The Wicked Boy by Kate Summerscale
I bought this on a whim. It's a nonfiction, historical, murder mystery. It's my jam! The copy I bought was an older library version (from Philly!). It's my first Kate Summerscale book but I have another one of her books on my bookshelf and the television series on my list. I'll get around to it eventually.
Title: The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer
Author: Kate Summerscale
Page Number: 378, hardcover
Genre: nonfiction, true crime, history
Publisher: Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House, Inc.
Early in the morning of Monday 8 July 1895, thirteen-year-old Robert Coombes and his twelve-year-old brother Nattie set out from their small, yellow-brick terraced house in East London to watch a cricket match at Lord's. Their father had gone to sea the previous Friday, the boys told their neighbours, and their mother was visiting her family in Liverpool.
Over the next ten days Robert and Nattie spent extravagantly, pawning their parents' valuables to fund trips to the theatre and the seaside. But as the sun beat down on the Coombes house, a strange smell began to emanate from the building. When the police were finally called to investigate, the discovery they made sent the press into a frenzy of horror and alarm, and Robert and Nattie were swept up in a criminal trial that echoed the outrageous plots of the 'penny dreadful' novels that Robert loved to read.
In The Wicked Boy, Kate Summerscale has uncovered a fascinating true story of murder and morality - it is not just a meticulous examination of a shocking Victorian case, but also a compelling account of its aftermath, and of man's capacity to overcome the past.
I read this book slowly as it's jam-packed full of information. Even though it's a hefty book, I carried it in my purse and it went with me to lunch, doctor's appointments and other meetings. Because of this, it became a topic of conversation more than I expected. My neurologist talked to me about alienists because of it (the crime happened with the advent of a more complex neurology). I'm a huge nerd so I thought this was pretty awesome.
I actually checked Wikipedia for dates before I started this next part because I really appreciate having a clear time frame. The matricide that begins this book happened in 1895 in England, UK. Victoria was still Queen of the British Empire, the first automobile race in America happened that year and also J.P. Morgan and the Rothschilds loaned the US Government millions (this should have been covered in history 101...but I'm suspicious that some people didn't learn that). For more reference, eight years earlier (in 1888) Jack the Ripper terrorized Whitechapel. Forensic science was non-existent, the police force was still somewhat new, press had latched on to sensational news, medical science was changing, technology was advancing by leaps and bounds--it was an exciting time. This is the year that thirteen year old Robert Coombes murdered his mother.
Summerscale gives a detailed timeline of the crime and of the activity of Robert and his younger brother, Nattie. She explained where their father was (working on a ship that was traveling the Atlantic Ocean) and the monetary situation at the house. The body of the mother was eventually discovered, heavily decomposed, by the boys' aunt. The police were called and Robert confessed.
The murder and subsequent trial were heavily editorialized. The press decided that Robert was influenced by "penny-dreadful" and these serials had turned his mind evil. This honestly reminded me on the present day wallowing over video games and the propensity (or non-propensity) of violence. The papers published which books Robert had to prove his guilt. It all seemed like nonsense. Also, the way the court system of the UK operated during this time was fascinating. Robert was not allowed a lawyer at first, and he (at 13) had to mount his own defense and cross-examine witnesses.
Robert was found guilty but insane and sent to Broadmoor. Broadmoor had changed recently under it's new operator and Summerscale explains the change and the current atmosphere of the mental asylum. The alienists in charge wanted a calm, humane and rehabilitative treatment program for the patients there. Drug use was kept at a minimum (no sedation for sedation sake) and music was taught. While the place was secure it was very progressive. Robert stayed at Broadmoor until he was thirty.
After his release, Robert joined the army for World War I and served as Gallipoli and the Somme. He eventually moved to Australia with his brother. He seemed to mostly live a solitary life in Australia but he did teach music to the children where he lived and opened his home to an abused child. The end of his life was quite touching.
Summerscale did a ton of research for this book because she explains every aspect. I learned about life in lower middle class England, Victorian shipping, English criminal law of the time, medical theory of brain development in children/teenagers (apparently being too smart caused headaches?!), WWI bands and life in post WWI Australia. Not every question is answered because this is non-fiction and some simply can't be answered. It's theorized that Emily Coombes (the victim) might have abused her children, resulting in her death, but there is no obvious evidence of this and Emily remains elusive.
The question the book leaves me with is, "Can one be redeemed?"
This book is packed with information and at times can be dry but the story is intriguing. The language is narrative and accessible. It did take me awhile to read because of how detailed it was.
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