The Magazine

The Butler Didn't Do It

A Victorian Murder, Solved.

Feb 11, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 21 • By SUSAN BALEE
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Death at the Priory Sex, Love and Murder in Victorian England by James Ruddick Atlantic Monthly, 224 pp., $24 In Emily Eden's popular 1859 novel "The Semi-Detached House," old Mrs. Hopkinson observes, "I like a good murder that can't be found out; that is, of course, it is very shocking, but I like to hear about it." Mrs. Hopkinson was echoing the sentiments of her Victorian readers, who had an insatiable appetite for murder in novels, newspapers, plays, and street hawkers' broadsheets. One of the most famous Victorian murders that couldn't be found out was that of Charles Bravo, a thirty-year-old barrister who died after his intestines were burned to shreds by a corrosive poison in April 1876. The young husband, married less than six months, died in his wife's mansion in Balham, south London. Within a week, the police knew Bravo's death had not been a suicide (as they originally thought, and as one of the key suspects insisted), but a murder. The problem for the bumbling local police was not a dearth of suspects, but an abundance, including Bravo's unhappy wife, Florence Ricardo Bravo; her ex-lover, the aged Dr. James Gully; the housekeeper and Florence's companion, Mrs. Cox (whom the barrister had informed she would soon be dismissed); and the couple's former coachman, George Griffiths, whom Bravo had recently fired for a minor infraction. The Balham Mystery, as it has been known for well over a century, has been the subject of numerous books and even a BBC television mini-series, but no one has ever solved the puzzle of Bravo's murder. He ingested antimony, a poison colorless and tasteless in water, from his bedside water jug, but no one knows who put it there. Even Agatha Christie--who hypothesized that old Dr. Gully was the murderer--nevertheless acknowledged that Bravo's death was "one of the most mysterious poisoning cases ever recorded." Not anymore.

James Ruddick, the author of an earlier true-crime book, "Lord Lucan: What Really Happened," has solved the mystery by going beyond the published record of the coroner's inquest (all that other commentators have ever had to go on) and gaining access to the primary sources. Ruddick examined the full reports of the investigating officers, the forensic reports of the physicians involved in the case, and the complete statements of all the witnesses. Most important, he tracked down the descendants of all the principal suspects, discovering documentary evidence in New Zealand and Jamaica that provides enough evidence to expose the real killer--evidence that none of the investigators had in 1876. Ruddick's proof is compelling, but he doesn't give it away immediately. Instead, "Death at the Priory" reads like a first-rate murder mystery whose key points are bolstered by the author's deep knowledge of the Victorian era. Bravo's murder occurred soon after legislation broadened the rights of women and the lower classes. It occurred after the explosion of sensational fiction by such writers as Wilkie Collins and Mary Elizabeth Braddon had moved the locus of crime from Gothic castles to the bosom of the Victorian family. Collins's "The Woman in White" and Braddon's "Lady Audley's Secret" were blockbuster bestsellers when they appeared in the early 1860s. Indeed, by the time of Charles Bravo's murder, there had been so many high profile murder trials, celebrity criminals, and bestselling novels about killers disguised as respectable citizens that it began to be difficult to tell the facts from the fiction, the cause from the effect: Did highly publicized murder trials breed the novels, or did the novels breed the crimes? Certainly, many commentators at the time thought the latter. The Reverend Francis Paget, writing in 1868, observed that sensation novelists were providing would-be murderers with a how-to manual: "For the benefit of students in the science of Toxicology . . . the most approved methods for poisoning have been set forth with medical and surgical minuteness." Meanwhile, readers crossed class boundaries, and the working classes and aristocrats were as united in their love of these books as they were united in their penchant for real-life murder trials. Homicide, as Richard Altick wrote in "Victorian Studies in Scarlet," "became institutionalized as a popular entertainment, a spectator sport." Every new murder that cried out from the newspaper pages validated sensation novels and helped to create more of them. SO, for instance, the case of Madeleine Smith, the daughter of a wealthy Glasgow architect, who was tried in 1857 for poisoning her lover. (Many scholars think "Lady Audley's Secret" derived from this case.) Madeleine Smith, in the midst of a torrid affair with a French shipping clerk, suddenly met someone suitable to marry. Alas, her lover, who had saved the many letters she had written him crowing about their sexual escapades, decided to blackmail her.