say I’m going to kill my family.”
          Again, responses flowed through my mind. “You don’t understand my family,”  “you must not have a very exciting family,” “there’s a man with a gun on my porch,” “get the hell off my porch.”  I even thought I might tell him the whole story of how Michael KILLED THE FISH.  I said, “We’ve been married for 25 years.  He would never do anything to hurt any of us.” Which wasn’t a great response, but it was again the truth.

Have You Been Saved?

          “God lets thousands of people die in an earthquake, but he helps them win bike races?”  Laura said in her best, her very best and cutting sarcastic voice that ended the conversation for then and forever, and made the Tour de France winner look like a fool.  God did not exist.  Which is really fine because that means this is all we have.  That’s what I tell the Elders when they come around.
          “I live each day as though that’s all there is.  I have no idea where this day came from or if there will be another.  And I sure as Hell am not waiting for Heaven.”  Or something like that.  I realize the Elders and Jehovah’s Witnesses who visit are sincere and concerned for my soul.  I am polite, but firm.  We are responsible for the world in which we live.  I am focused on this life, not an after-life or another life.   I believe in my fellow humans on this planet, not a deity. Why wait for Heaven, when we could transform our Earth here and now?
          And faith?  An atheist has more faith than all religions combined.  If there is one tenant of any religion it is the ability to provide an answer.  A mystical answer, a spiritual answer, but an answer nonetheless.  The answer to where we came, where we are going, what we must do.  Being an atheist is like flying on a trapeze without a net.  It is the freedom and exhilaration to accept the unknown, and faith that there will be another day, another chance and someone to catch you.   
          I rarely think of God anymore.  And when I do, I think that the idea of God has caused more misery than peace, more hate than love.  Why do people thank God for curing their cancer when he allowed them to develop it in the first place?  Why pray to be saved when God could have prevented the disaster at the start?  I don’t believe it anymore.  Nearly kills you to save you?  I would rather believe that God doesn’t exist than believe in a God who is sadistic and fickle. 
          I lament all the Sunday mornings I worshipped a God who exhibits nearly every deadly sin.  He is greedy, vain, selfish, wrathful, and envious.  I don’t, however, regret learning about Jesus.  His life remains an example of the best qualities of which we are capable.  And, like Jesus, many a son and daughter have devoted their lives to others and have died to save others.  I don’t see how God’s sacrifice was greater.  “He gave his only son, so that you could be saved. Have you been saved?” 
          Yes, yes I have.  It happened at dusk one January in Vermont.  I was driving home with Laura.  It had started to snow, a slushy slippery snow that had accumulated on the road. I was going down a hill and had to take a hard left.  I stepped on the brakes to slow, pumping the brakes, but the car kept sliding past the turn and veered right nearly into a steep ditch.  I couldn’t move the car.  I didn’t want to end up in the ditch.  We stayed in the car for several minutes until a car stopped behind us.  It was our neighbor, Leonard Hammond, an old time dairy farmer.  He tapped on the window and I explained what happened. 
          “Well, you can’t stay here.  I’ll move the car for you.  I’m kinda dirty and smell a bit of manure, though.”
          He didn’t smell a bit of manure.  He smelled a lot of manure.  But I didn’t care. “That’s fine.” I said, “I just didn’t feel safe moving the car.”
          Leonard told us to get out of the car and wait across the road while he turned the car around.   We did as instructed and watched as he drove the car out of trouble and stopped beside us.  He then went back for his car and made the turn onto our road. As I went up to the driver’s side window to thank him I watched the plow go over the hill at a good clip.  It had a huge plow, as plows do in the winter in Vermont, and it plowed through the space recently occupied by my car as though it were a train speeding on  tracks.  Had we been in the car, the plow would have forcefully hit our car.  There would have been no time to avoid us after the plow crested the hill.  There is no question that we would have been killed or seriously injured if Leonard hadn’t come along. 
          So, when a religious type person asks if I’ve been saved, my answer is always the same,  “Yes, yes I have.  Leonard Hammond saved me.”  We are not alone, we have each other.

Fate and Faith at the Gardner Museum

          The Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum in Boston is my museum.  When I first walked in those many years ago I felt that I had returned to a place I had never been.  The museum is a reproduction of a 15th Century Italian palazzo with imported marble and a mosaic courtyard.  Each room is decorated and filled with art from a specific period, style or country in livable spaces with tables, chairs, couches, lanterns, art objects, letters.  The paintings on the walls are by Titian, Rembrandt, Bellini, Botticelli, Sargent, Velazquez, Raphael, Rubens and other renowned artists.  By her will, Mrs. Gardner specified that nothing in the museum could be moved or changed, ever. The rooms are exactly as they were when she was alive and will remain that way always. I found extraordinary comfort in this.  Every time I visited, everything would be just the same.  I would change, the world would change, but not this place. 
          When I visited periodically over the years, I could find the objects I loved exactly where they had been before, waiting for me.  At night I would conjure the paintings, the Rembrandt, the Vermeer and the Botticelli, my favorites, and picture them where they were fixed in the dark.

Rembrandt_Christ_In_The_Storm_On_The_Sea_Of_Galilee
          “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee” is a large canvas in a gold frame that hangs directly in front of you as you enter the Dutch Room.   When I first entered the room I noticed it immediately.  It seemed to glow – the spray of the water radiating like the sun.  The painting depicts the twelve apostles with Jesus in a boat on the Sea of Galilee taken from the Gospel of Mark 4:35 – 40.

 

And the same day, when the even was come, he saith unto them, Let us pass over unto the other side.
And when they had sent away the multitude, they took him even as he was in the ship.
And there were also with him other little ships.
And there arose a great storm of wind, and the waves beat into the ship, so that it was now full.
And he was in the hinder part of the ship, asleep on a pillow: and they awake him, and say unto him, Master, carest thou not that we perish?
And he arose, and rebuked the wind, and said unto the sea, Peace, be still.
And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm.
And he said unto them, Why are ye so fearful? how is it that ye have no faith? (King James version).

 

          Jesus had fallen asleep, exhausted from a day of preaching to the crowd.  In the passage before the storm scene, Jesus tells the parable of the mustard seed.  The colors of the painting are shades of blue and gold and appear luminescent.  You can see Jesus asleep and sense the fear of the apostles.  All the apostles are accounted for – five frantically attending to the sails, others surrounding Jesus, asking, “should we wake him?”  And one, a self portrait of Rembrandt, calmly looks out at the viewer.  “I am here and I am not afraid, would not have been afraid. You come, too.”  Standing there looking at the painting you believe you can enter.  Standing a few short feet away the painting seems large enough for you to believe you can.  Even though it is the height of the storm, you know the ending, you can join them in the boat. You have faith and believe.  Standing there you hear the water, the waves crashing so loudly that you hear nothing else.

Vermeer Concert

          Behind you now, by the window, is “The Concert” by Vermeer.  It is also displayed so you can see the painting as you walked into the Dutch Room, to the right of the door.  I heard tales of how its location beside the window vexed the curators. How dare Mrs. Gardner place the Vermeer where it would be exposed to sunlight, though dappled through the bamboo shade.  But where else could a painting by the master of light live?  The painting depicted above the singer in “The Concert” is “The Procuress” by Dirck Van Baburen, at the time owned by Vermeer’s mother-in-law.  “The Procuress” now hangs in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, a short distance from the Gardner Museum.  I enjoyed the thought.  The paintings were close, nearly reunited – like old friends long separated who may at any time discover they live but a few streets away from each other.  I loved the room in the painting; the distinctive and sharp black and white floor.  I never see a black and white checkered floor without thinking of Vermeer and then  . . . .  I never thought “I want a painting like that, as beautiful as that.”  I thought, “I want a room like that.  I could live in a room like that.  And look, Vermeer left space to dance.  I could dance in a room like that.” 

Botticelli

          “The Madonna of the Eucharist” by Botticelli is upstairs on the third floor.  First you pass through a grand red room with “The Rape of Europa” by Titian, a large dark and violent painting.  If you then take a right into a long, narrow room, you will miss the Botticelli.  It is to the left, behind you.  It seems small after the grandeur, light and air of the room you just passed. The space is intimate.  There are three figures in the painting.  An angel presents the baby Jesus with a bowl of grapes and wheat.  Mary cradles Jesus in one arm and touches a sheaf of wheat with her right hand.  Her face is gentle and her expression seems one of gratitude and bewilderment as she looks at the gift.  Jesus has an expression of understanding beyond his age and a hand raised in blessing.  The scene is heartbreaking.  The angel and Jesus know that the grapes and wheat will be transformed to the wine and bread that will become his Last Supper.  Both Jesus and the fruits of the earth will grow and fulfill their destiny and become one.  But Mary doesn’t know.  She doesn’t know that her child is destined to be sacrificed to save mankind.  She doesn’t know that the two objects she tenderly touches represent the beginning and the end.  I hope she does not know. I am comforted that she doesn’t yet know.  But no one can save her from the pain that is to come.
          On March 18, 1990 the Gardner Museum changed.  The thief did not stand and enter Vermeer’s enchanted room or the boat on the Sea of Galilee.  He did not see.  He did not believe.  He cut, he took, he stole. 
          I have gone back to the Gardner Museum with my children and seen the empty frames on the wall.  I describe to them the ghosts I see.  My son’s eyes grow wide when he learns of the five million dollar reward and his face lights up with hope of riches as my eyes again fill with tears.  They will never know the museum as I did.  They have grown up without the paintings I believed were eternal; their legacy shadowed by the theft and empty frames.  But I bring them to the third floor.  We walk past the Titian to the Botticelli in the long gallery.  The thieves did not touch the Botticelli. 
          My daughter sketches in the courtyard filled with cascading nasturtiums while still, Jesus sleeps.  Somewhere in the world he sleeps. When will he wake and calm the storm?  Have you no faith? 

 

For more on the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum visit www.gardnermuseum.org

For more on the theft at the Gardner Museum see The Gardner Heist by Ulrich Boser or visit: www.theopencase.com

Lest Ye Be Judged: The Murderer

          When I met the murderer he hadn’t murdered anyone yet.  He was a physician, a respected member of society that most mothers still want their daughters to marry.  He was thin, a bit awkward with dark helmet hair and shiny skin.  I later learned, as we all did, that his glow was caused by birth control pills, at about the same time we learned about his cross-dressing, shortly after we learned that he shot his wife in the stomach with a shotgun.
          At the time we met though, I did not know this would happen. I could not see it.  I am not perceptive.  I never see these things.  Or rather, I don’t look.  I don’t take in the world and measure it.  I don’t make judgments. I take and accept the surface – what is exposed. I thought he might be nervous and sweating.  Birth control pills, cross-dressing and nascent murder did not enter my mind.

Cross-dressing Dr. Richard Sharpe found dead in cell

Boston Herald, January 6, 2009, Michelle McPhee, Joe Dwinell, Jessica von Sack.

The cross-dressing Harvard-educated millionaire dermatologist who murdered his wife in their North Shore home in 2000 was found dead in his cell at MCI-Norfolk last night after he hanged himself, prison officials tell the Herald.
Dr. Richard Sharpe – who was also charged with hatching a plan to escape from jail shortly after he was charged with murder – was found in his cell at 7:26 p.m. last night, said Department of Correction spokeswoman Diane Wiffin.
Wiffin said Sharpe, who blasted his wife in the chest with a shotgun, hanged himself with a bedsheet.
According to a prison source, a correction officer had just made the rounds past Sharpe’s cell and had delivered mail to him about an hour earlier. Sharpe’s cellmate was out of the room when Sharpe knotted his bedsheet to the top of his bunk and around his neck, the source said.
Sharpe was taken to Norwood Hospital where he was pronounced dead at 8:11 p.m. last night. The suicide is now under investigation by DOC, Wiffin said.
Wiffin added the death triggered a full emergency medical response by the guards at the medium-security prison in Norfolk.
The Sharpe story garnered national headlines after it was revealed that the dermatologist was a cross dresser who made a fortune opening laser hair removal centers. He was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole in 2001 and attempted suicide within months of his incarceration.
He was temporarily sent to Bridgewater State Hospital, a prison for the criminally insane, but has been in general population at MCI-Norfolk for years, the source said.
A Norfolk Superior Court jury acquitted him in 2007 on charges he tried to hire a prison hitman to kill Robert Weiner, a former assistant district attorney. Prosecutors alleged Sharpe believed that having Weiner killed would increase his chances of overturning the murder conviction on appeal.

 

          At the time I met Richard Sharpe he was the dermatologist on a series of medical malpractice tribunals.  I was the attorney on the tribunal.  In Massachusetts each medical malpractice case must be reviewed by a tribunal to determine whether the plaintiff’s offer of proof presents evidence which, if substantiated, raises a legitimate question of liability for judicial inquiry.   The tribunal, as the name suggests, is made up of three members – a judge, a lawyer and a medical practitioner in the same field as the defendant.  The clerk generally groups tribunals once a month on a given day.  The judge and lawyer remain all day, the medical member changes according to the nature of the case.  By statute the lawyer and medical professional get $50.00 a case.  I signed up for the tribunals after an Offer of Proof I drafted had been found insufficient, but then overturned on appeal.  I vowed to spare others that experience and, at the time, I needed the money.  The monthly tribunals were a good gig.  Besides I got to hobnob with the judges which is always useful.  I didn’t know then that Sharpe was a millionaire.  Was his service altruistic?  I have no idea. 
          When the story broke and his picture was in the paper, my first thought was “Oh, my god, I was on a tribunal with him.”  I called Mary, the tribunal clerk, at Salem Superior Court and asked, “Is this guy who killed his wife the same person as . . . .”
          “Yes, and now I need another dermatologist.  He was my only dermatologist and they aren’t easy to get, you know.”  Everyone has priorities.
          The judge on the tribunal had been Judge Brady.  He was old.  Even though in Massachusetts the mandatory retirement age for judges is 70, Judge Brady looked older. He was the type of person you think must have died of old age until you see them again. (I think he is dead now, but he could surprise me.) 
          That day the set of dermatology tribunals consisted of two or three cases.  One was about a woman who kept pulling out her hair.  I remember Sharpe being careful,  indecisive and shiny.  He was soft-spoken and seemed nervous.  Judge Brady took charge and we got through them.  We deliberated in the judge’s chambers.  When the set ended Sharpe left and Judge Brady and I were alone.  He asked what I thought of Sharpe.  I remember thinking that this was an odd question, as we usually don’t talk about members when they have left.  Ever diplomatic, knowing which side my bread was buttered, I would not speak ill of a tribunal member to a judge.  I may be oblivious, but I’m cautious by nature.  Was this a test?  I’m generally deferential except when it comes to issues of law.  Then I analyze and speak my mind.  My impression of a person I just met and will likely never meet again, however, is something I keep to myself.  I made noises about “a bit indecisive” and “seemed nervous.”  I may have mentioned shiny, as this attribute was overwhelming my mind.  Judge Brady nodded at my assessment and said, “He’s a FREAK.”
          I don’t know what he saw.  I did not ask, “What makes you say that?”  I remember the shock and thinking that was the strangest comment I had ever heard a judge say about anyone.  At the time, I thought a little less of Judge Brady.  I did not know then that his strong reaction was precise and astute. I wonder if even Richard Sharpe knew then.

The Devil and John W. Webster

          There is a scene, often repeated in detective fiction and film, where the suspect is seated in a small gray or beige room at a table with two chairs and a single light dangling overhead.  A police detective is seated in the other chair across from the suspect; another officer paces.  After the police present the evidence with appropriate pauses and photographs, the suspect leans back (or forward) and states, “It’s all circumstantial. You don’t even have a body.”
           In 1850 Dr. John W. Webster, professor of chemistry at Harvard Medical College,  was hanged following his conviction for the murder of his colleague Dr. George Parkham.  The evidence was entirely circumstantial and, it remains questionable whether Parkham’s body was found.  But both, the crime and body, were proved “beyond a reasonable doubt” and Dr. Webster went to the gallows. 
          The case of Commonwealth v. Webster, 59 Mass. 295; 5 Cush. 295 (1850) definitively sets forth the concept of  “reasonable doubt.”  The language on reasonable doubt, written by Justice Lemuel Shaw, who was also a trial judge in the case, is used verbatim to instruct the jury in every criminal case tried in Massachusetts to this day.
 

         “Then, what is reasonable doubt? It is a term often used, probably pretty well   understood, but not easily defined. It is not mere possible doubt; because every thing relating to human affairs, and depending on moral evidence, is open to some possible or imaginary doubt. It is that state of the case, which, after the entire comparison and consideration of all the evidence, leaves the minds of jurors in that condition that they cannot say they feel an abiding conviction, to a moral certainty, of the truth of the charge. The burden of proof is upon the prosecutor. All the presumptions of law independent of evidence are in favor of innocence; and every person is presumed to be innocent until he is proved guilty. If upon such proof there is reasonable doubt remaining, the accused is entitled to the benefit of it by an acquittal. For it is not sufficient to establish a probability, though a strong one arising from the doctrine of chances, that the fact charged is more likely to be true than the contrary; but the evidence must establish the truth of the fact to a reasonable and moral certainty; a certainty that convinces and directs the understanding, and satisfies the reason and judgment, of those who are bound to act conscientiously upon it. This we take to be proof beyond reasonable doubt . . . .” at 320.

            

          I imagine the Devil visited Dr. Webster in a moment of weakness when temptation was easiest.  The Devil, like disease, is opportunistic.  The Devil offered Dr. Webster a deal beyond all imagining.  He would rid Dr. Webster of his miserly colleague to whom he owed money and give him years of prosperity in exchange for his soul.  Dr. Webster considered the offer.  As he thought, he developed a plan.  Surrounded by cadavers at the medical college he loathed the fragility of the human body; each corpse reminding him of his destiny. He wanted immortality.  Surely the Devil could make him immortal.  And if he was immortal, the Devil would never be able to cull his soul.
          When the Devil returned Dr. Webster proposed trading the offered years of prosperity for immortality as long as he would be allowed to keep his wits until judgment day.  “You can never be too careful when dealing with the Devil,” he thought. “If I am to live forever, I must be able to make my way in the world.” 
          The Devil agreed. “So be it, the death of Dr. Parkham and immortality, for your soul. Done.” Dr. Webster believed he had outsmarted the wishmaster.  
          By all accounts when Dr. Webster heard the verdict of guilty he stared frozen for several minutes supporting himself with the bar.  The moment must have seemed an eternity.  But he lived to read the decision on the appeal that had been his last hope.  
         The “Webster charge,” as it is known, is an astonishing work of literature, art and law.  It is musical with repeating p’s and hard c’s, and alliteration.  It is balanced, swaying from side to side – first this then that.  It speaks of lofty ideas, the mind, the soul, the truth.  And it has guaranteed Dr. Webster immortality.