Murdered by the book: How a 19th century lurid novel inspired the bloody slaughter of Queen Victoria’s uncle in his own home – before the culprit’s hanging left Charles Dickens horrified
- The aristocrat, 72, had a wound 7 in long and 5 in deep sliced through his trachea
- His Swiss valet Francois Courvoisier, 23, was arrested and charged by the police
- Gruesome murder inspired by William Harrison Ainsworth novel ‘Jack Sheppard’
- Charles Dickens attended Courvoisier’s execution and thought it was barbaric
Lord William Russell, who was murdered by his valet
Lord William Russell’s bedroom was in darkness, the windows shuttered against the morning light, when the anxious maid and valet entered.
It was only 6.30am, but they knew they had to alert their master quickly to what had happened during the night.
His house in Mayfair appeared to have been burgled. They had woken to discover the back door forced open and the drawing room and dining room ransacked.
While the valet, a 23-year-old Swiss called Francois Courvoisier opened the shutters, the maid, Sarah Mancer, called to Lord William through the bed curtains which were half closed.
There was no reply. Tentatively, she peered through… on the pillow she could see blood — lots of it. Reeling back in horror she ran from the room screaming.
When the 72-year-old aristocrat’s body was later examined by a doctor, the cause of death was quickly established — a horrific wound some 7 in long and 5 in deep, running from his left shoulder and straight through his trachea.
In the opinion of the medic, death had been instantaneous, and had occurred some three to four hours before.
News of the gruesome murder and noble identity of the victim swiftly spread throughout London that morning of May 5, 1840.
Although Lord William was not a peer in his own right — as the younger son of a marquess, his title was a courtesy title — he had been a Member of Parliament for 18 years, and had once been a junior minister.
It fell to his nephew, Lord John Russell, Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, to inform Queen Victoria of the murder of his uncle.
Just 20 years old, the monarch was shocked.
‘This is really too horrid!’ Victoria wrote in her diary. ‘It is almost an unparalleled thing for a person of Ld William’s rank, to be killed like that.’
Indeed it was, but now, as revealed in a fascinating new book by award-winning biographer Claire Harman, what made this killing particularly significant was that the murderer would claim that he had been inspired by a lurid popular novel about a notorious outlaw.
Horror: The maid discovers the bloody corpse of Lord William Russell in an engraving of the time
Today, there is much debate surrounding the harmful impact on young minds of violent films, TV shows and computer games.
But as the murder of Lord William Russell shows, that argument has been raging for nearly two centuries.
Yet this grisly case also highlighted another social issue — the use and manner of the death penalty.
Public hangings were routine, but the nature of the crime was such that when the murderer was hanged, it attracted a drunken, baying crowd of 40,000 people — a vast number when one considers the population of the capital was just under two million.
Present at the execution were no lesser figures than novelists Charles Dickens and William Thackeray, both of whom would write of their disgust at the barbarity of such an execution, and in doing so initiate a debate that would see hangings being carried out behind prison walls, and, many decades later, banned altogether.
So who was the murderer and why did he do it?
They had suspected him early on, but it took several weeks for the police to arrest and charge none other than Lord William’s valet — Francois Courvoisier.
Even then, despite the fact that Courvoisier was found to have several of his master’s valuable trinkets in his possession, his motive was unclear, and initially there was widespread doubt as to whether the valet really was the culprit.
After all, servants all over London regularly stole from their employers, and the notion that Courvoisier needed to murder Lord William — a partially deaf widower who was often out at his club — in order to steal things from him seemed far-fetched.
However, Courvoisier would eventually confess the murder privately to his barrister — not that it stopped him from pleading not guilty and insisting he was defended as an innocent man.
Nevertheless, the jury found him guilty — and he was sentenced to be hanged.
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It was while awaiting his execution that Courvoisier revealed what inspired him to kill his master: a recently published book — and a play based upon it — called Jack Sheppard written by the novelist William Harrison Ainsworth.
Ainsworth is today largely forgotten, but in the mid-19th century he was a celebrated figure, whose exciting and sensational historical novels were lapped up by the Victorian public.
Of these, Jack Sheppard, based on the real-life exploits of a notorious 18th-century criminal, was perhaps his biggest hit — and some quarters of the Press were outraged at its content and impact.
‘Certainly it is a publication calculated to familiarize the mind with cruelties,’ thundered The Examiner, ‘and to serve as the cut-throat’s manual, or the midnight assassin’s vade mecum [handbook], in which character we now expect to see it advertised.’
The newspaper compared how Courvoisier had described killing Lord William — ‘I drew the knife across his throat’ — to a passage in the book in which a character is murdered in an almost identical fashion.
The idea that he was being held indirectly responsible for the murder greatly upset Ainsworth, who disputed that Courvoisier had read his book.
Novelist William Harrison Ainsworth. His book Jack Sheppard inspired Swiss valet Francois Courvoisier to murder his master
This, in turn, was refuted by the Sheriff of Newgate Prison, William Evans, who insisted that Courvoisier ‘did assert to me that the idea of murdering his master was first suggested to him by a perusal of the book called Jack Sheppard’.
It was then that, in the eyes of many, Ainsworth lost the argument, and the support of fellow novelists and friends such as Charles Dickens, who felt that Jack Sheppard had indeed been too lurid, although Dickens stopped short of apportioning blame for the murder on Ainsworth.
Dickens — along with Thackeray — was in fact more interested in the spectacle of Courvoisier’s execution on July 6, 1840.
Initially, Dickens had not wanted to go, but changed his mind in the early hours of that morning.
‘Just once I should like to watch a scene like this, and see the end of the Drama,’ he said to his wife before leaving for Newgate where public hangings took place. And what he saw repulsed him.
‘I did not see one token in all the immense crowd … of any one emotion suitable to the occasion,’ he wrote.
‘No sorrow, no salutary terror, no abhorrence, no seriousness; nothing but ribaldry, debauchery, levity, drunkenness and flaunting vice in fifty other shapes.’
Thackeray wrote that he shut his eyes at the exact moment when Courvoisier dropped and the noose tightened, later urging ‘that it may soon be out of the power of any man in England to witness such a hideous and degrading sight’.
It would take another 124 years before hanging was abolished in Britain — but this savage murder of an Establishment figure was the death that set the wheels in motion.
Murder By The Book by Claire Harman is published by Viking on October 25 at £14.99. © Claire Harman 2018
To order a copy, visit www.mailshop.co.uk/books or call 0844 571 0640.
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