A Murder in Miniature

Posted by Peg Boettcher at

It doesn’t look like much. One of the oddest of the oddities on view at Ye Olde Curiosity Shop is encased in a plain brown wooden cabinet. Perched on ornate, spindly legs, the box is fitted with a glass window through which can be seen.... nothing. A black velvet curtain obscures the contents.

Until you shove a quarter into the coin box. Then you will see, re-enacted in gruesome miniature, one of the most infamous murders of the 18th century.

“The Knaresborough Murder,” as it came to be called, rocked the ancient Yorkshire market town in which it took place. In 1745 Daniel Clark, a shoemaker who had bettered his condition by marrying into money, vanished shortly after borrowing a sizeable amount of silver tableware against his wife’s inheritance-to-come. The silver vanished with him. He had last been seen in the company of his good friend, schoolteacher Eugene Aram, and another man, Richard Houseman. Fraud was suspected, and though nothing could be proven, Aram’s reputation suffered and he left town, abandoning his wife, Anna. Before he moved on, he surprised everyone by paying off his mortgage and debts. As nothing more was heard from him, it was generally supposed he was dead.

Fast forward 13 years, when a man digging for stone on the banks of a nearby river uncovered a skeleton. Clark’s mysterious disappearance was recalled from years earlier, the coroner called an inquest and Aram’s wife was called to testify.

Trial and hanging of Eugene AramAnna Aram sang like a canary. She told a spine-tingling tale of conspiracy between Houseman and her husband, in which she overheard the two men plotting her death if she dared to breathe a word of what she heard. Because he had never left town, Richard Houseman was taken into custody first. He essentially wrapped the noose around Aram’s neck, insisting that Aram was the one who murdered Clark. It was thought Aram did the dirty deed with a heavy walking stick. Aram was subsequently arrested and found guilty, and hanged on August 16, 1759. His skull is now preserved in King's Lynn Museum.

About the Knaresborough Murder Automaton
Henry Irving in the title role of "Eugene Aram"Something about the murder attached the public imagination. This interest seemed to ripen over time, finally taking full expression during the Victorian age. By the mid-19th century, one could hear a ballad, read a book, and see a play (see famed actor Henry Irving emoting as the main character to the right here), based on the crime. It attracted the attention of a craftsman name John Dennison, born in Leeds a full century after the murder.

John Dennison was a Yorkshireman who began working at an early age, hiring on as a factory hand and then progressing to become a tool fitter. In his off hours he indulged his interest in making mechanical models and in 1865 was asked to supply some of his models for exhibition at Crocker’s Aquarium in Blackpool. A decade later he was still only able to make them in his spare time, but was gaining in prestige with every creation.

John Dennison automaton, "The Opium Den"Dennison was not the first to make coin-operated automata, but he was certainly the earliest to earn a living from his talents. In 1892 the newly founded Blackpool Tower Company gave him the concession for supplying all of the models on display at their Aquarium and Menagerie. A condition of the contract was that new models would be supplied every year. When the demand became too great for him to fabricate enough new models himself, he purchased mechanical dolls directly from Paris and adapted them for his coin-operated machines. By 1893 he was described as a prize mechanical model maker, and his work could be seen at all the principal exhibitions in London as well as Europe. It is thought that all of his models were originally made for display at the Blackpool Tower and it was only when they were replaced by newer models, that the old ones were sent elsewhere.

The Knaresborough Murder automaton 

Dennison lived all his days in Leeds and died there in 1924. His brother-in-law was involved in the business at Blackpool, maintaining the models, which needed constant winding to operate. Upon his death his daughters took over the running of the company, ceasing operations only with the onset of World War II. Many of his models were still in operational use in UK seaside resorts until the mid-1960s.

Peg Boettcher has been wrangling curios and working for Ye Olde Curiosity Shop since 2004. She is indebted to Mr. Andy Grant of the UK for the wealth of information provided.

• See a popular British ballad, The Dream of Eugene Aram, which was inspired by the murder
• Read the 1832 novel Eugene Aram by Edward Bulwer-Lytton (author of one of the most famous phrases in English literature: “It was a dark and stormy night.”)
• Read an 1873 review of the play, Eugene Aram
• Find the location of St. Robert’s Cave, where the murder was supposed to have taken place, and read a poem written about the scene


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