Post Mortem by Jean Briggs
‘Madame Ribault … managed to crawl to a chimney-board, where she traced with her finger, dipped in blood, the letters Commis de MT.’
Handy that, my Inspector Hardacre of Manchester would have said if he had read the story of Madame Ribault and her companion, Mademoiselle Lebelle. Commis de MT was, indeed, the name of the murderer written by Madame Ribault in her own blood. He says it of the case of William Adams, who, in 1848, shot his girlfriend, Diana, in front of a policeman.
The story of Madame Ribault appears in The Household Narrative of Current Events (1851) published by Charles Dickens in conjunction with Household Words. The Household Narrative is full of stories of dreadful murder, but none, perhaps, with such uncompromising evidence as the name of the murderer written in his victim’s blood.
Many of the cases concern arsenic which Dickens in an article for Household Words refers to as the ‘favourite’ poison of the times. He cites a number of famous cases: Mrs Barber and her paramour, Ingham, murdered her husband; Mrs Hathaway, landlady of the Fox beer house in Chipping Sodbury, poisoned by her servant girl, Ann Averment; Mr and Mrs Waddington who murdered her daughter for the sake of £7 due from the burial club, and Sarah Chesham who poisoned her husband. Arsenic in every one.
Since there is no handy writing on the wall or smoking gun, such cases need to be proved by examination of the body, and the man who was often called to testify as an expert witness was Doctor Alfred Swaine Taylor (1806-1880). Dickens quotes from Taylor’s Medical Jurisprudence. Taylor cites ‘no less than 185 cases of poisoning, in England, by arsenic alone’ in the years 1837 – 1838. Dickens called the use of arsenic ‘an epidemic’. To prove his point, he might have referred to the case of Betty Eccles, who, despite her cosy currant bun name, was hanged in 1843 for the murder by arsenic poisoning of her two daughters and a stepson. She was suspected of killing also eight of her ten children and her husband – a one woman epidemic.
Taylor seems to have been popular reading for the Victorian novelist. Wilkie Collins refers to ‘the terrible popular fame of the Arsenic and Strychnine’. He certainly owned a copy of Taylor’s work: ‘The next morning I consulted Taylor’s Medical Jurisprudence (Ed. 3, 1849) to ascertain exactly what were the symptoms of poisoning by strychnine’. In his novella Fallen Leaves, Mrs Farnaby commits suicide by swallowing strychnine, and the effects of the poison are certainly hideous as is also shown in Charles Reade’s description in the novel Hard Cash: ‘His body was drawn up by the middle into an arch … the toes were turned back in the most extraordinary contortion’. He must have read Taylor who states: ‘The body … assumes a bow-like form, being arched … the soles of the feet are incurvated or arched.’
Taylor gave evidence for the crown in the case of William Palmer accused of poisoning John Parsons Cook. Palmer’s choice of poison was first antimony and then strychnine to finish him off. The symptoms of strychnine poisoning can be mistaken for the effects of tetanus. But the jury wasn’t fooled in Palmer’s case. Palmer, who Dickens called ‘the greatest rogue ever to appear in the Old Bailey Dock’, was convicted, and hanged in 1856 for the murder of Cook, but he was thought to have poisoned as many as fifteen people, including five of his own children.
On the other hand, I might decide against poison. Never fear, Dr Taylor can assist in my post mortem. In the novel Busman’s Honeymoon by Dorothy Sayers, Superintendent Kirk consults Medical Jurisprudence to solve a case in which the timing does not fit. Dr Taylor’s evidence of the youth who was hit on the head in a fight, went about his normal business for ten days, experienced a headache on the eleventh day and died in the night, leads to the solution of the mystery. The victim did not die where the blow was struck, but, later, after he had gone down into his cellar.
The hair of the dog. Suppose a bloody axe is found under the suspect’s bed. Careless of him, but handy for the police. Open and shut case? In a case quoted by Taylor, such an axe was discovered, and with hair adhering to the blood. However, when the axe was examined with a pocket lens, the hair turned out to be animal hair. Not guilty. Dead end for the detectives. Find another suspect.
Did she fall, or was she pushed? Suppose a missing woman is found drowned in the River Thames. There is some mystery about her life and death. The first question is: did she go into the water alive? The post mortem reveals material grasped in the deceased’s hands. Dr Taylor concludes that if such material has ‘evidently been torn from the banks of a canal or river, or from the bottom of the water in which the body is found, we have strong presumptive evidence that the individual died within the water.’ Suicide or murder? Probably suicide – if there are no marks of violence on the person indicative of a struggle. But, it might be murder. If so, what devil persuaded her to go into the water?
The mark on the wall again. Suppose the detectives find a bloody mark on the wall – the mark of a hand. Is it he? In the case of Regina v. Hatto (1854), the murderer’s name was not written in blood, but he did leave a mark, a smear of blood left by a hand. More blood smears continued into a room locked and bolted from the inside in which the murderer cowered. No other person could have entered the room. Guilty. Handy, that!
But if the room is empty – staggerer, number one, as Bob Sawyer might have said. But Dickens and Jones will find him, even though, as Taylor informs us: ‘it is not possible to distinguish by the microscope human from animal blood’. Ah, the dog that didn’t bark, perhaps. On second thoughts, I think that may have been done.
Wait a minute: Is this a dagger I see before me? It is. Of course, its handle is not before my hand; it is sticking out of the heart of my next victim. Handy, that.
JEAN BRIGGS taught English and Drama in various schools, from Hong Kong to Lancashire. She enjoyed writing plays, especially spoof murder mysteries: A is for Arsenic, B is for Bludgeon, C is for Cyanide were all set in ridiculously clichéd country houses, featuring sinister butlers and half-mad aristocrats poisoning or bashing their way to inheritances. A Lesson in Murder saw the slaughter of half a staff room by a lunatic former pupil bent on revenge –naturally, that went down very well with the pupils. The highest point of her career as a playwright came with a performance of a reduced Hamlet in the presence of The Queen – not an ideal choice, she thought afterwards – almost the entire court of Denmark slaughtered.
Then Jean retired and moved to a cottage in Cumbria. Her players were gone – and her audience. She missed the teaching and writing. What next? A novel, perhaps? It was 2012, the bicentenary of Charles Dickens. Time to re-read him and to discover his articles on the police in his magazine Household Words. An idea was born – suppose Dickens was involved in a murder case? As far as Jean knew, he wasn’t, but he had portrayed murder and he had created detectives: the private detective Nadgett in Martin Chuzzlewit and Inspector Bucket in Bleak House. Dickens explores the psychology of the murderer; he understands human nature; he constructs a narrative; he has imagination, and he knows the streets of London – surely these would make him a skilful investigator. He admired the police so she invented a partner for him, a professional policeman from Bow Street.The idea was worth a try. She wrote the first of the Dickens and Jones mysteries: The Murder of Patience Brooke which is to be published by The History Press in August 2014.The next two cases: Hungerford Stairs and Murder by Ghostlight are finished and another is on the way. D is now, of course, for Dickens!