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The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer
The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer
Kate Summerscale
Penguin Press, 2016
400 pp., 28.00

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LaVonne Neff

A Forgotten Case of Matricide

The untold aftermath of a once-famous crime.

One hot July afternoon in1895, Emily Coombes used the landlady's key to open a locked bedroom door in an east London row house. Inside she discovered the rotting body of another Emily Coombes, her 37-year-old sister-in-law, sprawled on the bed and crawling with maggots. Beside her was a knife, and a truncheon was on the floor. The stench was overpowering.

There was no question about who killed her. Robert Coombes, aged 13, immediately confessed: first to his aunt, then to a police constable, and finally to a police sergeant. The boy's statements were cool and consistent. "I did it," he said to the constable. "My brother Nattie got a hiding for stealing some food, and Ma was going to give me one. So Nattie said that he would stab her, but as he could not do it himself he asked me to do it… . I did it with a knife, which I left on the bed. I covered her up and left her."

"The most dreadful murder of the century," screamed the 'News of the World'.

There was some question about how to apportion the blame. Was Robert alone guilty, or was Nattie, aged 12, an accessory to murder? What about John Fox, the unemployed, slow-witted dockworker the boys had recruited to help them get money and food during the days between the murder and its discovery? How much did he know? Was he involved?

And there were myriad questions about what had been going on in Robert's mind. Why would a boy—neither a trouble-maker nor noticeably troubled—commit matricide? Why did he then spend more than a week and quite a lot of money at cricket matches, the theater, coffee shops, and a fishing expedition? Why did he appear unconcerned and even cheerful at his trial?

Newspaper reporters immediately began questioning the neighbors. Were the boys truthful? Did their mother drink? Was Fox seen at the house before the murder? The boys' father, a ship's steward who was sailing to America when the murder occurred, learned the grisly news from a hand-delivered newspaper as his ship approached New York. Reporters avidly rushed aboard. "My elder boy had an abnormally developed brain," Coombes told the man from The New York Times. Nevertheless, he said to the man from the Pittsburgh Commercial Gazette, "I am positive that John Fox had some hand in the deed."

Newspapers dubbed the crime the "Plaistow Horror" after the Coombes family's working-class neighborhood. "The most dreadful murder of the century," screamed the News of the World. "The most awful and revolting crime that we have ever been called upon to record," proclaimed the Stratford Express. As the boys and Fox were taken to Holloway gaol, questioned at the coroner's inquest, and tried at the Old Bailey, reporters noted (or invented) the minutest detail, not only about the events of the day but also about what the accused had been doing for the past several years. The ongoing story was great for circulation: newspapers "were being snapped up as quickly as if they had carried updates on a political crisis, a military battle or an important sporting event," sniffed the Spectator.

Author Kate Summerscale knows newspapers. With a double-first in English from Oxford and an MA in journalism from Stanford, she edited and wrote for several UK newspapers before turning to writing books. In fact, an obituary she was researching for the Daily Telegraph inspired her first book, The Queen of Whale Cay (1997), a biography of the cross-dressing, speedboat-racing, cheroot-smoking Marion "Joe" Carstairs, self-proclaimed ruler of a small Bahamian kingdom.

Summerscale relied heavily on newspapers in writing her second book, The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher (2008), the story of a real-life English country-house murder in 1860 (it won the prestigious Samuel Johnson Prize for nonfiction); and newspaper accounts of a ballyhooed Victorian divorce trial helped her reconstruct the now-lost romantically explicit diary that caused Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace (2012). "[I'm] a journalist playing historian, and then trying to convert what I've found into something that approximates a novel," she told the Guardian.

The Wicked Boy, like Summerscale's previous books, is meticulously researched, with newspapers supplying much of the information referenced in over 40 pages of notes. In her capable hands, the wealth of detail does not weigh down the story but rather adds lively context. The book, though about Robert Coombes, is equally a vivid social history of England at the turn of the 20th century.

Robert, for example, was no Oliver Twist abandoned in Dickensian doom. Rather, born during what was known as the "age of progress," he was the elder son of a married couple who "aspired to the respectable, relatively well-to-do life to which they had been raised—with good clothes for churchgoing, musical instruments for the children, literary magazines, an exotic bird in a cage—[though] they did not own property and employ servants as their parents had done." He lived with his parents and brother in a modest but well-kept row house (two rooms up, two rooms down, plus wash house and privy, with gas and running water). He had completed his elementary education, was a voracious reader, played the mandolin, enjoyed cricket in the park near his home, and attended church with his family every week. Earlier in the year of the murder, he had even traveled to America with his seafaring father.

His biggest apparent vice was a common one: his collection of "penny dreadfuls," sensational pulp fiction for adolescent males. These provided "Britain's first taste of mass-produced popular culture for the young," Summerscale writes, and were "often held responsible for the decay of literature and of morality" because of their lurid and often violent tales. And Robert loved violent tales, whether fictional or factual. "If he happened to read of a ghastly or horrible murder," his father told a reporter from the New York Tribune, "his whole mind appeared to become taken up by it, and nothing could divert him. During these morbid spells he would read all the literature of that character that he could obtain."

Nobody, however, expected him to commit murder. Was he a wicked boy, or was he—as the defense counsel tried to show—"not in his right mind"? The insanity defense had become popular in English trials, and the court examined all the angles. Various witnesses testified to Robert's frequent headaches, "cerebral irritation," trauma from a forceps-assisted delivery, "excitable fits," "voices in his head," "disordered nervous system," and alleged "homicidal mania," while others characterized him as a good student, "well-spoken," and "of more than average intelligence."

Much to the judge's disgust—he favored hanging—the jury found Robert guilty but insane. At age 13, the boy was consigned to Broadmoor, described by Summerscale as "a fortified criminal lunatic asylum that housed [and still houses] the most notorious killers in Britain." Broadmoor inmates serve no definite sentence; some remain there for life.

Summerscale's descriptions of life at Broadmoor are riveting. The asylum was surprisingly modern. "Since [the superintendent] believed that madness was at least partly caused by a person's surroundings and experience," she writes, he "tried in Broadmoor to foster an environment conducive to sanity." Care was taken to keep inmates healthy, comfortable, and clean. Attendants were trained to be gentle and sympathetic. Mechanical restraints were not used, and drugs were used only sparingly. One fellow inmate, William Chester Minor, spent his days researching words for the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. Minor was given two rooms; he filled the second room with books.

Robert was eventually released from the asylum. In 1914, he emigrated to Australia, and later that year, when war broke out in Europe, he signed up with the Australian Imperial Force. As always, Summerscale includes rich historical detail:

Over the last three months of 1914 Robert trained in a series of camps in south-eastern Australia, taking part in parades, drills, route marches … for up to sixteen hours a day. He was taught to turn in formation, to stand to attention, to form fours. In the absence of uniform, he and his fellow soldiers drilled in shirtsleeves or singlets, dungarees and white hats. They slept twenty-three to a ten-man tent. The diet, everywhere, was meat stew, bread and jam.

At the end of the year, 12,000 Australians and New Zealanders—Robert among them—were shipped first to a training camp in Egypt and then to the killing fields of Gallipoli. Events during Robert's harrowing tours of duty, both in Turkey and in Northern Europe, bring the story to an almost satisfactory close. But don't even think of skipping the final chapter.

The Wicked Boy is not a whodunit: the perpetrator is never in doubt. Why Robert killed his mother is the mystery that Summerscale explores. In "Epilogue: Another Boy," she herself joins the story, meeting people who knew Robert well and learning some things that put the events of 1895 in an entirely new light. I do not appreciate spoilers, so I will say no more.

LaVonne Neff used to blog about politics and religion but has grown too discouraged about both.

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