This old story may be fictitious, but similar cases of the detection of crime by an unguarded exclamation are well authenticated.
A long-concealed murder was brought to light in much the same way in the celebrated case of Eugene Aram, which forms the subject of a poem by Hood, and of a novel by Bulwer Lytton Daniel Clarke, a shoemaker of the town of Knars borough in Yorkshire, disappeared mysteriously in the year 1745.
The schoolmaster, Eugene Aram, was suspected of being concerned in his disappearance, but no sufficient evidence was at the time discovered against him and he was acquitted. At last, after fourteen years, a skeleton was dug up in the neighborhood, and it was supposed that the bones might be the remains of the long-missing shoemaker.
A man called Houseman, who was looking at the skeleton and heard this opinion expressed, suddenly picked up one of the bones and exclaimed, “This is no more Dan Clarke’s bone than it is mine.”
The absolute confidence with which he made the assertion convinced all who heard him that he knew all about Clarke’s murder, and could tell where his dead body had really been concealed.
On being examined, he confessed that he had been present at the murder, and his confession led to the conviction and execution of Eugene Aram, who had for fifteen years, as an innocent man, been peacefully following his profession as an usher in various English schools.
In the records of time many such stories are told of murderers revealing their long-hidden guilt. Some confess voluntarily, because they feel that it is better to undergo a shameful death than to be tortured by continual fear of detection.
Others, like the murderers on Ibycus and like Houseman in the story of Eugene Aram, reveal their secret unintentionally by saying something that makes known their hidden thoughts to an intelligent hearer. Sometimes deeds of murder are disclosed by words spoken in sleep.
It is not wonderful that a man who all through the day is brooding over what he may not speak about, should in his dreams relax the control of his will over his tongue and speak freely.
Shakespeare is true to nature when he represents Lady Macbeth in her sleep as wandering restlessly through the corridors of her palace, and vainly trying to wash the imaginary spot of blood from her hand.
In old times it was popularly supposed that the dead body of the murdered man would itself detect the murderer if he approached it.
Any person suspected was brought near the murdered man, and, if the wounds bled afresh, he was deemed guilty. The confident expectation of the detection of murder was so strong that it was believed that, if other means failed, the laws of nature would be reversed to bring the murderer to justice.
Although such superstitions no longer prevail in civilized countries, the belief that “murder will out” holds its position not without reason in the popular mind and, like other prophetic anticipations, sometimes brings about its own fulfillment; for murderers are often induced to confess their crimes, because they are convinced of the impossibility of escaping detection.