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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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.