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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. In February 1857, according to chemists' accounts, Madeleine Smith bought arsenic and her hapless lover Emile began to suffer from the gastric attacks that ultimately killed him. By the time of the inquest in the summer of 1857, the dock at Edinburgh was overrun with gawkers. Never had such a lovely, young, and well-born prisoner stood in the witness box. Prompted perhaps by Smith's glamour (as well as the omnipresent British francophobia), the jury returned a verdict of Not Proven, and Madeleine Smith walked free. Florence Bravo wasn't so lucky, or perhaps she just didn't have Madeleine Smith's chutzpah. At nineteen, Florence Campbell caught sight of her first husband, a twenty-two-year-old grenadier, Alexander Ricardo. He was a dark, handsome, dashing young man with distinguished and wealthy parents (his father was a Liberal MP, his mother a society beauty). They married in 1864 and Florence immediately began badgering Ricardo to give up the military, settle down in style, and produce a brood of children. In 1868, he capitulated, but he could not fulfill himself with the usual round of aristocratic pursuits--hunting, fishing, riding--and soon he turned to other women and alcohol. Not surprisingly, the husband and wife began to fight, and Ricardo's verbal abuse ultimately became physical. Just before Christmas in 1870, Florence Ricardo left her husband and returned to her parents' house. Unfortunately for her, Robert Campbell told his daughter that it was "morally offensive" for a wife to leave her husband and that he would not permit her to stay. Florence became hysterical and a compromise was reached: Florence would go to the Hydro, an aristocratic sanatorium run by the eminent Dr. James Gully, to recover her nerves. Florence recuperated so well that she precipitated the first great scandal of her life: She seduced her doctor. Dr. James Gully, a kind and empathetic man who listed Gladstone, Disraeli, Dickens, and Darwin among his patients, was nevertheless a small, pale, bald man in his sixties. It is a testament to his charisma that Florence fell so completely in love with the genial old physician. By consummating their relationship, both Florence and Gully took an enormous risk. Not only were both married (Gully's wife was in her eighties and confined in a mental asylum) but both were well-known society figures. If their liaison became known, they would be judged mercilessly and their reputations destroyed. AT FIRST, Florence Ricardo must have thought she'd escaped without punishment: She'd taken a lover, and no one was the wiser. And then--quelle chance--Alexander Ricardo drank himself to death in April 1871. Best of all, he hadn't bothered to change his will, and Florence inherited forty thousand pounds, a fabulous fortune at that time. The wealthy widow bought a mansion in South London called the Priory. Poor old Dr. Gully followed Florence to London at her request, buying a house five minutes' walk from the Priory. He had asked Florence if she would marry him when his wife died. Florence wasn't too sure she really wanted to marry this kindly substitute father, but she was certainly enjoying the sex with him. At least, until the day they were caught in flagrante, at the home of friends Florence was visiting in Surrey. Florence had been ostensibly "entertaining" her doctor friend in the drawing room while her hosts were out for a walk. As fate would have it, the hosts returned for an umbrella, at which point "they heard the unmistakable sounds of sexual activity. . . . When they entered the room they found Florence lying on the sofa, Dr. Gully beside her." The owners of the house were disgusted and outraged; worse still, the servants had heard everything "and the gossip marched through London with the speed of an epidemic." Florence Ricardo was now banned from respectable society, with only her fellow outcast, Dr. Gully, to solace her. That solace ended when Florence realized she was pregnant. This scandal could not be weathered, for it would be the end of Gully's career and Florence would have to emigrate; there'd be no remaining in England after she'd borne the doctor an illegitimate child. Facing the scorn of their peers, Gully eliminated the evidence, performing an illegal abortion on his lover. The only person who knew was Mrs. Jane Cox, Florence's housekeeper and companion. Mrs. Cox stood by her mistress. When the operation went wrong, and Florence nearly died, Cox nursed her day in and day out. To quell the rumors, Cox informed the servants that Mrs. Ricardo had been operated on for a tumor. Only later, at the coroner's inquest for Charles Bravo's death, did Mrs. Cox acknowledge that the operation had actually been an abortion. AT THIS POINT, the relationship between Florence and Gully was effectively over, but that of Florence and Mrs. Cox had been greatly strengthened. Had Florence not craved acceptance by her social peers, she might have lived out her days quietly at the Priory, a widow staring down scandal until time and her good behavior could succeed in recouping her respectability, just as they ultimately do for Mrs. Catherick in Collins's "The Woman in White." But Florence didn't have that kind of patience; she couldn't bear life without a man, without the propriety marriage conferred on a woman. So she entered the orbit of Charles Bravo, a rising young barrister, with the help of Mrs. Cox, who had once worked for the Bravos and could therefore make introductions. Bravo was talented and handsome, and Florence was so taken with the respectability he represented that she was willing to overlook the troubling aspects of her suitor, not least among them the fact that he was well known for his "greed and penury." This should have been clear to her when she confessed her affair with Gully so he would hear it from her before he heard it from someone else. As Ruddick rightly notes, "No man of Charles Bravo's background would consider marrying a woman who had just confessed to aborting a pregnancy during an adulterous affair with a sixty-seven-year-old man unless he was chiefly interested in her money." When Florence invoked her right to keep her fortune (the Married Women's Property Act of 1870 prevented husbands from assuming their wives' assets), Bravo nearly called the wedding off. Only when Florence agreed to make a will benefiting him in the event of her death and leasing him the Priory in her lifetime did Bravo consent to take her hand. The marriage was ill-omened from the start, and it quickly mushroomed into something insupportable. Bravo insisted on control of the household finances, firing servants to save money and urging Florence to give up her horses and garden. When she remonstrated, Bravo took out his anger in the bedroom. When each of her two pregnancies with him ended in a serious miscarriage that undermined her health, he made it clear that he would keep trying until they produced a son. All of this, and more, came out in the coroner's inquest, but the case against any one suspect could not be proved, in part because Florence Bravo and Mrs. Cox supported each other--and in part because the servants banded together against the local police inspector. Indeed, the wealth of the Bravo household kept Chief Inspector Clarke at arm's length. A policeman's entrance into the home to investigate a murder was seen as an invasion of the family's rights, which is why, probably, there are so many inept and ill-at-ease detectives in nineteenth-century fiction. Perhaps the best known is Sergeant Cuff, the hapless policeman assigned to the case in Wilkie Collins's "The Moonstone," a novel based on the 1860 Road Murder, when upper-class Constance Kent was cleared of charges that she had murdered her younger stepbrother and then, five years later, confessed to the crime. In the Kent case, the real-life Inspector Whicher suspected her but was overridden. In "The Moonstone," Cuff is fired for his presumption. IT'S NO WONDER that Clarke could not solve the Bravo case when all the principals were so resolutely shut against him--nor is it surprising that an amateur detective from a higher class, James Ruddick, could do so over one hundred years later when the descendants of these same people gave him access to their private documents. Ruddick's "Death at the Priory" is a marvelous read, revealing a world where respectability sometimes covered a variety of disreputable secrets. Though never officially charged with her husband's death, Florence Bravo drank herself to death in 1878. Unlike Madeleine Smith, she could not leave the scandal of her past behind her. And as for her husband's murderer--ah, well, for that, you'll have to read the book. A writer in Philadelphia, Susan Balee is the author of articles on Wilkie Collins, M.E. Braddon, Oscar Wilde, and Victorian culture.