In the summer of 1895, Robert Coombes (age 13) and his brother Nattie (age 12) were seen spending lavishly around the docklands of East London -- for ten days in July, they ate out at coffee houses and took trips to the seaside and the theater. Read more...
In the summer of 1895, Robert Coombes (age 13) and his brother Nattie (age 12) were seen spending lavishly around the docklands of East London -- for ten days in July, they ate out at coffee houses and took trips to the seaside and the theater. The boys told neighbors they had been left home alone while their mother visited family in Liverpool, but their aunt was suspicious. When she eventually forced the brothers to open the house to her, she found the badly decomposed body of their mother in a bedroom upstairs. Robert and Nattie were arrested for matricide and sent for trial at the Old Bailey.
Robert confessed to having stabbed his mother, but his lawyers argued that he was insane. Nattie struck a plea and gave evidence against his brother. The court heard testimony about Robert's severe headaches, his fascination with violent criminals and his passion for 'penny dreadfuls', the pulp fiction of the day. He seemed to feel no remorse for what he had done, and neither the prosecution nor the defense could find a motive for the murder. The judge sentenced the thirteen-year-old to detention in Broadmoor, the most infamous criminal lunatic asylum in the land. Yet Broadmoor turned out to be the beginning of a new life for Robert--one that would have profoundly shocked anyone who thought they understood the Wicked Boy.
At a time of great tumult and uncertainty, Robert Coombes's case crystallized contemporary anxieties about the education of the working classes, the dangers of pulp fiction, and evolving theories of criminality, childhood, and insanity. With riveting detail and rich atmosphere, Kate Summerscale recreates this terrible crime and its aftermath, uncovering an extraordinary story of man's capacity to overcome the past."
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2016-05-02
- Reviewer: Staff
Summerscale (The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher) bolsters her reputation as a superior historical true crime writer with this moving account of Victorian-age murder that is a whydunit rather than a whodunit. In East London during the summer of 1895, 13-year-old Robert Coombes and his younger brother, Nattie, attended a heralded cricket match on their own, telling neighbors that their mother was in Liverpool visiting family. In fact, Emily Coombes was already lying dead in her bed behind a closed door, having been fatally stabbed by Robert. Horrifically, her corpse remained undetected for well over a week while the brothers acted as if nothing were amiss. Upon arrest, Robert claimed he acted after his mother had beaten Nattie, and before she could do the same to him. The resulting trial focused on the question of Robert’s mental state, whether he was really the wicked boy of the book’s title, and how the penny dreadfuls he was so fond of may have warped his mind. Summerscale’s dogged research yields a tragedy that reads like a Dickens novel, including the remarkable payoff at the end. (July)
The true-crime writer, a different kind of sleuth
My fascination with the story of The Wicked Boy began when I read a newspaper report from July 1895 about a horrific murder in East London. The body of a 37-year-old woman had been found rotting in the front bedroom of a small terraced house while her two sons, aged 12 and 13, played cards in a room downstairs.
When confronted by the police, the older boy, Robert, immediately confessed to having stabbed Emily Coombes to death 10 days earlier. He said that he and his brother, Nattie, had plotted together to kill her. Both were charged with murder and remanded in jail.
Intrigued by why the boys had killed their mother, I decided to seek out more information about the crime. There were scores of newspapers published in England in the mid-1890s, many of them digitized and easy to search, and their richly detailed reports helped me chart the movements of the brothers in the days before and after their mother’s death. Then I started to look further afield.
1. THE FINAL TRANSCRIPT
Almost as soon as I began searching online, I found a digitized transcript of Robert’s trial for murder at the Old Bailey. (Nattie had been discharged so that he could testify against his brother.) The transcript gave me a wealth of leads: names of the boys’ neighbors, relatives, schoolteachers, employers; the pawnbrokers with whom they pledged goods; the owner of a coffeehouse at which they dined; the shopkeeper who sold Robert the murder weapon. It also supplied details of the mental instability in the family—Robert’s as well as his mother’s.
2. THE FOLDER OF EVIDENCE
At the National Archives in Kew, southwest London, I found transcripts of the witness statements and the documents submitted in evidence at the trial. Among them was a letter in which Robert tried to scam money from a cashier at the London docks; a letter in which he tried to persuade his father, who had sailed to New York, to send money home; and a letter from Emily Coombes to her husband, written on the day before her death. This last note gave me my first direct glimpse of the victim of the murder, not just as the object of her son’s violence but as a loving, protective, agitated woman.
3. THE SCENE OF THE CRIME
I visited the working-class East London street on which the family had lived. Their house had been demolished, but most of the buildings in the terrace were still standing. Directly opposite was the brick wall of a school playground, with the word “BOYS” inscribed by the entrance arch. Robert had graduated from this school just a few weeks before the murder. He had been a star pupil, a clever and musical boy much praised by his teachers, but after graduating he had faced a lifetime of grinding labor in a shipbuilding ironworks on the Thames. I walked from the schoolyard to the site of the shipyard by the docks.
4. THE PENNY DREADFULS
Some commentators argued that Robert had been inspired to murder by the “penny dreadful” stories that had been found in his house. I tracked down as many as I could of the titles identified in court, many of them reprints of American dime novels. It was astonishing to sit in the British Library reading the very stories that Robert had read, and to imagine the fantasies that they fed: of wealth and glory, adventure and escape.
5. THE GRAVESTONE
At the Old Bailey, Robert was found “guilty but insane” and sent indefinitely to an asylum for criminal lunatics. I learned from the asylum records that he had been discharged 17 years later, at the age of 30. At first, I could find no trace of his life after this, but eventually, on a website about Australian cemeteries, I came across a photograph of his gravestone in New South Wales. The stone bears a plaque inscribed with his name, his date of death and his military rank and number. By checking these against First World War records, I learned that he had served with honor at Gallipoli.
My only clue to what became of Robert after the war was a phrase on the gravestone: “Always remembered by Harry Mulville & family.” I traced the Mulville family through the New South Wales telephone directory, and then traveled to Australia to meet Harry Mulville’s youngest daughter. Thanks to her, I was able to learn the ending of Robert Coombes’ story. Though he seems never to have spoken about the murder to those he knew in Australia, in 1930 he performed an act that could be understood both as an atonement and as a kind of explanation of his crime.
English writer and journalist Kate Summerscale, formerly the literary editor of the Daily Telegraph, transforms odd and fascinating history into thrilling, award-winning narratives, from the social timeline of marriage to gripping true-crime tales. In The Wicked Boy, Summerscale exhumes the details of a fascinating Victorian-era murder mystery. Essay text © 2016 Kate Summerscale.