Thursday, June 30, 2011

July 11, 1876 --- The Balham Mystery

A new inquest opens into the death of Charles Bravo, a young barrister, married but five months to a mysterious widow, Florence Ricardo.  Bravo had died suddenly in April at his home, The Priory, in Balham, south London.  After dining with his wife, having taken copious wine, Bravo went to his room and quaffed his usual bedside tumbler of water. Crying out for help, vomiting repeatedly, he collapsed and died the next day.  A hasty first inquest discovered 30 grains (!) of antimony in Bravo's stomach but the coroner deemed "insufficient evidence" to rule it murder, suicide or accident. The Home Office, bowing to a braying Press, ordered a second inquest.

Much is made Mrs. Bravo's relationship with Dr. William Gully, the noted Malvern homeopath. Gully met Florence whilst treating her first husband, a violent drunkard, now deceased.  Gully is in his 60's and separated from his wife of nearly 80.  The doctor had lived with Florence in her widowhood. They had been lovers.  Opting for respectability however, Florence wed young Bravo and settled at The Priory. The good doctor quietly took lodgings nearby and was "a regular visitor." While Florence's "companion" testified the ex-lovers had maintained their intimacy, Florence insisted otherwise and flatly told the Bravo family counsel, "I will refuse to answer further questions in regard to Dr. Gully."

Florence had motive and means; a coachman had purchased the poison at her bidding, to "de-worm the horses." But could it have been suicide? The Bravos were not happy, their quarrels were frequent, many involving - as Charles called him - "that wretch Gully." Living beyond his means, Charles was also deeply in debt to an ex-mistress.

After four weeks, the jury gave up, ruling that while Bravo was "willfully murdered... there is not sufficient proof to fix the guilt upon any person or persons." The Press is again irate: Saturday Review calls it a "disgusting exhibition," Vanity Fair gagged at "the nauseous details of a number of incontinent and unprincipled lives."

Florence, dubbed "the gay widow of Balham," moved to Southsea where she died of drink but two years later. The Balham Mystery has prompted numerous books.  Modern students conclude that Florence did it, if only by accident. A woman trapped in an unhappy marriage, who suffered two painful miscarriages in five months, the theory goes, Florence tried to drug her drunken husband to incapacitate him from renewing the conjugal relationship she dreaded.

Penny Illustrated Paper

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