While I wait for your feedback on what kind of posts to focus on this year, I will kick off this year’s posts with a seemingly unusual question: What do you get when you combine history with a murder mystery?
Answer: The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer; a true story of redemption and a well-researched book by Kate Summerscale.
In the summer of 1895, Robert Coombes (age 13) and his brother Nattie (age 12) were seen spending lavishly around the docklands of East London — for ten days in July, they ate out at coffee houses and took trips to the seaside and the theater. The boys told neighbors they had been left home alone while their mother visited family in Liverpool, but their aunt was suspicious. When she eventually forced the brothers to open the house to her, she found the badly decomposed body of their mother in a bedroom upstairs. Robert and Nattie were arrested for matricide and sent for trial at the Old Bailey.
Robert openly confessed to having stabbed his mother, but his lawyers argued that he was insane. Nattie struck a plea and gave evidence against his brother. The court heard testimony about Robert’s severe headaches, his fascination with violent criminals and his passion for ‘penny dreadfuls’, the pulp fiction of the day. He seemed to feel no remorse for what he had done, and neither the prosecution nor the defense could find a motive for the murder.
At his trial, Robert said it was because their mother had been beating Nattie. Emily was known to vacillate between doting indulgence and violent rages. As he faced the prospect of hanging, he became “skittish, excited”, but despite the urgings of the gutter press, who branded him a “half-formed monster”, the jury was merciful. He was declared insane and sent to Broadmoor, joining 11 other men committed for matricide.
As described in The Economist, late-Victorian Broadmoor is portrayed by Summerscale as a pastoral idyll, where patients, free of all responsibility, entered a “suspended existence, with little reference to the past or the future”. The tranquil setting and dependable pattern of the days seem to have had a steadying effect on Robert. He learned tailoring, and to play the violin and cornet. In 1912, when he was 30, he was released. He emigrated to Australia, then served with distinction as a stretcher-bearer at Gallipoli.
And there this strange tale might end, except that Summerscale is able to add one final, heart-stopping twist, and the murderer Robert Coombes finally wins our admiration and affection.