Mur­der by the Book: A Sen­sa­tional Chap­ter in Vic­to­rian Crime by Claire Har­man

The Oldie - - CONTENTS - Mark Bostridge

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.

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