Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Book Review | Blood and Ivy: The 1849 Murder That Scandalized Harvard

I kind of have this weird thing in my head where I have a hard time considering certain books 'true crime' that technically fit the bill - I always tend to think of sensationalized murders and shocking secrets. In reality, true crime really can be about any crime, but they almost always tend to be about murder, and serial killers at that. Then when I look at historical murders such as these, I feel like they are even further away from the 'true crime' label, or I think of some cases that transcend the genre - like Nicole Brown's murder, JonBenet Ramsey's, Lacey Peterson, and so on. Anyway, that's the reason for the post title - what do you think? What do you consider to be 'true crime'?

On to the review!

36236095 ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Ivy League university, mid 1800s? ✔
A wealthy doctor, vanished? ✔
Cadavers and scalpels? 
Red herrings and mystery? 

I will get my one complaint out of the way now, so the rest of the time can be spent talking about all the things the worked. Here's what didn't: ALL THE SEMI-COLONS. I love semi-colons as much as the next nerd, but they were all over the place and sometimes highly unnecessary. Sometimes five sentences in a row, and there's another semi-colon. That part did get kind of distracting and found myself rewording the sentences in my head to see if all the semi-colons were even needed. They weren't.

Now on to the good stuff, because this book was really, really good. I liked the fact that it was a slow build-up to this incredibly baffling case where nothing was what it seemed. I wonder how many students at Harvard even know about this murder, because it is definitely something the university would have wanted to keep quiet for a long time. Looks like they did a great job because my daughter's uncle got his MBA from Harvard a couple years ago and he had never heard the story or of anyone involved.

The story centers on Dr George Parkman, who vanished without a trace after missing an appointment one afternoon. He was one of the university's wealthiest benefactors, being an alum himself, so Dr Parkman being on campus was not unusual. What was unusual is everything that came afterward. No one seemed to know who his appointment had been with, or what could have happened to him. Foul play was suspected immediately. The author does a fantastic job setting the scene and really immersing the reader in 1849 Cambridge as Harvard is scoured for any sign of the doctor. Eventually his body is discovered, though I will not say specifically where or by whom, or in what condition. I will only say that it was in fact discovered someone within the medical college and it all caused quite an uproar among the old-money, uber-elite of Boston.

What makes this murder trial especially important is the precedent it set for future cases, and how the forensics first used then are still methods in use today. During the trial Parkman's dentist took the witness stand to identify the teeth her had made for the victim - teeth that were found in a place frequently used by the accused (I am trying really hard to not give away any details, okay?) Dental evidence had never been used in a case like this before. An additional aspect of the trial that still informs law today centers on the idea of reasonable doubt. The author details how the judge's definition of reasonable doubt was conveyed to the jury - and said definition was still used for over one hundred and fifty years after the trial.

I have read my fair share of murder mysteries set in the 1800s. I am particularly fond of the Victorians and their obsession with poison and scandal and dastardly deeds. What I really appreciated here was the time the author took to bring these people to life, despite the murder and trial taking place over 150 years ago. So often one might also read of barely-related information concerning various aspects of life then, but you will find no excess here. The author uses the plethora of information at his disposal (quite a bit, there are dozens of pages of notes and an extensive list of sources for further perusal) and brings the world of the Boston Brahmins into sharp focus. Notes and Resources are critical factors for me when judging how solid a book is in its research - especially if it is a topic or subject I am just learning about. I am far less inclined to put effort into reading an author's work when they can't be bothered to cite sources. Luckily, Collins has no such problems. I really enjoyed this work and discovered I have a few of his other books on my TBR. I will be getting ahold of those as soon as possible.

Highly recommended.


  1. I’m intrigued by this, thanks for sharing your thoughts.
    My take on true crime is that it is a nonfiction account where the crime is central to the narrative. It can focus on a single or multiple crimes that occurred in any era, and does not have to include murder, think kidnapping, bank heists, fraud etc.

    1. It was a great story, I hope you get the chance to read it sometime. It is so easy to think of true crime only as those sensationalistic stories of murders and revenge, etc. because robberies and fraud are boring, lol.

  2. it's great to find an author who makes you want to read more of their books. i love murder mysteries of any time period
    sherry @ fundinmental

    1. I find myself reading many more that occurred in earlier periods. I also think the contrast of police work then and now is really interesting - or LACK of police work, I should say.

  3. I am fully in sympathy with your complaint about the semi-colons. Often, I get hung up on some tic that an author seems stuck on - like using a particularly word or phrase over and over - or it may be one of my pet peeve grammatical errors and it just ruins the book for me. Good thing that you overcame the semi-colon distraction and enjoyed this book!

    1. Any other time, I am fully supportive of semi-colons because they are not used nearly as often as they should be. In this case, the author used them enough for everyone, haha. I try really hard to ignore things like that, especially if I am otherwise enjoying the book. But if it is a book I am not really into, it makes it easy to DNF.


Thanks for visiting my little book nook. I love talking books so leave a comment and let's chat!