Skip to main content

A Murder Most Mysterious

ISSUE:  Winter 2009

In 1827, Thomas de Quincey suggested that murder was becoming a new medium for the artist: “People begin to see,” he wrote, “that something more goes into the composition of a fine murder than two blockheads to kill and be killed, a knife, a purse, and a dark lane. Design, gentlemen, grouping, light and shade, poetry, sentiment, are now deemed indispensable in attempts of this nature.” In spite of its irony, de Quincey’s essay, “Murder Considered as a Fine Art,” offers a certain truth about the age of Victoria: crime—both as an art in itself and as the subject of the art of fiction—was achieving a new complexity.

Renaissance England had had its cutpurses, pimps, and bawds, whose exploits were detailed in coney-catching pamphlets, and the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had seen the biographies of famous thieves like Jack Sheppard become wildly popular, as did novels like Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders and Colonel Jack which offered the fictional autobiographies of prostitutes, thieves, and pirates (and so placed criminal biography among the ancestors of the novel). Victorian England, however, offered crimes of an intricacy, horror, and premeditation that made the pickpockets and highwaymen of preceding ages look quaint. True to de Quincey’s aesthetics of crime, “design” came to the fore: Jack the Ripper marked the bodies of his young female victims with signature mutilations (throats cut to the spine; a kidney, heart, or a part of the womb removed), and in the plots of crime’s new fictional counterpart, detective fiction, authors like Wilkie Collins and Arthur Conan Doyle wove elaborate webs of hatred, desire, betrayal, want, and fear that created, sometimes concealed, and—once unraveled—identified criminals.

<i>The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective</i>, by Kate Summerscale. Walker, April 2008. $24.95As Kate Summerscale’s engrossing new book The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher reveals, the word “clue” had been derived from the word “clew,” which meant “a ball of thread or yarn,” and “had come to mean ‘that which points the way’ because of the Greek myth in which Theseus uses a ball of yarn, given to him by Ariadne, to find his way out of the Minotaur’s labyrinth.” So clews, then, were not just strands of plot in which a detective might become entangled, but guides out of the labyrinthine tangles of crime.

Summerscale’s book is an Ariadne-worthy feat itself, intertwining a careful reconstruction and analysis of the Road Hill murder—perhaps the most famous single murder in Victorian England—with the early history of police and private detection, the parallel rise of crime fiction, and a casebook of some the period’s most haunting crimes and criminals. Crime and its detection become a dark, hallucinatory mirror of the arts of fiction and literary criticism in The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: killers, like novelists, gather materials to fashion and execute plots, and detectives, the skillful readers of clues and character, try to expose these plots by unraveling clues, studying the characters of witnesses, and untangling their true connections to the victim.

In the case of the Road Hill murder, the victim was three-year-old Saville Kent. On June 30, 1860, his body was found wrapped in a blood-soaked blanket in the vault of a servants’ privy on the grounds of his family’s country house in Wiltshire. The child’s neck had been cut to the spine, and his head almost fell off when two local men who had joined the search for the missing boy lifted his body from the splashboard above the dark pit of excrement where his killer had concealed it. The child’s father and the live-in household servants reported that they had, as usual, locked all of the windows and doors of Road Hill House on the night of the 29th, and so it was determined that the killer had to be among the members of the household, in what was possibly the first country-house or closed-room murder mystery. Wilkie Collins was to borrow this form from the Road Hill case for The Moonstone in 1868 (as well as modeling the novel’s detective, Sergeant Cuff, on Jack Whicher, the Scotland Yard detective who handled Road Hill). There were twelve members of the household, including Saville and the live-in servants. The Kent family had two branches, one comprised of the children of Samuel Kent’s first wife, Mary Ann, who had died in 1852: By her, Samuel Kent, Saville’s father and the head of the family, had two girls then in their late twenties, Mary Ann and Elizabeth, and a boy and girl, William and Constance Emily, aged fourteen and sixteen. By his second wife, Mary Drewe Kent (who had served as a governess to the first Mrs. Kent and her children, before becoming Mrs. Kent herself in 1853), Samuel had a younger second family: two daughters, Mary Amelia, aged five; Eveline, aged one; and Francis Saville, who had been almost four when he was murdered. True to Virginia Woolf’s observation that the life of the average nineteenth-century woman was “a succession of childbirths,” the second Mrs. Kent was eight months pregnant with her fourth child that June in 1860. The other members of the family were the servants: Elizabeth Gough, the nursemaid; Sarah Cox, the housemaid; and Sarah Kerslake, the cook. One among the members of this multipart family was the killer.

For all of the isolation of the house and the relatively small group of suspects, however, neither the local police nor the coroner’s inquest could come across anything resembling a clear motive or a useful clue. “I say, gentlemen,” announced the coroner at the close of his inquest, “it is the most extraordinary and mysterious murder that has ever been committed.” By the beginning of July, national newspapers had picked up the story and were insisting that the Road Hill case presented a threat to all English families. Nothing less than “the sanctity of the English home”—that piety of Victorian middle-class pieties—was at stake. The place of respite and relief from worldly cares, the sanctum of angelic, selfless wives and pure, dutiful daughters, was threatened—seemingly from within. “The whole moral interior of the house ought to be laid bare to the public gaze,” argued one editorial; “A deed that sends a shudder through every English home, acquires a social importance which justifies any amount of attention to the subject,” insisted another. By July 15th, Jack Whicher, the doyen of the first generation of Scotland Yard police detectives, had been sent to Wiltshire to take over the case.

But what the English so urgently wanted to know in the first days of the case, they no longer wanted to know when Jack Whicher took into custody sixteen-year-old Constance Emily Kent on suspicion of the murder of her half brother. With Constance’s arrest, the insinuation that respectable Victorian families might harbor—or create—moral monsters closed in on the national consciousness. Whicher’s arrest of Constance—and his continued insistence on her guilt after she had been found innocent of the crime in a second inquest—finished his career in the London police. He was a working-class man who had made an accusation based on circumstantial evidence against an upper-middle-class young lady. The same sense of the sanctity of the Victorian home and family that had demanded the aid of Scotland Yard in locating and rooting out the threat from within found Whicher’s necessary explorations of the Kent family’s past, as well as its laundry lists and the underwear drawers of its females, a disturbing violation. Perhaps a violation equal to the murder itself.

While what Wilkie Collins called “detective fever”—the English appetite for detective novels and stories, as well as journalistic accounts of true crime—continued long after the Road Hill case, the view of the detective took a darker turn. No longer was he only a force for good—a secular prophet, a bringer of justice, and vanquisher of chaos. Whicher had shown himself ungentlemanly in demanding the incarceration of a young lady, and his work came to seem ungentlemanly too: “peeping and prying, goggling and wondering at the sins and sufferings of others.” But this, of course, is what the English themselves were doing in following the case, and so perhaps it was in “collective self-revulsion they cast him out.”

And yet, Constance was at least a little eccentric, particularly by the standards of Victorian femininity. Before Saville was born, she and her brother William had tried to run away to sea together as cabin boys. Constance had dressed herself in some of her brother’s old clothes that she had hidden and patched for herself, and then cut off her hair to disguise herself as a boy. By her own admission, she had thrown her hair down the same privy in which Saville’s body was to be found almost four years later. When the siblings were apprehended, William broke down immediately, while Constance refused to speak to her captors or apologize to her father and stepmother when she was returned home. According to her school fellows, Whicher reported, Constance was a “very stout, strong built girl” and fond of wrestling and boxing. She enjoyed a good game of “Heenan and Sayers”—a reference to a bloody, bare-knuckles heavyweight boxing match that had been fought in the spring of 1860 between the American John Heenan and the Englishman Tom Sayers. Tussles with the sturdy Miss Kent were, apparently, “dreaded by all.” And Constance had been fascinated some years earlier by the alleged murderess Madeline Smith. Though the case against her was never proved, Smith was widely believed to have killed her lover by putting arsenic in his hot chocolate. Smith achieved a certain glamour for her seemingly brazen triumph over the law, and Henry James hailed her crime as “a rare work of art.” Samuel Kent had tried to curb his daughter’s fascination with this case by hiding the newspapers, but in spite of his efforts, he later found a cache of papers hidden under her bed.

The bemused local reporter who had written a comic account of William and Constance’s attempt at running away concluded suggestively that it was “a most strange circumstance in a delicately nurtured gentleman’s family.” Whicher went further, convinced that certain aspects of Constance’s eccentric behavior suggested that the “delicately nurtured gentleman’s family” might not be all it seemed. The “wish to be independent” that Constance offered as the motive for her disguised flight from her family home became a clew itself, one that led to her father, Samuel Kent, and his marital history.

Suspicion had attached to Samuel Kent from the beginning, perhaps not least because he had long been disliked in the neighboring villages for his imperious coldness and his position as government inspector of local cloth mills. One rumor claimed that he and the children’s nursemaid, Elizabeth Gough, who slept in the nursery from which Saville had been taken on the night of his murder, had been having an affair. Seen by Saville in flagrante delicto, the story went, the two had killed the boy to keep him from telling his mother. (This was the solution that Charles Dickens favored even after another had confessed and been convicted of Saville’s murder.) Another theory suggested that Samuel and his new wife had poisoned the first Mrs. Kent. And Whicher’s own researches revealed that the first Mrs. Kent had been thought mad, and that Constance, as her child, had once been thought so too. Such speculations and suspicions continued to swirl around members of the family long after the case was closed, and Summerscale adds her own ingenious readings of the Kent family to these.

Summerscale claims that her book is modeled on the country-house mystery, and that it borrows its techniques from detective fiction. The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, however, is a far cry from a whodunit. Although the plot of the Road Hill case is certainly compelling, it is Summerscale’s sensitivity to Whicher’s belief “that Saville’s death was part of a mesh of deception and concealment”—that the murder was only the final figure embroidered on a vast tapestry of interwoven sins, miseries, and passions (neglect, loneliness, cruelty, adultery, madness, devotion)—that gives this book its enthralling pull; it is a text in the best and truest sense (from the Latin textere, to weave). She follows the threads of the Kent family’s tale outward, entwining them with other mythic stories of the age, both fictional and factual, so that the Road Hill murder comes to seem a luminous and uncanny archetypal myth of the Victorian age—its hypocrisy, its dangerous repressions of desire, its worship of a stifling vision of femininity, its crippling reproductive demands, its class tensions, its sentimental sense of childhood and family life.

But it is the ultimate elusiveness of the Road Hill story that is more haunting. The case was solved but not solved—the ends of some clews found, the ends of others frayed, broken, lost. While one of the members of the Kent family eventually confessed to the murder and was convicted for it, questions about whether the crime had actually been committed by this person alone—and the actions of other members of the family that might have driven this person to kill—remained. Summerscale, with all of Whicher’s gift for detection and the unraveling of clews, collects the possible alternative versions of the story alongside the one drawn by a murderer’s confession. The end of a Sherlock Holmes story or an Agatha Christie mystery offers a perfect resolution: the criminal is identified absolutely and her motives made plain; The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, unlike its fictional counterparts, offers a solution whose frayed edges and dangling clews suggest other possibilities. Like a Sapphic fragment or an unfinished novel (Dickens’s Edwin Drood, which was based on the Road Hill case), it is the missing strands, the filaments long cut that ask us to return, to wonder once more what has been, and to try to reweave the text.

This review was the winning entrant in VQR’s Young Reviewers Contest. Ms. Wilkinson won a cash prize of $1,000 and will be contributing to VQR as a regular reviewer in the coming year.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading