The wicked boy: the mystery of a Victorian child murderer

"This is a hopeful story – albeit about as terrible a crime as we can imagine": Kate Summerscale talks to Matt Elton about her new book exploring a case that shocked Victorian England – a young boy's murder of his mother – and its echoes in 21st-century fears...

Kate Summerscale. (Photo by Fran Monks)

This article was first published in the May 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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What is the case that your new book follows, and why did it interest you?

The book follows the story of two boys: Robert Coombes, who was 13 years old, and his 12-year-old brother, Nathaniel. In the summer of 1895 they were seen wandering around east London, and said that their mother had gone to visit family in Liverpool; their father was away at sea. After 10 days an unpleasant smell began to emanate from the house, and neighbours became uneasy.

The boys’ aunt burst in and discovered their mother’s body decomposing upstairs. She called the police; Robert confessed to stabbing his mother, and the boys were arrested. There were hearings and inquests through the summer, and a trial at the Old Bailey in September. Nattie was discharged before the trial, and gave evidence that Robert had killed their mother, which I’m sure was a painful experience for them both.

It seemed a strange and terrible thing that one or both boys had done, so I wanted to find out if Robert was guilty – and, if so, why.

How do you explain the boys’ actions in the 10 days between the murder and the body being discovered?

After killing their mother, the boys were the only people in the world who knew of the act – and they did both know what had happened even if, as it turns out, Robert was the one to actually do it. It was as if they felt that their actions were imagined rather than real, and I think that they went into a fantasy state together during those 10 days. They seemed normal: they played in the street, went fishing, watched the cricket at Lords; very innocent, late-Victorian pursuits. It felt to me like a period of play, or holiday, rather than anything cynical. They didn’t try to hide or escape, and the way they talked about what they had done sounded as if they were in a state of suspended disbelief.

Indeed, the fact they didn’t do anything to stop the body rotting meant it was inevitable that they would be found out. When the body was discovered, I have a feeling that Robert experienced a kind of relief.

How did the press and public regard the boys as the hearings unfolded?

In early court hearings Robert seemed indifferent, almost callous: interested in what was going on but not upset or remorseful. He turned himself out very well, in his best clothes, whereas Nattie was dressed more childishly. The younger boy was much smaller, even though there was only a year between them, and he often quivered and sobbed. Whether because he was good at presenting himself in a more pitiable state, or because he was more vulnerable and unguarded, Nattie seemed like a child while Robert seemed to be a smart young man.

During the first few court appearances at which the press were able to observe him, Robert seemed self-possessed and rather pleased with himself. But during the trial at the Old Bailey, he started making faces, laughing to himself and acting in a very manic way. The press at the time interpreted this in various ways: some reporters wrote disgustedly that he was a psychopath who couldn’t care less and was mocking the court, while others thought he was insane. At the trial, his counsel pleaded insanity – and some commentators wondered if, unable to maintain a veneer of coolness and sophistication, Robert’s madness was coming out in the courtroom.

What do you think media coverage of the case tells us about the period?

Strange and extreme cases such as this are often fascinating for what they reveal about how people thought about themselves and their society. There was no longer the idea that the boys had been possessed by the devil, as there might have been a century earlier. The equivalent – following Darwinian theories that humans evolved from less ‘advanced’ creatures – was that the boys had degenerated to an atavistic, primitive state.

In such extreme cases commentators often latched on to the explanation that, particularly among the urban poor, there were ‘throwbacks’ to that earlier period, and that madness, depravity and delinquency could arise from a disease inherited from primitive times.

Are there any parallels with 21st-century scares about children?

This case did seem reminiscent of more recent events, especially the link that was made between the crime and some sensational magazines the police found in the boys’ house. Many people ascribed Robert’s attack on his mother to his consumption of these so-called ‘penny dreadfuls’. The police gave the magazines to the coroners’ court as evidence, and the inquest jury thought that the government should take steps to stop their publication.

This reminded me of cases in my lifetime in which commentators suggested links between crimes committed by children or adolescents and the violent ‘video nasty’ films they had watched or the video games they had played. There seems to be a continuing sense that excessive consumption of certain forms of popular culture can have a warping or criminalising effect on the young, so it was really interesting to read how people thought ‘penny dreadfuls’ had corrupted the boys. In a way, it was a template for the arguments that followed in the 20th and 21st century about comics, video games and violent films.

The other thing about ‘penny dreadfuls’ is that, because they originally cost a penny, they were widely available to the working classes. There was a sense that the character of the nation’s working-class youth was being shaped by these magazines, and a real terror about where that might take society.

When researching this book, how hard was it to separate truth from fiction?

With a crime like this, the people in the story are quite likely to distort the facts in order to favour themselves and their own accounts.

This applies to everyone: friends of the mother would tell the story through a lens, friends of the father would tell it so that he didn’t look like a bad father, and so on. So

I had to read everything sceptically, but without losing sight of the fact that these are the best possible witnesses and that I didn’t know anything better than them.

What is your impression of the boys’ mother and her relationship with them?

There was not much exploration of the mother’s character or her relationship with the boys – partly because, whatever her quirks of character, it was wrong to speak ill of the dead, particularly a murdered mother.

But it was also because ideas that we have today – about how what happens in a family can create tensions that may lead to violence – were not as much explored. Experts of the time were looking for an illness in Robert, not a difficult relationship with his mother.

The clues I discovered during my research led me to think that she was a loving and affectionate person, and probably a doting mother, but quite mentally unstable. People described her as hysterical, and prone to laugh and cry at the same time. I think we would now describe her as having mental health problems.

There was also the fact that the murder, by the boys’ own account, was provoked by a beating that she gave Nattie. Robert said that she had thrown knives at her younger son and threatened to kill him by stickinga hatchet in his head. All of that sounded to me to be beyond the normal correction that a Victorian parent would deliver. I think that she may have been quite an unstable and perhaps rather frightening mother.

This case was commented on very widely, but I found only one source that wondered what had been going on in the boys’ house.

A magazine called The Child’s Guardian, published by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, wrote that there could be brutality even in the most respectable families, and that brutality breeds brutality, They were hinting heavily that there had been domestic violence in the house and that the mother had been violent to her sons. I found it interesting that, even if this wasn’t an idea that existed widely, it was at least a thought that people could have.

So what was the outcome of the trial?

In the end the jury came in with a verdict of guilty, but with a recommendation for mercy on account of Robert’s age, and because they said that they didn’t think he really understood what he’d done. But the hardline judge wouldn’t accept that result, so sent the jury back to find a verdict of either guilty or guilty but insane – and they decided on the latter. That meant that Robert wouldn’t go to prison, but would be held in a lunatic asylum for ‘as long as the queen wished’.

Did the verdict make the public and commentators reconsider the crime?

Most of the newspaper commentators of the time didn’t believe that Robert was insane, nor that the jury or judge thought he was insane. Hardly anyone thought that he was crazy. What they did think was that this was a fair verdict because it was a way of showing Robert mercy due to his youth.

Because the law applied to him as much as it would have to an adult, the jury had taken it on themselves to find a loophole by which they could spare him the gallows or the full blame – to deliver a verdict that acknowledged his inability to have full responsibility for his actions. In effect they were ascribing Robert’s crime to youth and, arguably, emotional disturbance rather than clinical madness.

How would you like this book to alter readers’ views of cases such as this?

I think that, in many ways, we are not so different today in how we think about children and young people who do dreadful things. For me, it’s a really enlightening and humanising exercise to look at cases such as this at a distance, to examine the ways people could think of them at the time, and to test our own ideas against them – including ideas about the influence of popular culture on young people.

This incident tells us something about the terrible things people can do while not being terrible people, or even becoming terrible people as a result. I found it quite a hopeful story in a way – even though from the start it was about as terrible a crime as people can imagine.

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The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer by Kate Summerscale (Bloomsbury, 400 pages, £16.99).