Murder by the Book: A Sensational Chapter in Victorian Crime by Claire Harman
MARK BOSTRIDGE Murder by the Book. A Sensational Chapter in Victorian Crime By Claire Harman Viking £14.99 Oldie price £13.34 inc p&p
Claire Harman’s study of a sensational Victorian crime opens on an appropriately gory scene. One spring morning in 1840, a normally sedate street in London’s Mayfair was rocked by the discovery of a murder. Lord William Russell, an elderly aristocrat, was found lying in bed with his throat so deeply cut that his head was practically severed from his body.
A small towel covered Russell’s face. His left hand gripped the sheet, and there was blood on the pillow, all through the bed, and pooled on the floor beneath it. Everything else in Russell’s bedroom – the bed hangings, walls, curtains and carpets – remained strangely clean and free from gore.
In her diary, the young Queen Victoria wrote with girlish consternation, ‘This is really too horrid!’ Crowds of sightseers, including carriage-loads of ladies waiting in the rain for fresh developments, gravitated to the house in Norfolk Street. Soon the murder seemed to be all anyone could talk about, from Soho bars to Mayfair clubs.
There was little doubt that Russell’s death was the work of a burglar. But the meagreness of his haul – small valuables and silverware – puzzled police. As for the identity of the killer, suspicion centred on Russell’s servants, in particular the Swiss valet, a recent addition to the household, François Courvoisier. Not only was Courvoisier foreign, making him an automatic suspect, but also various bloodstained items were eventually uncovered in his room. Courvoisier was arrested, confessed to the crime, and went to the gallows later that summer.
The Norfolk Street murder is undoubtedly, to echo Queen Victoria, a horrible crime, and Harman describes it with thrilling gusto, sparing the reader nothing in the way she tightens the reins of suspense and piles up all the tiny, salient scene-of-crime details irresistible to so many of us. What makes her book more than just another shocking piece of blood-soaked grand guignolery is the way she chooses to interpret Courvoisier’s crime in the context of two public debates that were transfixing Victorian society at the time of the murder.
The first, and the more inflammatory of the two, is the fierce controversy over the part played in Russell’s killing by the so-called ‘Newgate novel’, and especially a leading title of the genre (which also included Dickens’s Oliver Twist), William Harrison Ainsworth’s hugely popular Jack Sheppard.
Ainsworth’s novel, adapted for the stage, spawning multiple imitations, glorified the real-life, 18th-century criminal of that name, and his book stood accused of encouraging would-be felons to daredevil feats of crime. From his Newgate cell, Courvoisier reportedly confessed to having been influenced by Sheppard.
But then he had already changed his story several times, and his true motive in killing Russell, as Harman admits, becomes less knowable, the more the light of investigation is shone on it. Why did Courvoiser murder his employer, when he could probably have got away with stealing from him and making a speedy exit from the house instead of remaining on the premises ‘as if to be detected’? Did the removal of the truss from Russell’s body, with signs of a struggle, signify anything; perhaps some sexual motive? Or was Courvoisier simply a psychopath?
The second debate, which lights a much longer touchpaper, leading all the way to the abolition of capital punishment, revolves around Courvoisier’s death and the campaign for an end to public executions (the final one took place in 1868). A crowd of 40,000 people pushed and shoved their way around the passageways of Newgate to watch Courvoisier hang. Both Dickens and Thackeray were among the spectators. Dickens wrote later of his revulsion at this ‘ghastly night in Hades with the demons’ and drew on it for the climax of Barnaby Rudge.
Even more emotively, Thackeray made the execution the subject of a piece of journalism, Going to See a Man Hanged. It is a melancholy effort, full of the author’s shame and feelings of degradation at ‘the brutal curiosity’ that had taken him to ‘that brutal sight’.
As he approached the gallows, Courvoisier had given the crowd ‘a wild, imploring look’, his mouth ‘contracted into a sort of pitiful smile’. A glimpse of that final smile, now stretched and fixed, can be found in the gruesome model of Courvoisier’s head taken by Madame Tussaud’s from his death mask, one of the illustrations in Harman’s enthralling book.