The Wicked Boy – Kate Summerscale
Perhaps it is a legacy of Greek mythology which was once at the core of some of our educational curricula that we regard matricide as one of the worst possible crimes. Orestes, who along with his sister, Electra, killed his mother, Clytemnestra, and Alcmaeon, who killed Eriphyle, were both pursued by the ironically named Eumenides aka the Furies, the former being driven mad and the latter saved only by being purified by King Phegeus. What is particularly shocking is the thought of killing the person who brought you into the world.
Matricide is at the heart of Summerscale’s latest book, The Wicked Boy, and deals with the tragic case of 13 year old Robert Coombes who stabbed his mother, Emily, to death in their family home in 35, Cave Road, Plaistow on 8th July 1895. This is not a conventional whodunnit as Robert confessed to his appalling crime as soon as it was discovered but there are enough interesting aspects to the case to fuel a fascinating and thought-provoking book.
Following the dastardly deed Robert and his younger brother, Nattie, spent a sort of idyllic Lord of the Flies existence over the next ten days, visiting Lord’s to watch the great W G Grace play for the Gentlemen against the Players, have a trip out to the seaside, Southend, and play cards with the slightly mysterious and simple-minded Mr Fox who moved in shortly afterwards and was sent out to pawn some goods to fund their lifestyle. Mr Coombes was away at sea. The murder was only discovered when the stench of the rotting corpse – there was a heat wave at the time – became so unbearable that it permeated the customary miasma of the East End.
So was Robert mad or purely wicked and what drove him to commit the appalling crime? Although because of his age, Robert was unlikely to have been hung, the argument was made that he was insane, if only temporarily, at the time of the crime – in the 1890s some 27% of all murderers were found insane which meant instead of being hanged they were incarcerated – and Robert was sent to Broadmoor, a secure mental institution, at Her Majesty’s pleasure.
Summerscale is scrupulous and exhaustive in her use of contemporary sources and they reveal an interesting bias in their approach to motivation. Robert was a voracious reader of penny dreadfuls, escapist, fantasy stories aimed at the working class, giving rise to a discussion as to their possible corrosive effect on the morals and sanity of their readers – the sort of argument that is propounded about the effect of video games and internet porn today – and whether educating the lower orders was really a good thing. The eugenists considered that murderers were genetic throwbacks to an earlier stage of evolution and many of the newspaper reports comment on Robert’s physiognomy.
Little, though, was said about Emily’s role in her demise. Why was she sleeping with her son when her husband was away? A flighty woman, was she brutal to her sons and was the thrashing she had given Nattie a day or so earlier the tipping point? There are suggestions she had had a bust up with her husband before her departure. Did her sons hear that and take revenge for her possible infidelity? We don’t know.
The book’s latter stages are positively uplifting. The block at Broadmoor where Robert was held was for the better sort of murderers and was a finishing school for him – he became a tailor, an accomplished musician and a cricketer – and in 1912 was released and found his way to Australia (natch) via the Salvation Army. He had a distinguished military record in the First World War, serving as a musician and stretcher bearer at Gallipoli, and then on his return to Oz became the guardian of a neighbour’s son who suffered systematic physical abuse from his stepfather. It was if he recognised himself and, perhaps, suggests there is some good in everyone.