Posted by: cochinblogger | February 25, 2014

Revenge, a Dish Best Served Cold

Picture 1003_cr

The Bible famously says: “And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.” How about the emotions on the opposite end of the spectrum: hate, jealousy, and guilt, for instance? Which is the worst among these three? I was led to this question when I reached the the end of a true crime book I read recently.

I’m a fan of true crime writing, and so pounced on The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher when I saw it atop a forgotten heap of books in one corner of the used book exhibition on Hospital Road. The book is about a brutal murder carried out in 1860 in England, and the subtitle is “The Murder at Road Hill House.” It’s a handsomely produced book. The cover evokes the 19th century, with a sepia-tinted picture of the British manor where the murder took place, a woman standing in front of the building dressed in the clothes of that era, and a bobby in the uniform of the period on the book’s spine. Blood spots spattered on the front and back covers heighten the atmosphere. The paper used for the both the cover and the pages is thick and of exceptional quality, the kind of paper that one loves to bury one’s nose in and run one’s fingers sensuously across. The typeface is large and easy on the eye; this is a superbly produced book that has been made to last a lifetime. There is another point of interest about this book: the Road Hill House murder served as the model for Wilkie Collins’ detective novel, one of the earliest in the genre, The Moonstone.

Why am I attracted to true crime books? Is it for the thrills, or a perverse vicarious pleasure? I’d like to think that what draws me to true crime books is the stories of people like you and me whose lives have fractured under the shattering impact of circumstances or emotions they were powerless to control. True crime books are about ordinary people (well, mostly) in turmoil, ordinary people whom circumstances and their character quirks have pushed to the edge. There but for the grace of God go you or I. There’s a little bit of you and me in these stories of lives gone horribly wrong. We may be subject to the same pressures, buffeted by the same emotions, as the murderer, but most of us pull back from the brink; we cannot cross that line of no return, we respect the lines society has drawn. Then there are the sociopathic criminals, the sadists, the perverts, and the insane. What forces shaped them? Were they born monsters or did the environment they grew up in mold them into who they became?

Before the main course, the horrific and puzzling murder at Road Hill House, let us sample lighter fare from the book:

Louisa Moutot was a notorious fraudster. She used an alias — Constance Brown — to hire a brougham carriage, a page and a furnished house in Hyde Park. She then arranged for an assistant of the jewellers Messrs Hunt and Roskell to call round with bracelets and necklaces for the inspection of a Lady Campbell. Moutot asked to take the jewels upstairs to her mistress, who she claimed was sick in bed. The jeweler handed over a diamond bracelet, worth 325 pounds, with which Moutot left the room. After fifteen minutes, he tried the door, to find he had been locked in.

The detective Whicher captured her ten days later at Paddington railway station. Now, let’s return for a moment to the present, to the city where I live, Cochin. A fraudster tried a similar trick here; truly, there’s nothing new under the sun. Moutot in the 19th century used a good address to deceive a jewelry shop, and Ansar in the 21st century used the setting of a luxury hotel to con a watch shop into parting with expensive watches:

Man in Snazzy Suit Makes Away with Fancy Watches

The moral of the story? Perhaps a watch (or bracelet) in hand is worth cash in the bush. 🙂 Criminals though Moutete and Ansar are, one can’t help feeling a sneaking admiration for their nerve in even attempting to pull off such frauds. Their frauds smack of the prank, the practical joke. One mitigating factor is the lack of violence. A crime like this has the saving grace of daring and chutzpah. I hasten to add that I’m not justifying the “aesthetic” crime; all I’m saying is that all of us admire daring — even in a criminal.

There is — or there should not be — any such ambivalence about murder — certainly not about the murder that is the subject of The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher. The throat of a four-year-old boy was brutally slashed to the point of decapitation, and the body was found in the privy (the servants’ lavatory) outside the house. The boy had also been stabbed viciously in the chest. An outsider was at first suspected (the master of Road Hill House, Samuel Kent, was unpopular with his neighbors and had numerous enemies on account of his job as a factory inspector), but it was quickly established that no break-in had occurred; it was an inside job. The first suspect was the boy’s nursemaid, Elizabeth Gough, who noticed the boy was missing from his bed early in the morning but thought the boy’s mother had come into the room and taken him, which she claimed happened sometimes. The boy’s mother, Mary Kent, and Samuel Kent slept in the adjacent room, and the connecting door was kept open so that the mother could look in on the boy.

The popular theory about the murder was that Samuel Kent and the nursemaid had been seen by the boy in bed together, and so the boy had to die. Some credence was lent to this theory by Samuel Kent’s past record. His current wife, Mary Kent (nee Mary Pratt), was his second wife; she had earlier been the governess to Samuel Kent’s older daughters and the nursemaid of his youngest daughter, Constance, while his first wife (nee Mary Ann Windus) was alive. Samuel’s first wife had become deranged over time, and the governess in the house, Mary Pratt, was given more and more responsibilities until she was practically running the household. The first Mrs. Kent was confined to one wing of the house, while Samuel Kent and Mary Pratt occupied adjacent bedrooms. The first Mrs. Kent’s health declined, and a few months after she died, Samuel Kent married the governess, Mary Pratt, who was the current Mrs. Kent, the mother of the murdered boy, and the current mistress of Road Hill House.The children from his first marriage (three daughters and a son) shared the second floor with the servants, and Samuel and his second wife with their three children (two daughters and the murdered boy) shared the first floor.

Those who wish to read the book and treat it as a whodunit should stop reading here, because I’m going to discuss the motivations of the murderer next. There is a deeper mystery underlying any murder than who did it: why did he or she do it? The Road Hill House murder makes for an especially complex and instructive psychological study. After the local police were unable to make any headway, the famous London detective, Mr. Whicher, was dispatched to crack the case. Whicher did not think Samuel Kent and the nursemaid (Elizabeth Gough) were involved; instead, he zoomed in on Constance Kent, Samuel Kent’s 16-year-old daughter by his first wife. The evidence linking her with the murder was tenuous indeed; he relied mainly on psychological factors, especially the motive. He believed he had discovered why Constance Kent had killed her four-year-old step brother, Saville, and given that the murder was an inside job, he didn’t think he needed to look further. He concentrated on trying to gather physical evidence linking Constance to the crime and buttressing his theory regarding Constance’s motive by interviewing her friends and school mates. The only physical evidence that linked Constance to the murder, albeit indirectly, was a missing nightdress. But it wasn’t clear if the garment was missing or whether it had been lost/stolen by the laundress.The Kent housemaids claimed that the nightdress had been included in the laundry bundle, but the laundress hotly denied it.

And what was Constance’s motive according to Whicher? In one word, revenge. Whicher, with his customary astuteness, had tuned into the emotional discord that reverberated through the twice-married Samuel Kent’s household. One indicator of the divide between the two sets of children from each of the two marriages was that the children of the first Mrs. Kent shared the second floor of the house with the servants. Also, only children of the current Mrs. Kent had their own rooms, though it is true that this could be attributed to a combination of age/sex mismatches. Whicher’s suspicions fell on Constance because of her missing nightdress, and interviews with her school mates confirmed that Constance was resentful of Mary Kent’s partiality for Saville. Despite the lack of clear physical evidence linking her to the murder, Whicher arrested Constance, but at the trial, she was set free for lack of evidence. There was a sense of outrage among the people of the village where the Kent family lived (and this outrage later spread to the entire country) at Constance’s arrest. First, though the inhabitants of the village disliked the family, they felt the culprits were Samuel Kent and Elizabeth Gough, the nursemaid. They thought Whicher was barking up the wrong tree in going after Constance. The upper classes in the country were indignant that Whicher, a professional man but of working-class origin, was poking his nose into the affairs of an upper-class family and had the free run of Road Hill House. And there was widespread condemnation of the way Constance, who was after all a mere 16-year-old girl, had been treated. Whicher returned to London, humiliated.

Years passed, and the mystery of the murder remained unsolved. And it would certainly would have remained unsolved to this day, but for a dramatic development. Five years after the murder, Constance Kent, accompanied by a priest, walked into a police station and confessed to murdering Saville. She had been staying with a religious order and had come under the influence of religion. Unable to bear the guilt any longer, she decided to confess. Her motive for the murder? Revenge. So Whicher was right, after all. His suspicions had been well founded, his instinct sure. He had solved the case, but failed to secure the evidence. He had arrested her, calculating that she would crack under the pressure and confess, but he had miscalculated: the 16-year-old girl had held her nerve and stood up to Whicher’s interrogation. What gave her the strength to do so? What lay behind her steely resolve? And why had she murdered her step brother is such a grisly fashion? What were the turbulent emotions that beset Constance Kent and propelled her to that most irreversible of crimes: murder? Revenge against whom and for what? An examination of the her childhood lays bare the workings of her mind.

Constance was born after the first Mrs. Kent had lost a string of babies soon after their birth. It was feared that Constance would go the same way, but she not only survived, but thrived under the care of the governess to the older girls, Mary Pratt, who also served as Constance’s nursemaid (as noted earlier, she later became the second Mrs. Kent). Yes, Constance Kent was raised not by her mother but by her nursemaid, Mary Pratt, who later became her stepmother; her own mother had by now been confined to one wing of the house, her mental health apparently failing, and it was the nursemaid who ran the household. Constance didn’t say much about her motivation for the murder in public, but this much can be discerned from her written confession and a couple of private letters she wrote much later. Constance, with the active encouragement of her nursemaid, had grown up scorning and despising her mother. But as she became older, she realized that all was not as it seemed: her mother had been sidelined by her father, who had virtually installed the nursemaid in her mother’s place.

Her mother died, and Samuel Kent married the nursemaid. As the family was enlarged with new additions, Mary Kent’s progeny, the children of the first Mrs. Kent felt the pinch of neglect. Constance resented this, and as she became older, she replayed her childhood and was appalled at how her mother had been treated. Worse, she had colluded in this treatment! Constance realized that her father and the governess had been lovers while her mother was still alive, and this betrayal of her mother rankled. Probably, foggy childhood memories now took on a new meaning, and she may have recalled long-submerged memories of what she could now see were sexual trysts between her father and the nursemaid. At some point, her desire to revenge herself on her stepmother on behalf of her mother became overpowering. She looked out for a suitable opportunity. In a private letter written to a well-wisher of the Kent family just before she confessed, Constance wrote:

The murder I committed to avenge my mother whose place had been usurped by my stepmother. The latter had been living in the family ever since my birth. She treated me with all the kindness and affection of a mother (for my own mother never loved or cared for me) and I loved her as though she had been.

When no more than three years old I began to observe that my mother held quite a secondary place both as a wife and as mistress of the house. She it was who really ruled.

After her dramatic confession, Constance was brought to trial and sentenced to a long term in prison. After 17 years in prison, she began writing letters appealing to be released, but eight more years passed before she was released. A year later, she disappeared from England. She had quietly boarded a ship to Australia (strangely enough, with her half-sisters, whose brother she had murdered), where she made a new life for herself under another name, qualifying as a nurse, and ultimately opening a nursing home. She lived up to the ripe old age of 100, and by all accounts had led a happy and productive life in Australia. Naturally, she told nobody about her past. Her hidden life in Australia became known only thirty years (!) after her death, when her niece Olive opened a couple of cases bequeathed to her by Miss Kaye (which was the name Constance Kent had adopted in Australia).

To my mind, the remarkable feature of this case is the ruthlessness, single-mindedness, and planning displayed by a 16-year-old girl. Constance revenged herself on her nursemaid, the woman who had mothered her, “fattened the frail baby into a sleek, powerful little girl.” She wrote that she had thought of murdering her stepmother, but “that seemed to me too short a pang. I would have her feel my revenge.” So she decided to murder the apple of her stepmother’s eye, her four-year-old son Saville. This is the age-old principle at work: the most effective way to hurt someone is to hurt the person he or she loves. During the summing up at her trial, the judge at one point said Constance was motivated by jealousy at the preferential treatment her step brother and step sisters received. Constance was quick to burst out: “Not jealousy!” Indeed; she was crystal clear in her own mind about her motive, even if she was circumspect about it in public.

The book makes an additional important point about her motive: Many doubted that a 16-year-old girl could have lifted a four-year-old boy from his bed, carried him downstairs and out of the house to the privy, and then slit his throat there by candle light. Suspicion fell on Constance’s 14-year-old brother, William. Perhaps he had helped her that night. Kate Summerscale (the author of the book) points out that Constance confessed just before her brother, William, was about to come into a sizable sum of money as his inheritance. Maybe she felt that the suspicions regarding William’s role might come in the way of his getting his inheritance. Her confession was designed to remove all doubts regarding his role in the murder. Guilt may have played only a secondary role in her confession.

There is yet another aspect of Constance’s motive that is not touched upon in the book: her guilt at having been her stepmother’s accomplice in the initial years when they together had taunted the first Mrs. Kent, her mother. Guilt about the past is a corrosive emotion. Hate and jealousy target external objects, but guilt has just one person in its sights: oneself. And if, as in this case, no amends can be made and no forgiveness sought (her mother was dead), guilt can turn its human host into an emotional time bomb.

So, to come back to the question I posed at the beginning: which is the worst among hate, jealousy, and guilt? Hate would appear to be the worst, with jealousy and guilt being so common as to be even mostly innocuous, but in Constance Kent’s case, she denied jealousy was the the provocation. She also wrote once from prison: ” … I have never have any ill will towards either of them [her father and stepmother] on account of their behavior to me, which has been very kind.” This appears to rule out hate (but she did write in a private letter that she hated her stepmother. My theory is that she was consumed with guilt about having ganged up with her stepmother against her own mother early in her childhood. The only escape from her private hell was an act of vengeance on behalf of her mother, as a symbolic cleansing of her guilt.

She could only live with herself if she took another life. She murdered her four-year-old step brother, atoned for the murder with a voluntary confession and served a long prison sentence — and went on to live under another name in another land a full 96 years longer than the boy she killed. I will conclude with what Whicher wrote in a letter to a colleague, after he returned to London in 1860:

I have little doubt but that that confession would have been made if Miss Constance had been remanded for another week. Now, my opinion is … that the fact of there being two families …was the primal cause of the murder; and that the motive was jealousy towards the children by the second marriage. The deceased was the favorite child, and spite towards the parents, the mother in particular, I believe to have been the actuating motive of Constance Kent … Miss Constance Kent possesses a remarkable mind.

This is a remarkable feat of deduction, and I couldn’t agree more: Yes, Miss Constance Kent possessed a remarkable mind.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: