Wilkie Collins’s The Dead Alive: The Novel, the Case, and Wrongful Convictions

Jun 10, 2013 | Reviews

Writing in the Fortnightly Review on 1 November 1889, shortly after Collins’s death, A. C. Swinburne penned the now-famous couplet linking the social “mission[s]” of Collins’s late novels with the near-“perdition” of his artistic genius, expressing as well as questioning the idea that the artistry of a literary work is necessarily compromised when that work serves an explicit, didactic end. Rather than regretting the didacticism of Collins’s fiction from the 1870s, as generations of literary critics have done, Rob Warden instead suggests that Collins was not didactic enough. In this new edition of “The Dead Alive,” a story first serialized at the close of 1873 in the New York Fireside Companion and, as “John Jago’s Ghost,” in The Home Journal (London), Warden claims that Collins failed to fully exploit his subject matter—the conviction and capital sentencing of men whose alleged murder victim is found alive. Basing his story on the 1819 conviction, in Vermont, of Stephen and Jesse Boorn for the alleged murder of their still-living brother-in-law—a legal case that calls attention to serious and persistent flaws in the way forensic evidence is gathered and handled—Collins represents the case as “a regrettable and freakish anomaly in an otherwise functioning criminal justice system,” Warden contends. He thus unwittingly missed a chance to help change that system: “Had Collins been aware of the extent of the problem, The Dead Alive might have been more didactic, given that Collins, by all accounts, was never hesitant to champion a cause” (pp. 133-4).

The cause is certainly a worthy one, as Warden makes clear, not only in his detailed review of the 1819 Boorn case (pp. 105-47), which follows Collins’s story in this edition, but also in his summary of “Other Dead Alive Cases” (pp. 152-64) and his listing of Wrongful Conviction in U.S. Capital Cases” (pp. 165-74), 235 in number as of 1 January 2005. In his discussion of the Boorn case and his analysis of wrongful convictions, Warden foregrounds the selective and artful use of evidence (including false testimonies) by prosecutors, and he is particularly critical of the manner in which false confessions are obtained from the accused and put to use in court, objections that Collins, too, raises in his story. Pressured to do so by political and legal authorities, Ambrose Meadowcroft confesses to a murder he did not commit in “The Dead Alive”, hoping to reduce his murder charge to manslaughter, avoid the gallows and protect the family name. In the process, he loses the respect and affection of his fiancée, Naomi Colebrook, who henceforth considers him “a liar and a coward” (p. 88), and he is condemned to death nonetheless.

In this edition of “The Dead Alive,” Collins’s story proves a useful means to publicize the dire problem of wrongful convictions, to expose the procedural and evidentiary flaws that contribute to such convictions, and to benefit the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law, which receives all of the profits from the publication. Yet while it makes available a relatively unknown story by Collins, Warden’s edition proves less useful than it might be to those interested in Collins himself. Not only is Collins’s biography ineptly summarized by Scott Turow in the Forward (“Despite his uncommon success, Collins’s life was not especially happy. He never married and in his later years became an opium addict” [vii-viii]). Warden provides no bibliographical information about “The Dead Alive,” its serializations, or the copy text used in his edition, and although he discusses in detail the Boorn case and dispels several errors long associated with it, he neither reprints nor outlines the source on which Collins based his story: Leonard Sargeant’s Trial, Confessions and Conviction of Jesse and Stephen Boorn, a 48-page pamphlet published in Vermont in 1873. Thus, while Warden’s discussion makes clear the differences between the actual legal case and Collins’s fictional rendition of it, the extent and manner in which Collins reworked his source material is much less clear.

In the Boorn case, the alleged victim, Russell Colvin, was married to the sister of the accused. After Colvin’s disappearance, his wife Sally gave birth to two children he could not have fathered. Suspicion of murder was first cast on Stephen Boorn when, in trying to help his sister obtain child support, he claimed that Russell Colvin was dead. In “The Dead Alive,” however, the missing man, John Jago, is a widower who hopes to marry Miss Colebrook, despite her evident attachment to her cousin Ambrose Meadowcroft. Jago purposely casts suspicion on his rival by secretly moving away after arguing with the Meadowcroft brothers. After their conviction and sentencing, he offers to reveal himself to the authorities only if Miss Colebrook will become his wife. Focusing on power dynamics among the Meadowcrofts in reworking the case, Collins replaces the adulterous Sally Colvin with Miss Meadowcroft, a sour, pious and self-righteous spinster who sets her father against her brothers and outmanoeuvres them to become his heir. To Miss Meadowcroft, Collins opposes his heroine, the frank and courageous Miss Colebrook, who helps to vindicate Ambrose Meadowcroft and saves the life of the English lawyer who narrates the story, whom she marries at its conclusion. Collins diverges substantially from the original case in writing “The Dead Alive,” but without much information about Collins’s source, we are unsure about his debt to Leonard Sargeant and uncertain to what extent, if any, his characterizations of Miss Colebrook and Miss Meadowcroft draw from or reverse the portrait of Sally Colvin that Sargeant provided.

Discussing “The Dead Alive” in The King of Inventors (1991), Catherine Peters notes Collins’s use of the American legal case while also pointing to the striking affinities between the story and Dickens’s final, unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, published three years previously. Including “The Dead Alive” in his collection of Collins’s short fiction, Mad Monkton and Other Stories (1994), Norman Page pays particular attention to the American heroine in his Introduction, arguing that her bravery and resourcefulness set her apart from her English contemporaries. But whatever their approach to “The Dead Alive,” few Collins scholars are likely to agree with Warden that the novelist, here and elsewhere, considers the criminal justice system to be functioning adequately. More often than not, Collins’s characters must take the law into their own hands if they are to see justice rendered—those who do so include Walter Hartright in The Woman in White, the three Hindu priests in The Moonstone, Magdalen Vanstone in No Name, and Valeria Macallan in The Law and the Lady, to name a few. Not only does Collins question the ability of the court system to aptly render justice; he often exposes the injustice of the laws themselves, which perpetuate a range of social inequities and condemn married Englishwomen, in particular, to a living death under the doctrine of coverture. In bringing out an edition of “The Dead Alive” without properly researching Collins and his writings, Warden might be seen to do an injustice to the novelist himself. But considering the importance of Warden’s mission in publishing “The Dead Secret,” we would be wise to pardon him.