Sunday, September 18, 2022


People who are arrested for serious crimes today look for any mitigating factors to deflect blame from themselves. Murder by the Book proves that this tactic is nothing new. In 1840 the elderly Lord William Russell was found murdered in his bed when his servant came to wake him up one morning. His throat had been cut but all of the blood had soaked down into the mattress. The police quickly arrived and detected valuables missing but no signs of any intruders. There had been an attempt made to look as if one of the doors had been forced open, but it was determined this had been done from the inside. With no intruders to blame, interest turned to the servants in the house. There were not that many: a female cook and housemaid as well as a male valet were the only staff who "lived in." When some skirting boards in the valet's room were noticed to be askew, some of the missing valuables were discovered hidden there and the valet was quickly arrested.

The valet, François Courvoisier, was originally from Switzerland and had been employed by Lord Russell for only a month. On the day of the murder, Lord Russell had been angry with his valet for forgetting to send a coach to pick him up at his club. This and the missing valuables were seen as enough of a motive to keep him locked up for trial.

At the same time as this scandal was rocking the city, a book and play about another famous criminal were dominating the social life of Victorian London. Jack Sheppard was a young thief who became famous when he repeatedly escaped from various jails before eventually being hanged for his crimes.  In early 1839 the author William Harrison Ainsworth, who was one of the most popular authors of the day, published his "romance" called Jack Sheppard. It was so popular that it was printed in numerous editions and variations, while plays loosely based on the book were popping up all across London, to the delight of theatregoers. Some other writers, including Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray, became disturbed by the glamorization of the criminal and his illegal lifestyle. 

Once Courvoisier was convicted of the murder and sentenced to hang in only a few weeks, he offered several different versions of what happened the night of the crime. In one of his later confessions, he said that he had become consumed with the idea of turning to a life of crime after reading the book Jack Sheppard and seeing the play several times. He wasn't the only one to blame the book for his crimes, as petty crimes and thefts increased after the publication of the story of the daring criminal.

The book was very enjoyable and took an in-depth look at the crime, the accused, and the literary firestorm that raged around the author and the subject matter. Many interesting figures of the day are also drawn into the fray, including Dickens, Thackeray, and even Edgar Allan Poe. The disgust at the behavior of the crowd during the public execution was also something that disturbed many of the authors of the day (although they, too, turned up to witness the spectacle). The possible motive for the crime and the possibility that Courvoisier didn't act alone are also discussed in fascinating detail. A very interesting Victorian true crime mystery!


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I'm a librarian who is interested in all things British. I try to visit London as often as possible, and am always planning my next trip. I lived in Sweden for a few years with my Swedish husband, so the occasional Swedish reference may occur . . .

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