(Roughly) Daily

“What I desire of a poem is a clear understanding of motive”*…

I’m not a Hollywood scriptwriter, but if I were, I know what screenplay I’d write. Imagine a violent murder at the epicenter of early Santa Clara Valley—soon to be renamed Silicon Valley in the popular imagination—and an innocent man sent to Death Row at San Quentin. But a famous literary critic emerges as the super sleuth who gets him freed, amid dark evocations of scandal involving corrupt politicians and murky underworld figures. 

You don’t need to imagine it, because it really happened. It’s like the movie Chinatown—in fact, it took place during the same era as that scrumptiously vintage film—but with intriguing literary twists and turns. And, like Chinatown, it possesses all the same overtones of a brutal California origin myth. It would make a riveting film. But in this case the story is true.

On Memorial Day in 1933, a woman’s [Allene Lamson’s] naked body was found, apparently bludgeoned to death, in her Stanford campus home. Within an hour of their arrival on the crime scene, the police had already decided that the husband [David Lamson]—always the prime suspect in a case of this sort—must be the murderer. 

The police never took any other explanation seriously. A student named John Venderlip had seen a suspicious character near the Lamson home the morning of the crime, as well as the night before. But no effort went into investigating this lead. The possibility of accidental death was ruled out, too, although it would later play a decisive role in the case.

This web of speculation and insinuation proved sufficient to get a conviction after a three-week trial that was front page news day after day. The jury only deliberated for eight hours before delivering a guilty verdict. The judge handed out the death penalty—a court-mandated hanging within 90 days. And David Lamson was sent off to San Quentin to await his imminent execution on Death Row. 

And that would seem to be the end of the story. But it wasn’t. And the main reason for this surprising turn into the biggest crime story of its day was a mild-mannered poet and literary critic named Yvor Winters…

In the 1930s, Yvor Winters legitimized literary studies at Stanford—but Hollywood should make a movie about his skills as an amateur detective. A remarkable story from the remarkable Ted Gioia (@tedgioia): “When a Famous Literary Critic Unraveled Silicon Valley’s Most Sensational Murder Case.”

And for further (entertaining, but wholly fictional) accounts of a literary critic’s sleuthing, see Edmund Crispin‘s Gervase Fen novels…

* Yvor Winters

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As we consider the clues, we might remind our selves that if the history of the universe was condensed into a year, the Milky Way would form on this date (May 15), life on earth would appear on September 21, and the dinosaurs would go extinct on December 30. Modern humans would evolve on December 31 at 11:52 PM and Columbus would discover America at 11:59:58 PM. (For more detail: the Cosmic Calendar)

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

May 15, 2021 at 1:01 am

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