The Missing Monument Murders is a historical detective story writ large: Judy Stove presents the most amazing evidence and invites the reader to be judge and jury. Two key questions must be answered: Did Chandos, Lord Leigh, ‘‘the mild-mannered, eccentric, literary lord of Stoneleigh Abbey’’, while still a teenager, personally slaughter several men? Did his mother, Julia-Judith Twisleton Leigh, who was Jane Austen’s aunt, order the deaths of up to 10 other people on the Stoneleigh estate?
And why? Well, if Stove’s evidence is accepted, their motives were the perennial reasons: wealth and power. At stake was inheritance of the large and rich Stoneleigh Abbey in Warwickshire. No less enticing was the ancient title Baron of Stoneleigh, defunct when these events occurred around 1811-12 but revived for Chandos Leigh in 1839.
The culprit who created ambiguity about who was heir to the land and title was Chris- The Missing Monument Murders By Judy Stove Waterside Press, 235pp, $34.99 topher Leigh (1626-72). Some say a monument to him had been fixed to the wall of Stoneleigh church that listed his two marriages and the children of these unions. The senior line of descent did not favour Julia-Judith and her son.
In these ambiguous circumstances, James Henry Leigh, husband of Julia-Judith and father of Chandos, inherited the estate. He disappeared in 1823; his fate remains unknown. Even while he lived, Julia-Judith was effectively mistress of Stoneleigh Abbey from about 1811 until she died in 1843. After her death she was accused of having orchestrated the fake funeral of her husband as well as several murders.
Rival claimants to Stoneleigh included Leigh Perrot, Jane Austen’s uncle, and George Leigh of Wigan. Leigh Perrot died in 1817 but his widow was ‘‘duchessed’’ lavishly by Julia-Judith until her death in 1836. George Leigh, who claimed descent from Christopher Leigh’s eldest son, Roger, pursued his case publicly and for an extended period. Ultimately, his actions resulted in a House of Lords inquiry in 1828 where the case was dismissed.
The residents of Stoneleigh had their own opinion. A favourite ditty about ‘‘Lees being as plentiful as fleas” circulated in the village. Gossip was rife, as Stove recounts, about ‘‘the possessors of Stoneleigh Abbey not being the rightful owners’’.
No doubt anxiety and fear among those ‘‘possessors’’ prompted the nefarious activities between 1811 and 1813. According to numerous sworn statements, sometime in 1811 Christopher’s monument was moved from the church wall in the dead of night along with nine incriminating coffin plates from the Stoneleigh vault. None of them was ever seen again. Subsequent events included someone dropping a huge stone on to a bridge abutment to kill two men who knew of the family’s direct involvement. Over time this crime was compounded by poisoning, threatening and paying off others who witnessed either the removal of the monument or the murders.
Stove is an academic at the University of NSW and a member of the Jane Austen Society of Australia. One of the fascinations of this book to any egalitarian-minded Australian is how it exposes the gross inequities of power arising from the British class system. Again and again, magistrates, politicians and judges disregard the testimony of ordinary people. The Leighs’ rank supersedes any other concern, including the possibility they were murderers.
When Chandos was finally tried for murder