Books

The Most Dreadful Murder of the Century

A true-crime book about a 19th-century murder that takes an unexpected turn.

London's Police News, July 27, 1895.
London’s Police News, July 27, 1895.

Wicked Boy

Robert Coombes was a monster, as far as the press was concerned, and you can hardly blame it for that conclusion. At the age of 13, the boy was denounced in the newspaper Lloyd’s Weekly as the perpetrator of

HORROR ON HORROR’S HEAD
THE MOST DREADFUL MURDER OF THE CENTURY
TWO PLAISTOW BOYS SLAY THEIR MOTHER
AND PLAY CARDS BENEATH THE CORPSE WITH A MANIAC

It was the summer of 1895, and as Kate Summerscale describes it in her fascinating new book, The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer, the East London district of Plaistow, a “respectable working-class” neighborhood near the docks, shuddered to learn that Robert had stabbed his mother as she lay in bed, then proceeded to live in the family home with his younger brother for 10 more days. Finally, the stench from the upstairs bedroom alerted the neighbors that something might be seriously wrong.

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Victorian true crime is Summerscale’s beat; her best-known previous book, The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, about a notorious 1860 murder investigated by one of the pioneering detectives of Scotland Yard, was a best-seller and inspired a British television series. The mystery at hand in The Wicked Boy, however, is not who done it—Robert confessed to killing his mother, Emily Coombes, the moment he was confronted by the relatives and neighbors who discovered the corpse. Instead, the puzzle that Summerscale attempts to solve by relying almost entirely on official records is who Robert Coombes really was and why he did what he did.

For the two months following the murder, until Robert was tried and convicted on Sept. 17, 1895, newspaper readers feasted on the shocking details of the crime and its unnatural perpetrators. Nattie Coombes, 12, was cast as an innocent follower, in thrall to his older brother’s commanding personality. After the stabbing, Robert rifled his mother’s possessions for the household cash, then took Nattie on a spending spree that involved taxi rides and several cricket matches. The “maniac” he brought into the house turned out to be John Fox, a simple-minded odd-jobs man sometimes hired by the boys’ parents who helped Robert pawn valuables and otherwise provided adult cover. Fox, it was eventually determined, knew nothing of the murder. When anyone asked about his mother’s whereabouts, Robert told them she was visiting her sister in Liverpool. Their father, a ship’s steward, was aboard a liner on a two-week voyage to New York.

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However much the world may have changed since 1895, the response of the media to such outrages hasn’t altered a bit. Robert’s cool, calm, and occasionally smiling or laughing demeanor at the inquest and in the courtroom chilled reporters and columnists, who held him up as a fiendish exemplar of “the New Boy.” A parallel to the hoydenish “New Woman”—who smoked, rode bicycles, spoke up for herself, and otherwise trashed the ideal of Victorian femininity—such insolent, heartless boys were supposedly the vanguard of a spreading social decay that, as the local Plaistow paper put it, “seems to plunge us back at once into the Dark Ages.”

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Self-styled experts were called upon to deliver their verdicts according to the fashionable pop science of the day, detecting in the shape of Robert’s head the signs of reverse evolution and racial degeneracy, “germs of perversity, alcoholic mischief, or other more delicate imprints,” according to one. (Alcohol abuse appears to have had no impact on the Coombes family.) Other experts blamed Robert for being too smart. Precocity in children was viewed as a perilous trait that might lead the brain to become irritated and cause “excitability,” an emotionally volatile state and a condition from which Emily Coombes was said to have suffered. Robert’s own father had taken the boy to two different physicians who warned him that his son’s intelligence endangered his health, causing his moodiness and frequent headaches.

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Kate Summerscale.
Kate Summerscale.

Eamonn McCabe

But above all, authorities pointed to the stacks of penny dreadfuls found in the boys’ room. These cheap, sensational tales of adventure and (sometimes) violence, often set in the criminal underworld or in exotic locales, were the scandalous comic books and video games of their time, sold to the tune of a million copies per week to working-class boys made newly literate by the educational reform movement of the previous two decades. The yarns published in these pamphlets, often with an intrepid boy as the hero and a fabulous treasure as his reward, would remind modern readers of the adventures of Indiana Jones or Tintin. Nattie told the East London Advertiser that Robert read these stories passionately and had promised his younger brother that once they were free of their mother, the two of them would head off to India with Fox as their sidekick, in search of “romance and riches.”

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In a piquant departure from most true-crime narratives, the most interesting parts of The Wicked Boy have to do not with the crime, the investigation, or even the trial, but with what came afterward. The first half of the book can be wearying at times; Summerscale is a consummate researcher and can’t resist brandishing even her less-thrilling trophies. (Must we read the place of residence and family situation of every policeman who played a more-than-passing role in the case?) Many of the more lurid details of Emily Coombes’ murder—such as the full bushel’s worth of maggots found on her decomposing body—can be found on websites specializing in vintage crime. Most of these accounts, though, end with Robert’s commitment to Broadmoor, a well-known prison for the criminally insane. There he was locked up with older men, killers of wives, children, business partners, and strangers—including 12 other inmates who had murdered their mothers—presumably for the rest of his life.

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What Summerscale learned, however, was that Broadmoor, a name shrouded with dread among Britons, operated under a remarkably progressive mandate during the early 20th century. The setting was pastoral (if secure), and inmates were allowed to cultivate private gardens, keep libraries (if they could afford them), play cricket, and perform in the asylum band. For a city boy like Robert, the place was, Summerscale writes, “both gaol and sanctuary, fortress and enchanted castle.” Because Robert was so young, he was kept among the best-educated and best-behaved members of the prison populations. He learned to play three musical instruments and chess well enough to rank in a tournament. He was also trained as a tailor. After 17 years, at the age of 30, he was deemed sane enough to release. He lived in a Salvation Army colony for a while, then immigrated to Australia, following his brother, Nattie.

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As Summerscale sees it, the rest of Robert’s life—unknown before this book—answered most of her questions about his crime. Not every reader will agree, but she makes a persuasive argument. As an émigré, he finally found both the travel and the adventure he once dreamed of, although of an unenviably grim variety; Summerscale follows him, during World War I, from Gallipoli to the Somme. And in an anything-but-superfluous epilogue that begins with the observation that contemporary armchair diagnosticians would probably peg Robert as a psychopath, she finally steps into the narrative herself. She recounts how a single vital clue led her to the discovery of the last chapter of Robert’s life in rural Australia. In the book’s moving concluding scene, she gets to shake hands with a 95-year-old man who actually knew her subject, and knew him well. What he has to tell her suggests that there are many mysteries in human nature that we’ll never conclusively solve, and not all of them are horrors.

The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer by Kate Summerscale. Penguin Press.

See all the pieces in the Slate Book Review.

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