Terrible Awful Horrid Murder and the Court of Public Opinion
The murders below were notorious for different reasons,
but all were heard, tried and sentenced by the public via newspapers and penny magazines, as well as in courts of law.
Although the names of victims were used, murder stories were often identified
by the locations of the crimes.
The Euston Square Murder
Hannah Dobbs was accused of murdering a border in the house where she worked as a maid. Dobbs claimed Miss. Hacker,
the boarder, left the house on a day when the two of them were alone. Later, the owners of the house, the Bastindoff's,
saw a dark stain on the rug in Mrs. Hacker's room, but didn't assume it was blood or that anything unusual surrounded
Miss Hacker's removal from her lodgings.
Over the next months, Dobbs showed the Bastindoff children various
items that had belonged to Miss Hacker. The boarder had been relatively well off, compared to Dobbs.
Later Dobbs moved out of the Bastindoff's.
To pay her rent, she pawned personal items that were, instead,
the property of Miss Hacker.
Seven months after she reportedly left her lodgings, Miss Hacker's body was found in the coal storage of the Bastindoff's cellar.
Hannah Dobbs was charged with the murder. However, she was acquitted in the Hacker case
because there was not enough evidence to prove murder.
Still, she sought
acquittal with the public via this Police News issue that included a
print of her "signed statement." The statement included the revelation that she had been Bastindoff's mistress.
As Arthur Machen related in Drolls and Dreads:
Hannah Dobbs became a popular heroine. The proprietor of the Police News took up her case,
and issued a pamphlet, which pretended to tell Miss Dobbs' true story.
Miss Dobbs declared that
there had been certain relations between herself and Bastindoff, before she entered his service,
and during her residence in his house. Then Mr. Bastindoff filed an affidavit, denying these allegations.
And on that affidavit he was indicted for perjury [and sentenced to one year of hard labour]...
Hannah Dobbs, who had been rather
shabby at her own trial, turned up smartly dressed in the witness-box. She swore that the relations between herself and
Bastindoff began in the autumn of 1877, when she was in service at 42, Torrington Square. Hannah and another girl were
cleaning windows, and Mr. Severin Bastindoff spoke to them.
"In consequence of that conversation he and I went out together
that night or a night or two afterwards, and from that time until I
entered his service we frequently went out together. The relationship was
kept up during the time I was an inmate of his house."
Whether the "court of public opinion" sympathized with Dobbs because they questioned
Bastindoff's collaboration in a crime, or whether, as in the Tichborne Claimant's story,
the public wanted her to be what she claimed, or to get away with murder, she became
part of the popular history of London during this time.
Madame Tussaud included Hannah Dobbs in Room 2 of her museum, alongside
memorabilia from Napoléon Bonaparte. Defendants in The Penge Murder were remembered in The Chamber of Horrors.
The Penge Murder
Harriet Staunton and her infant starved to death while in the care of her husband's brother, Patrick,
and his brother's wife.
Harriet was considered feeble-minded. She married Louis Staunton in 1875 over her
mother's objections. Louis was twelve years younger than his wife and Harriet's
mother assumed he was marrying her daughter for money. Soon after the marriage, Harriet wrote to her
mother to cut off all relations because her mother had tried to declare Harriet incompetent.
Louis and Harriet Staunton had a child in 1876 and Alice Rhodes was brought in as a nursery maid.
Either before or after this moment, Rhodes and Louis started an affair. Harriet realized
what was going on and was livid with anger. Louis claimed that Harriet was too unstable to care for their child.
Patrick agreed to care for Harriet at his cottage in the country. There she was kept in
a room with boarded windows. Patrick and his wife claimed Harriet refused to leave
the room or to eat. She starved herself to death, in their version of the story.
By August 1876, Louis and Alice Rhodes lived together as husband and wife a short distance from the cottage. On
April 8, 1877 Patrick Staunton brought a child to Guy's Hospital. He lied
about the identity of the child, who died that same night.
Four days later the Stauntons, with Alice Rhodes, rented a room in Penge for an invalid woman. On Friday,
April 13, 1877, Harriet Staunton died. A doctor declared the death was caused by cerebral disease. By chance, a
relative of Harriet's mother overheard a question about obtaining a burial certificate. He
went to the doctor and the police. Four doctors participated in an autopsy. All agreed Harriet Staunton died of starvation.
Louis, Patrick, his wife and Alice Rhodes were all charged with murder. At trial, a maid testified that Patrick struck Harriet on more than one occasion. In his defense, his lawyer noted that
Harriet was difficult because of her mental instability. She was kept in isolation because she caused trouble. She chose not to eat.
All four defendants in the trial were convicted of murder. A mob in the street
cheered when they heard of the verdict. Following the sentencing, four hundred
doctors signed a petition asking for mercy because the medical evidence did not uphold the verdict.
Alice Rhodes was released after a few weeks because there was no evidence
against her. Louis, Patrick and his wife were sentenced to penal servitude for life. Mrs. Patrick Staunton was released
after a few years. She changed her name and went on to a very lucrative position. Patrick died in prison. Louis was released after
twenty years. He, too, changed his name, remarried and established a business.
The Balham Murder
Florence Bravo did not live the prescribed Victorian female life. She had an affair
with a prominent doctor, Gully,
who was many years her senior. She was
independently wealthy. She dyed her hair red. She
may have had an abortion. She sought a separation from her first husband, Alexander Ricardo,
because he was a violent alcoholic, no
matter that her parents insisted she remain in her socially
advantageous marriage. Her actions made her an outcast in polite society.
Before the separation papers with her first husband were filed, he was
found dead of alcoholism in an apartment in Cologne that
he shared with a female companion. When
Florence Bravo was on trial for the poisoning of her second husband, Charles,
people speculated about the death of her first husband as well.
After Ricardo died, Florence traveled
through Europe with Dr. Gully, whose clients included Charles Darwin
and Florence Nightingale. In 1873
Florence Ricardo suffered a miscarriage or, according to speculation, Dr. Gully had
performed an abortion to protect both of them from further scandal.
In 1875 Florence told Dr. Gully that she was considering marriage and wanted to break
off their friendship. They had had a platonic relationship since 1873.
She married Charles Bravo, a solicitor, a
few months after she informed Dr. Gully.
Florence met Charles Bravo through her
ladies companion, Mrs. Cox. For all her bohemian actions, Florence sought to reconcile
with her parents. She had married the first time on their insistence. Her lover was
also her caregiver. He was old enough to be her father. Mrs. Cox was a mother figure who
sought to arrange a marriage to resolve Florence's position in society. Florence
was not outside of her society's expectations.
After the marriage, Charles wanted to get rid of Mrs. Cox. He said
her employment was too expensive and unnecessary now that Florence was married. They fought. On his
first visit after the marriage, Charles' solicitor claimed
Bravo said he had married Florence for her money. Charles had extracted a large
financial settlement before their marriage. He knew, as did her parents, that Florence would have difficulty
obtaining a respectable marriage.
Yet Florence insisted on keeping Mrs. Cox.
Charles had fired the stable boy earlier. When he did, the stable boy, Mr. Griffith, told Bravo he would be dead within months. He was.
Antimony is a poisonous metalloid that was used to improve the skin of animals. Mr. Griffith
used it. Women who had alcoholic husbands at this time would try to cure their husbands
by putting a small amount of antimony in a drink. The combination made the alcoholic violently ill.
In April, 1876, Charles Bravo took antimony in his nightly glass of water. Mrs. Cox
claimed it was suicide. He lived for three days with prominent doctors at hand and never accused anyone. Some suspected Dr. Gully as a jealous
lover. Others blamed Mrs. Cox or Mr. Griffith, both because they were financially threatened
by Bravo's actions. Others have later claimed that Bravo
had been slowly poisoning Florence, but took the poison himself by mistake.
However, the majority of the suspicion focused on Florence. Some who study the case
have speculated that Florence only wanted to make Charles ill so that he would not
force himself upon her. Others said his beatings and other cruelties were the (deserved) cause. At the time, speculation grew that
Florence poisoned her husband because she loved someone else. This because Mrs. Cox's testimony forced
Florence to admit to her affair and miscarriage. Though this admission outraged many,
for others it evoked sympathy for a "fallen woman."
From The Illustrated London Clipper:
On Friday this luckless lady was, upon leaving the court,
hissed and hooted at by a crowd, some of whom should have remembered the lesson
that those without sin should first throw the stone. There is not the slightest charge against
Mrs. Bravo, and it speaks poorly for the manhood or womanhood of those who could forget that she had been for
two days under a most painful examination, and had, openly in court, with not one of her own sex near her,
confessed to that one secret which every woman who hold desires to carry with her to
the grave -- the secret of her fall.
Additional testimony from Florence revealed she had had a miscarriage just
before Charles' death. He insisted upon his conjugal rights, even though she was
ill at the time. He was particularly mean, even by Victorian standards. He took
laudanum each night before bed. He may have mistaken antimony for his laudanum.
Florence became the wronged woman unjustly accused.
Florence Bravo was never brought to trial. The inquest into Charles Bravo's poisoning could not produce enough
evidence to charge anyone with a crime.
However, the court of public opinion assumed
she had gotten away with murder. The murder remained unsolved, though many, to this day,
have speculated about the murderer and the motive. The house where the Bravos lived, The Priory, remains in Balham to this day.
Florence moved out shortly after the murder. She died from alcohol poisoning two years later.
The drawing and article here are taken from the back pages of The Days' Doings. A retelling of a
murder in most cases was presented as an outrage and was accompanied by one or more
adjectives such as "awful, shocking, horrid, terrible."
However, a comic mob action by a town's female citizens was an image that conveyed both the
powerless of females and their recourse to "justice" outside of the parameters of society.
Such female action as comic narrative dates back at least to The Lysistrata, though the now
lesser-known Thesmophoriazusae is a more apt reminder.
In that play, the women of Athens put the playwright Euripedes on
trial for his misogynistic portrayals of women.
More than two thousand years after Aristophanes, the Victorian era passed.
In the twentieth century women
attained enfranchisement in the slow struggle for acceptance of full participation of women in western society,
whether fallen woman, angel of the house, or any of the myriad variations in between.