Yesterday’s media sensations become today’s “Really? I’ve never heard of that!” with distressing rapidity. As Virginia Tech history professor Roger Ekirch demonstrates in Birthright: The True Story That Inspired Kidnapped, ’twas ever thus. Robert Louis Stevenson was only the best known of the many authors and entertainers who mined the real-life case of James Annesley for fictional material. The boy was the legitimate son and heir of the second Earl of Anglesea, the head of a family given land and a title in Ireland in the 17th century. Thanks to a scheming uncle who would do Shakespeare proud, James was seized on the streets of Dublin and sent to America as an indentured servant for 12 years.
While James toiled, was sold, ran away, was caught, and endured extensions of his term of servitude as a result, his uncle Richard gave out varying stories for his disappearance, including that he had died of smallpox. But with Richard poised to take control of land and titles, the previous earl threw a wrench into the works from beyond the grave; his will failed to mention Richard at all, ceding his houses and land mostly to a younger brother. Embroiled in a succession crisis, and with bills to pay, Richard actually mentioned to friends that he would rather find James in the wilds of Pennsylvania and bring him back as the rightful heir than let his upstart younger brother have a penny of the inheritance. When James did return, though, after finding some people to vouch for him in Jamaica and serving a brief stint in the Royal Navy, Richard was seized with dread and plotted more than once to have him killed.
Ekirch has his hands on a whale of a story, but he possibly could have found a better structure in which to tell it. His most extensive source is the transcript of James’ trial for shooting a poacher (in what appears to be a hunting accident), and the entire second half of this slender book is a vivid recitation based on this particular court record. But that means the first half of Birthright, much of which derives from the same transcript, is strangely unmoored from its origins in the historical record. A more effective choice might have been to make the trial the scaffolding of the entire book, supplementing (or even counterbalancing) its evidence with the myriad bits of information Ekirch pieced together from elsewhere, including legal records, press reports, and even largely fictional quickie autobiographies of James rushed into publication to take advantage of his sudden celebrity. Nevertheless, those who make it past some of the story’s most threadbare parts to the edge-of-your-seat courtroom account will be treated to as dramatic a tale as any Robert Louis Stevenson ever wrote.