Boys will be boys…
😀 😀 😀 😀 😀
For ten days in the summer of July 1895, two boys spent their time roaming round coffee shops and attending cricket matches, and telling anyone who asked that their mother had gone to visit relatives in Liverpool. They slept downstairs in the back parlour of their house, with a family friend who had come at their request to look after them. Meantime, an unpleasant smell was beginning to seep from the house, becoming so bad eventually that the neighbours complained to the boys’ aunt. When she forced her way into the house, she discovered the badly decomposed body of the boys’ mother, and immediately young Robert Coombes admitted to having stabbed her to death.
This is a chilling but fascinating true crime story from the end of the Victorian era. Robert Coombes was thirteen at the time of the murder and his brother Nattie was twelve. The idea of the matricide itself horrified contemporary society enough, but it was the cool behaviour of the boys over the following ten days that made the crime seem even more shocking. Evidence showed that the murder was planned – Robert had bought the knife specially a few days earlier, and he later claimed that he and Nattie had arranged a signal for when the deed should be done.
The first part of the book concentrates on the crime and the trial procedures and Summerscale covers these with her usual excellent attention to detail. Because they felt that their case against Robert would be stronger if his brother gave evidence, the prosecution were keen to have the charges against Nattie dropped, since at that time defendants were not allowed to tell their story in court. In the early proceedings, Robert had no lawyer or other representation and was expected to cross-examine witnesses by himself. The boys’ father was a steward on board a transatlantic cattle vessel, and wasn’t even aware of the murder till after the first hearings had taken place.
Although this all sounds horrific to our modern ideas of justice, especially for children, there seems little doubt that Robert was indeed guilty, and some of the court officers did their best to make the process as easy for him as they could within the system. The boys were held in an adult jail during the trial process, but had individual cells – a luxury they might be unlikely to get today. The boys’ extended family did show up for the hearings, so Nattie at least had some adult support.
The defence quickly decided to try for an insanity ruling, which meant that they actually preferred for there not to be a rational motive, while the prosecution felt Robert’s guilt was so obvious they didn’t need one. The result of this is that no-one ever really asked why Robert did it, and so the motivation remains unclear. Summerscale suggests on the basis of some fairly circumstantial evidence that the mother may have been cruel to the boys in her husband’s absence – there is a suggestion that she too suffered from “excitability” and extreme mood swings, and may have beaten the boys badly, but this is largely speculation.
In this first section, Summerscale also widens her discussion out to look at the society and living conditions of the time. Robert’s family was working class, but not grindingly poor – his father had a decent income, and the boys got a good education. However, at that time, there was much debate as to whether educating the poor was a good thing, especially since the ability to read allowed boys access to the “penny dreadfuls” of the time, which many considered to have a bad influence on impressionable young minds. Robert had a collection of such pamphlets, and the press made much of this. The crime took place in Plaistow in Essex, an industrial area within the range of the heavily polluted atmosphere of London. There was also much debate at that time about the general poor health of the urban poor, while the acceptance of the theory of evolution brought with it a belief in the possibility of its opposite, degeneration. It all reminded me of the “bad boy” culture that Andrew Levy discussed so thoroughly in his book about Twain’s young hero, Huck Finn’s America.
The second half of the book tells the story of what happened to Robert after his conviction. Summerscale is asking, and answering, the question of whether someone who has done such a dreadful thing can go on to lead a normal, even worthwhile life. Robert spent several years in Broadmoor, the hospital for the criminally insane, where again because of his youth he was in fact treated more kindly than we might expect. This whole section is fascinating in what it tells us about the treatment of those judged criminally insane. In fact, from time to time there were complaints that the treatment was too kind – that people were faking insanity to avoid the much harder regime in normal prisons.
This is not the end of Robert’s story, though. Following his eventual release from Broadmoor, Summerscale follows his trail through the rest of his life, uncovering some interesting and unexpected details about how he turned out. So often true crime stories from the Victorian era end with a conviction and capital punishment. This one, being somewhat later and also because it concerned a child, is intriguing because we are able to see the aftermath. At the point of conviction Robert would undoubtedly have been seen as some kind of monster, but Summerscale lets us see whether the rest of his life confirmed that or allowed him to find some kind of redemption. Immaculately researched, well written and presented, this is easily the equal of Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, and personally, having worked with boys of that age with troubled and often criminal histories, I found this one even more interesting. Highly recommended.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Penguin Group.