Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 3/Last week (October 13, 1860)

LAST WEEK.

THE ROAD MURDER.

How is it that the daily newspapers are stuffed so full of horrors just now? If you take up one of the usual broad sheets, you will find invariably that some sixteen or twenty columns are devoted to reports of murder, and preliminary inquiries about murderers. There was one number of the “Times” last week which contained intelligence with regard to seven murders—the Stepney murder and the Road child murder being reckoned as two. Is it that in the absence of other subjects of public interest the editors of newspapers and their contributors find it indispensable to cater for the appetite for the horrible? Certainly when Parliament is sitting we are not accustomed to see so many pages of this bloody chronicle paraded before our eyes from day to day. On the other hand, it may be said that even when Parliament is sitting a Rush is more interesting to the general reader than a Debate upon Supply: and the public were far more keen for the reports of Palmer’s trial than for Ministerial explanations of the most exciting character. On the whole, it would not seem to be true that the session of the British Parliament affects crime in general—or more particularly murders. People again have said, that the long continuance of bad weather—the eternal gloom—the perennial rain of the last twelvemonths, has inspired a certain degree of moroseness and acrimony into the minds of our countrymen, thereby preparing them for deeds of violence and blood. It seems, however, not a little difficult to believe in the connection between murder and the hygrometer. Are our homicidal tendencies kept in check by great-coats and umbrellas? Has the occurrence of a wet summer commonly produced crime or really increased the tendency to acts of violence. If that were so, we should expect that in rainy districts, such an one for example as the lake district of Lancashire, Cumberland, and Westmoreland, the returns of murder would stand the highest. Kendal is said to be the wettest spot in England. By this time everybody should have murdered everybody in that famous little town; or, assuming that there must have been one survivor, he in all probability would have committed suicide. It is by no means clear that there are more murders amongst the snows of Russia than amidst the orange-groves of Palermo. An Esquimaux is not swifter to shed blood than the swart dweller between the tropics. On the contrary, a lordly indifference to the destruction of life has ever been a characteristic of southern nations. The suggestion, that the untoward weather of the last twelve months has had any serious effect upon our homicidal propensities, may therefore be dismissed as unworthy of serious consideration.

The investigation into this mysterious case at Road continued throughout last week; but not, as far as we see, with much effect. Well nigh every point brought forward in evidence against Elizabeth Gough, the housemaid at Mr. Kent’s, has been urged before; but not with such success as to establish against her a case which justified the magistrates in committing her to take her trial. The medical testimony apart, which is of the highest importance, as suggesting a new theory for the murder, what points of evidence have been added to those with which we were familiar before? There are but two. Eliza Dallimore, the wife of a Wiltshire policeman has stated, before the magistrates at Trowbridge, that she put one of Elizabeth Cough’s assertions to a practical test, and that the assertion must have been a misstatement. The young woman had stated that about five o’clock in the morning she had knelt up in bed, and in this kneeling position she had looked over to the cot in which the little boy should have been lying asleep; and had then and thus become aware, for the first time, of the fact of his absence. Now, Eliza Dallimore went into the nursery accompanied by Mrs. Kent. The bed and the child’s cot were in the same position as on the night of the murder. Mrs. Kent placed one of her little children in the cot which had been occupied by the murdered boy, and covered it up with the bed-clothes in the usual way. Eliza Dallimore then kneeled up in the bed in the very same way as Elizabeth Gough must have done upon the night of the murder, and she could not see the child! She could only see a small portion of the pillow. The side of the cot was open canework, but it was lined with something inside which prevented the child from being seen through it. This, to be sure, is a suspicious fact; but, most probably, the sting of the contradiction might be much drawn, if the young woman’s original assertion were carefully handled. At any rate, what is it by the side of the tremendous fact that the child was in all likelihood murdered by her very bedside, and yet she professes to be entirely ignorant of what took place. Clearly—even if the actual murder were perpetrated elsewhere—the child (a boy within a month of four years of age, and of large size for his age) was removed from the room in which she was sleeping, and she knew nothing about it. A contradiction such as the one suggested really adds very little to our previous information. Again, a piece of flannel was discovered under the body of the child. This piece of flannel was cut in the shape of a “chest-flannel,” such as is worn by women. It was found to fit the prisoner, and to correspond in texture with one of her flannel petticoats. This notable discovery, however, does not help the inquiry forward in any great degree. The wonder is that the child should have been removed from the nurse’s room without her knowledge—not that a piece of flannel which very probably belonged to her should have got mixed up with the bed-clothes of the cot, and have been subsequently carried away in the blanket by her, him, or those who bore the child from the room. The inference presumed is—of course upon the assumption of the prisoner’s guilt—that in stooping forward to deposit the body of the child where it was found, the piece of flannel might have fallen from her person, and this would serve as good evidence of her presence at that period of the transaction. But, supposing that this chest-flannel was her property, and that she was in the habit of wearing it, is there anything to show that she used to wear it at night? If it was simply lying upon a chair, or in any other place about the room, the person or persons who took the child, or the child’s body, away in the blanket might very well have carried off the flannel too. Even if property in this piece of flannel is brought home to her, it will not go far to aggravate the probabilities already existing that Elizabeth Gough was concerned in the foul deed.

The really important testimony delivered last week at Trowbridge, was that of Mr, Parsons, the surgeon, who attended upon Mr. Kent’s family, and who saw the body of the child immediately it was brought to light. Mr. Parsons saw the body at 9 a. m., on the morning of the night on which it had been put to death. He then judged that it must have been dead five or six hours at least. That would take us back to about 3 a. m., All trace of a pill which had been given to the child on the previous night had disappeared from the stomach. The inference drawn from this fact, also fixes the time at which the murder must have been committed, at about the same hour. Mr. and Mrs. Kent had retired to rest a few minutes before twelve o’clock. Thus the limits of time are fixed within reasonable certainty on each side.

Here is what the doctor says as to the appearance of the body, and his own conclusions. The dark appearance of the mouth showed considerable pressure upon it for a considerable time, and with a soft substance. Circulation of the blood was probably stopped for some time before the throat was cut. The stab in the side was certainly inflicted after death, because there was no contraction of the parts, and no flow of blood. Life might have been extinguished, but not quite, before the throat was cut—the heart might cease to beat a few moments before actual death took place. So far of the surgeon’s evidence; but when this is taken in connection with the other ascertained facts of the case, it would seem to lead to the following probable conclusions. The child was suffocated, or nearly so, in the bedroom between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m. on the 30th of June last. An hour is allowed that matters might become quiet in Mr. and Mrs. Kent’s sleeping room. Regard being had to the tender age of the child, and to the improbability that it could have been so cruelly handled for any other reason than to prevent detection, it seems very likely that in the first instance its death was not intended.

The child had awoken, and it was probable that it should have done so just about the time of which we are speaking, because an aperient pill had been administered to it the night before, which would make itself felt at about two a.m., more or less. It is not likely that actual murder was originally intended, on account of the position of the room, and the general absence of all evidence of premeditation. The blanket, however, was pressed to the child’s lips a little too long. When the pressure was removed the little boy was to all appearance dead. Then the difficulty began, which consisted in giving to the deed the appearance of an ordinary murder in place of one in which conclusions as to the complicity and guilt of certain persons were unavoidable. For this reason the child was wrapped in the blanket, carried down stairs and out of doors—possibly by the drawing-room window—although it is not improbable that the window was left in the position in which it was found, merely to derange the course of investigation. At any rate, it was taken down stairs, and in the privy, or in some place not ascertained, but out of doors, the throat was cut, and the stab in the side was inflicted. It was the work of some person, or persons, being inmates of the house on the particular night, for otherwise different precautions would have been used as to the disposal of the body. The place chosen shows that it must have been deposited there by some one who must get back soon. From the description given of the premises, it seems erroneous to admit the theory that any one could have been concealed on the premises, inasmuch as the only place in which concealment was possible, without the most imminent risk of discovery from moment to moment, was a loft at the top of the house, on which the dust lay undisturbed—upon examination had. Again, it is well-nigh impossible that any one could have entered the house on the night in question without leaving marks or traces of their passage. None were found after the most minute and careful investigation. There were but two sleeping-rooms on the first-floor. One was occupied by Mr. and Mrs. Kent and a young child; the other (the nursery) by the nurse, the murdered child, and a younger child about two years of age. The two rooms were separated by a passage. The door of the nursery was left a-jar by Mrs. Kent’s orders, in order that the nurse might hear if the little girl who slept in her room should cry before she came up to bed. Mrs. Kent, on passing to her own room, shut the door—as her custom was—and then retired to bed at the hour already named. The business of carrying the suffocated child down-stairs without raising an alarm, as it is said, would have been too much for a woman’s strength. It seems difficult under such circumstances, not to come to the conclusion that Elizabeth Gough must have had a guilty knowledge, at least, of what had taken place in her room on the night in question.

It is, of course, just possible, that between one and two a.m., on the Saturday morning, an inmate of the house, or a person concealed in the house, may have stolen into the room in which Elizabeth Gough lay sleeping, borne the sleeping child from the room, and suffocated it elsewhere—in the drawing-room for example—but this theory is surrounded with difficulties. There was a night-light in the room, and it was not probable that this was extinguished even at the time and relighted, because the work done in the room, independently of the removal of the child , implies the presence of light. It would have been difficult in the dark to remove the blanket from between the sheet and the quilt; impossible, one may fairly say, to re-adjust the bed-clothes in the tidy manner in which they were found folded back. The night light was burning whilst this work was in hand. Is it possible that it could have been carried out without waking the nurse?

The manner in which the clothes were folded back is a considerable feature in the case. This was done by a practised hand—not by a man’s hand—nor even by the hand of a woman, who was not accustomed to the making of beds. There is what one may call a professional manner of turning down the clothes which was rigidly adhered to in the present instance. An ordinary thief who had secreted himself in the house for the purpose of plunder, would not, in the first place, have been very likely to have blundered into the nursery in which a night light was burning. It is not in such an apartment that money, plate, &c., are to be found. Nor, even upon the very forced hypothesis that such was the case, and that little Saville Kent had awoken, and raised an alarm, is it credible that more would have been done than to suffocate the child and leave it there. The night-spoiler and chance-murderer would not have been so foolish as to add a thousandfold to the chances of discovery by lingering about the room, and tidying up the bed.

Such a person, if he had sufficient presence of mind to do all that was done, would have done something more in order to fix suspicion upon the young woman in the room. This point should be well considered. What in all probability would have been the conduct of a burglar or child-stealer, about 2 on the 29th of June last, standing in the nursery at Mr. Kent’s, by the side of the cot in which lay the body of the child, whom he had just suffocated, with the nursemaid asleep in the adjacent bed? The bedroom occupied by Mr. and Mrs. Kent, too, was only distant a few feet. Whoever it may have been who killed the child, he or she was perfectly aware of the interior arrangements of the house. That may be assumed as positive. Even under ordinary circumstances, the most inexperienced burglar would take care to inform himself of the exact position of each sleeping apartment in the house, and of the persons by whom each was ordinarily occupied. This is the mere elementary learning of the science of burglary. Detective officers will tell you that in well-nigh every case of burglary, the servants of the family—actually in service, or discharged—are “in it.”

Now, it seems in the present case that there has been question of a discharged housemaid, or nursemaid, who, moreover, is stated to have expressed herself in very vindictive terms with regard to Mr. and Mrs. Kent. But we have the authority of the magistrate for saying that it has been proved to their entire satisfaction that this woman was at the time of the murder in a distant part of the country. This in itself would be conclusive; but, independently of this, if a discharged female servant had, out of revenge, resolved to compass the death of one of the young children of her family, it is too violent a demand upon human credulity to ask us to admit the supposition that she would have secreted herself in the house, stolen up into the nursery in the dark hours of the night, and done all that was done. This conjecture may be dismissed as erroneous. Such a person, of all others, would have been in a position to estimate the full danger of the attempt. Had she desired to spirit away the child and murder it, the attempt would have been made in some other manner not so pregnant with awful hazard to herself.

If, then, neither a burglar nor a discharged servant, nor a robber who had secreted himself in the house, did the deed—who did it? On the one hand, we have the well-nigh insuperable difficulties which surround the hypothesis that the child could have been murdered, or even removed from the room, without the knowledge and complicity of the nurse. On the other hand, there is well-nigh absence of motive impelling to the commission of so grave an offence, if we suppose the death of the child to have been intended, in the first instance, either by the nurse or by her and some person unknown, present with her in her room on the fatal night. Much of this difficulty, however, disappears, if we fall back on the theory that the original intention was not to murder the child, but to stifle its cries, and that the blanket was pressed too long to its little lips. When the person, or persons, who had suffocated the child without intending to proceed so far, discovered what they had done, the rest might follow naturally enough.

If we admit that the nursemaid must have had a guilty knowledge of what took place in the nursery on that Saturday morning, we must also admit that she must have been a participator in what was going forward. She would else have obeyed Nature’s instinct and raised the alarm at once, or at least she would have done so when the present terror was removed from her. Not only she did not so, but although she was fully aware that the child upon the night in question was so far indisposed as to have required the administration of medicine, according to her own account she awoke at 5 a.m., discovered that the child was absent from its cot; and although she was so broadly awake that she kneeled up in her bed to see if Saville Kent was in his proper place, and had satisfied herself that he was not there, she did nothing in consequence. This is very improbable.

There seems to have been a total absence of motive if the young woman was about in the room, unless we presume that, as servants will sometimes do, she was irritated by the child’s peevish cries, endeavoured to silence it in a rough way, and succeeded but too well. Suppose that some other person had entered the room, and for whatever motive, was in conversation with the nurse—why should they have been desirous to stifle the child’s cries? Was it a man?—was it a woman? The only adult male in the house was Mr. Kent himself. It has been suggested that he might have come into the room for an improper purpose; but leaving out of the question the many other difficulties by which such a suggestion is surrounded, there is this well-nigh insurmountable difficulty to be disposed of before we could admit such an hypothesis. Mr. Kent had gone to bed about midnight—he says himself that he fell asleep at once, and slept till 7 a.m. the next morning. Now Mrs. Kent occupied the same bed—she was indisposed and slept badly—but yet not so badly, but that she was not disturbed by the footfalls of the person or persons who certainly carried the body of the child down-stairs, and passed out of the house.

This, however, is one thing, as Mr. and Mrs. Kent slept with the door of their bedroom closed—it is quite another to suppose that the husband could have left his wife’s side, remained absent for a considerable time, and returned to bed, without her knowing of it. Now, although Mrs. Kent might not have attributed much importance to such an occurrence at the time, still the next morning, when the terrible tragedy of the past night had been brought to light, she would have remembered it but too well. She would have known that the time of his absence exactly corresponded with the time when the murder was in hand. Would she have held her tongue? She was the mother of Saville Kent. Is it possible to suppose that the mother would have been an accessory after the fact to the murder of her own child? This seems incredible. The only other male person in the house was the murdered child’s half-brother—William Kent, a boy of fifteen years of age, who slept in a room at the back of the house, upon the second-floor. Nothing has come to light which involves the boy’s complicity in the smallest degree. It would require something in the shape of corroborative evidence before we could bring ourselves to admit that a boy of that age could have presented himself in the nursery where two children were sleeping—that nursery being the next room to the one occupied by his father and step-mother—with the motive suggested. We may dismiss his name from this portion of the inquiry. The act if done at all was the act of a man, not of a boy of that age. Mr. Kent himself was the only adult male in the house, and—all other considerations apart—his presence seems to be negatived by this, that it would almost unavoidably imply that his wife was aware of his participation in the transaction. The only other male person whose name has been mixed up with the affair is that of William Nutt, a shoemaker at Road; but the suggestion does not deserve any very serious consideration. The only reason why this man was ever talked of at all in connection with the murder was, that he displayed an over-alacrity in directing the search at once the next morning to the spot in which the body of the murdered child was found. He is a shoemaker, living at Road, a married man, the father of five children, and can account for his whereabouts on the fatal night in a satisfactory way.

Originally the theory was, that as there was insanity in the family on the side of the first wife, the deed must have been done by one or more of the children of the first marriage. This could scarcely have been so. It could not have been the act of two, because mad people do not act in concert. The sight of a deed of violence done by one mad person may incite other mad persons then present to take a share in it—but mad people do not deliberately conspire together to carry out a common design. It was not the act of one mad person, because when the mind has become so far deranged that an insane person kills a human being, the disease has reached a climax, and the accompanying symptoms of homicidal frenzy cannot be concealed. There may be concealment for a few hours, or even days, but not for such a period as has elapsed between the 29th of June and the middle of October. It must also be remembered that Miss Constance Kent, upon whom suspicion had originally fallen, has been declared innocent, after a most searching investigation, although the missing bed-gown has never been accounted for. The children of the first marriage, then, are mad, or not mad. If mad, they—or at least those concerned—would have betrayed themselves by this time. If not mad, they are of course free from suspicion. This is, in other words, to say that conjecture need not busy itself any longer with the children of Mr. Kent’s first marriage.

The two servants, Sarah Cox and Sarah Kirslake, slept in a room next to the one occupied by Miss Constance Kent, on the second floor. They were police upon each other: nor can any conceivable suggestion be offered—in the entire absence of evidence—for their presence, or the presence of either of them, in the nursery upon the fatal night; or for their participation, or the participation of either of them, in the bloody deed. Their names, too, may be dismissed from the inquiry.

We come then to this, that the supposition that the house was entered from without is negatived by the appearances of the premises. It is well-nigh impossible that any person could have been concealed in the house, for there was no place save the loft where concealment was possible, and there the dust lay undisturbed. Of course an inmate of the house might have admitted a stranger; but if a stranger had been mixed up in the matter, the course of the murder would have been different.

Furthermore all the inmates of the house, save the nurse and one other, are free from all suspicion of motive. With regard to Mr. Kent, other considerations apart, it is difficult to suppose that he could have absented himself from his bedroom on the night in question without the knowledge of his wife—it is utterly incredible that she would have kept the secret for him, had she been aware of his absence. All his acts and words since the discovery of the crime have been the acts and words of an innocent man.

The inference which may be drawn from the amended medical evidence, is that the murder of the child was not originally contemplated; but, when the deed was done, precautions were taken to throw suspicion upon a wrong scent. It seems, at first sight, improbable that one person—and that person a young woman—could have conveyed the body of the child down stairs without raising an alarm. On the other hand, it was possible—and the terrible secret has been so well kept, that it looks more like the secret of one person than the secret of a household. We have dealt with the reports as we found them in the newspapers, but without the advantage of being present at the proceedings. The inferences to be drawn from the demeanour of the witnesses can only be known to those who were present during the investigation. The theory for the defence was that a child-stealer, acting under the influence of revengeful feeling, was secreted in the house,—entered the nursery at night,—awoke the child when trying to remove it,—and endeavoured to stifle its cries. Death ensued—the body was then carried away by the would-be child-stealer, but actual murderer. Let this go for as much as it is worth!