Saturday, December 31, 2011

December 31, 1900 --- The End

It is the final day of the Nineteenth Century.

At St. Paul's Cathedral, Canon Mason hails the concluding century as one in which slavery was abolished, drunkenness was controlled and respect for religion had been firmly established. Several publications remark on the similarity to the close of the 18th Century; The Annual Register notes that, then, as now, England was at war and, "at the close as at the opening of the century, she is without a Continental ally."

The Times, ever optimistic, looks ahead one hundred years to the end of the 20th Century: "We have a reasonable trust that England and her sons will emerge triumphant... and that then, and for ages to come, they will live and prosper, one united and Imperial people, to be a bulwark for the cause of men."

To mark the occasion, the Poet Laureate Alfred Austin (see December 30) comes forth with "The Passing of the Century," an effort which, sadly, can only be described as typical. A sample passage:
When the night is murk and the mist is dense,
to guide us Whither and remind us Whence,
the Soul's own lamps through shades of sense ... etc
Those looking for portents can take little comfort in word that a giant stone in the ring at Stonehenge topples, something that hadn't happened since 1759.

At Osborne, the old Queen, who has reigned for 63 years of the dying century, is in poor health. In her journal, she notes: "The same unfortunate alternations of sleep and restfulness, so that I again did not get up when I wished to, which spoilt my morning and day."

At 6:30 pm, 22 January 1901, three weeks into the new century, Victoria died.

Friday, December 30, 2011

December 30, 1895 --- An Unfortunate Laureate

Prime Minister Salisbury informs "the minstrel of Toryism," Alfred Austin, that he will be named Poet Laureate by the Queen in the New Year's honors list.

Since Lord Tennyson's death in 1892, the post had been vacant. The reigning poets of the day, Oscar Wilde (who was in jail), Algernon Swinbourne (who was kept in seclusion), and Rudyard Kipling (whose barrack ballad, "The Widow at Windsor" had not gone over well with the Queen), were all unacceptable to the Crown.

Austin is a journalist by occupation who had written leaders for several Tory papers  He had acquired a deservedly modest audience for his poetry of the "garden" school.  When asked why he had selected Austin, Salisbury quipped, "He wanted it."

No Laureate in history has had his verse so savagely attacked. Within days of assuming the title, Austin composed an unfortunate ode on the Jameson Raid (see 3 January). A memorable quatrain:
So we forded and galloped forward
As hard as our beasts could pelt,
First eastward, then trending northward,
Right over the rolling veldt ...

Even Salisbury admitted embarrassment at the first effort of the new Laureate; he thought the poem played "unluckily to the taste of the galleries in the lower class of theatres who sing it with vehemence." The press gleefully bashed Austin, especially Punch, which dubbed him "Alfred the Little" and not only because the poet stood barely five feet tall.

Austin seemed oblivious; at one dinner party, when he remarked that poetry kept the wolf from his door, a fellow-diner asked waspishly, "Do you read the wolf your poetry?" When King Edward VII succeeded, he inquired whether he had the right to give Austin the sack.  He was told he could not but HRH took solace to learn the Laureate is an unpaid honor.

Modern critics have been equally unkind; Austin has been described as "a byword for pretentious emptiness." Upon his death in 1913, The Athenaeum observed cruelly, "The laureateship, virtually vacant since Tennyson's death, is now actually so."

Thursday, December 29, 2011

December 29, 1880 --- An Author's Funeral

It is bitterly cold, windy and snowing as Mary Ann Cross is laid to rest in the Dissenter's section of Highgate Cemetery. She was known to her readers as "George Eliot."

Mary Ann (sometimes Marian) is buried alongside George Henry Lewes (see 20 July), discreetly described in the papers as "her friend and literary associate." Mary Ann had lived alone since Lewes' death in 1878.  She stunned her friends in May of 1880 by marrying John Cross, her investment advisor. He is 40, she was 60.

Their brief union was a disaster; Cross was so unhappy in Lewes' shade that, while on their honeymoon, he tried to drown himself in the Grand Canal in Venice. Once returned to London, the couple had settled in to an uneasy partnership, preparing to move into a new home on the Thames. Mary Ann fell ill and, despite her doctor's apparent unconcern, she rather suddenly died on 22 December. Cause of death: "a cold... resulting in a complete loss of power to the heart."

Even in death, "George Eliot" is controversial. Should she - as was her wish - be buried in Westminster Abbey? The Abbey's Dean Stanley was hesitant; he declared that he would need "strong representations" to permit the burial.  Many letters are written, pro and con. Surprisingly, one of the strongest negative letters came from the scientist T.H. Huxley: "George Eliot is known not only as a great writer, but as a person whose life and opinions were in notorious antagonism to Christian practice in regard to marriage—One cannot have one's cake and eat it too. Those who elect to be free in thought and deed must not hanker after the rewards which the world offers to those who put up with its fetters."  Space in the Abbey will not be made available.

Despite the weather, Highgate is crowded with literary and public notables, including Huxley. Although widely read and admired, so rarely was George Eliot before the public that The Illustrated London News cannot offer its traditional obituary portrait. The weekly's literary columnist concluded, "She was, after a manner, an abstraction, an impalbability." At the grave, John Cross delivers a brief eulogy, "Her spirit has joined that choir invisible whose music is the gladness of this world."

Cross was particularly disconsolate. The awkwardness of his position is summed up by those wags who are already calling him "George Eliot's widow." Cross was the author's first biographer, but he was so successful in obscuring the truth of Marian/Mary Ann/George Eliot's life, more than one of her friends found the subject of his book unrecognizable.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

December 28, 1879 --- The Tay Bridge Disaster

In a howling gale off the North Sea, a 3000 foot span of the Tay Bridge collapses, plunging the Edinburgh Mail train into the icy waters of the Firth.

The northbound train had gone on to the bridge, passing the signalmen's shack at 7:14, on a Sunday evening. Minutes later, eyewitnesses see the lights of the train, amidst a shower of sparks, descending into the blackness of the roiling waters, 90-feet below. Word that "the bridge is doon" spreads quickly along the riverside but little can be done. Rescue boats brave horrific sea conditions in a vain search for survivors, finding only bodies and debris. Not all in vain, the North British Railway had placed a £5 bounty on any recovered body. The exact death toll will never be known, but it numbers at least 90.

The two mile long bridge, just south of Dundee, had only been opened eighteen months before, replacing the world's first train ferry. The Queen - who had been present to dedicate the new structure - wires immediately for all details on such "an appalling tragedy." The Times notes that the accident combines the risks of rail and sea and "seems to multiply terribly and unexpectedly the vicissitudes of life."

Sad stories fill the papers; the most touching, perhaps, that of a young man visiting his fiancee who had thought the weather too bad for travel; his lover, however, urged him to return to Aberdeen rather than "break faith with his employer." Sabbatarian zealots suggest divine retribution for travel on the Lord's Day but Punch condemned them for "converting the awful catastrophe... to their own black and bitter creed."

In the end, the blame fell on the bridge's designer, Sir Thomas Bouch, who'd been knighted by the Queen upon completion of the project. When he came to view the wreckage, an angry crowd kept him a virtual prisoner in his hotel. A Parliamentary review committee concluded the bridge had been "badly designed, badly constructed and badly maintained." Modern structural engineers blame Sir Thomas for miscalculating the maximum windloads that could be expected in such an exposed setting. Sir Thomas had already begun working on the even more ambitious plans to bridge the Firth of Forth but was immediately removed from the project team. Ten months after the Tay Bridge disaster, he was dead, his reputation and health ruined.

The disaster was remembered by the man called "the World's Worst Poet," the Scot, William McGonagall.  In (merciful) part, he wrote:

So the train moved slowly along the Bridge of Tay,
Until it was about midway.
Then the central girders with a crash gave way,
And down went the train and passengers into the Tay.
The Tay Bridge was rebuilt by 1887, using much of the materials salvaged from the wreckage.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

December 27, 1861 --- War Averted

After several tense weeks, the United States agrees to release two envoys from the Confederate States of America who had been arrested and removed from a British mail ship.  The RMS Trent (pictured) had been stopped and boarded off Cuba in early November.

"The Trent affair" inflamed emotions on both sides of the Atlantic. When news of it reached London, Prime Minister Palmerston had barked to his cabinet, "You may stand for this but damned if I will!" He soon ordered 3000 troops to Canada. A bellicose message to Washington, drafted by the Foreign Office, was submitted to the Queen for routine review. Prince Albert, rising from his deathbed (see 14 December), toned down the demarche by adding that the British fully believed the American captain had acted without orders.

In the U.S., some Anglo-phobes thought a war with England might help re-unite the nation now in Civil War. President Lincoln, however, said he wanted "just one war at a time" and seized at the proffered face-saving opportunity. On Christmas Day he ordered Secretary of State Seward to draft the appropriate documents. Seward meets with the British Ambassador, Lord Lyons, who reported that the American seemed overcome with the emotion of the moment. Nonetheless, Seward must remind London of the War of 1812, fought over U.S. objections to similar British interference with "neutral" shipping. The peaceful resolution is accepted by all but the most warlike.  The New York Times thought the agreement was based on "the great principles of maritime law to which the United States has always adhered," and, in London, The Times commented, "We draw a long breath and are thankful."

The two Confederate envoys soon arrived at their posts. James Mason, a bluff Virginian, had been sent to plead the Confederate cause in England. He had little success.  A staunch proponent of slavery, he had co-authored the Fugitive Slave Law which is unpopular even among pro-Southerners in England. His eccentric dress and crude personal habits (chewing and spitting tobacco, even in the House of Commons) soon "damaged him terribly," according to the official U.S. delegation. Mason, however, thought he fit in well; he wrote his wife that the English aristocrats remind him of "our best Virginia circles."

December 26, 1891 --- A Shooting Accident

At Osborne, a holiday shooting party is marred by an accident that cost Prince Christian of Schleswig-Holstein his left eye.

The Queen's son, Arthur, the Duke of Connaught, was out shooting with two of his brothers-in-law, Prince Christian (married to Helena) and Prince Henry of Battenberg (married to Beatrice).  The three men are hunting in a semi-circle when, espying a bird, the Duke fires. The bird falls, but so does Prince Christian, in dreadful pain, hit by spray pellets from the gun.

The Prince is borne by the beaters to Osborne House, and Dr. George Lawson, Harley Street's best oculist, is summoned. His advice is simple, the shattered eye must be removed to save the good eye. The Queen is horrified. Sir James Reid, Victoria's personal physician, wrote a colleague, "She spoke as if Lawson and I wished to do it for our own brutal pleasure." Victoria grudgingly okayed the procedure but ordered her doctors never to speak of it in her presence.

The operation is a success. A brief inquest concludes that the shooting had been "one of those inexplicable accidents which too often occur even among the most careful and expert sportsmen." All reports on the incident stressed that it occured before luncheon to discourage talk among the lower orders that drinking had been responsible for any carelessness. Left unsaid was the undoubted record of clumsiness that had been laid to the poor Duke. In his youth, Arthur accidentally fell out the billiard room window at Buckingham Palace. Later, given command of a cycling regiment in the Army, he fell off his bike while returning a salute. He would seem to have been a less than ideal hunting companion.

Still, the glass eye proved no hindrance to the injured Prince. He was able to carry on with his life.  In truth, he had little to do; the Princess of Wales thought he did "nothing but eat and shoot other people's pheasants." Prince Christian, never a handsome man, was less so with his glass orb. Friends recall that he kept a large collection of replacements which he brought out for favored guests, including a blood-shot version for days when he felt poorly.

The Prince photographed so as to hide his glass eye.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

December 25, 1860 --- Christmas at Windsor Castle

As usual, the Royal family gathers at Windsor Castle for the Christmas holiday. This year, readers of The Times are treated to an exclusive look at the Royal Yuletide from the Viscount Torrington, Lord-in Waiting. 

Victoria and Albert's Christmas is a combination of English and German traditions; the latter include the Christmas tree, introduced to England - not by Albert, as he is oftimes mistakenly credited - but by Victoria's Hanoverian ancestors. There are no fewer than three trees in the Palace, hung in place of the chandeliers. Tables fairly groan with gifts for the Royal brood, nine children, ranging now in ages from 20 to 3. All the presents are opened on Christmas Eve.  In his "Windsor Special," Lord Torrington writes, "I have never seen a much more agreeable sight. It was royalty putting aside its state and becoming in words, acts, and deeds one of ourselves."

Christmas Day is sunny but quite cold. In fact, with a reading of 10 degrees in Hyde Park, it's said to be the coldest Christmas in fifty years. The day's highlight is a huge dinner. The Castle kitchens work round the clock to prepare the pies and meats, not only for the Royal table, but also for distribution among the tenants on the estate. More food will be given to the local poor on Boxing Day. A favorite dish each Christmas is the raised pie, featuring a woodcock stuffed inside a pheasant inside a chicken inside a turkey and then baked in stuffing and pastry. So many mincemeat pies are to be baked, the Castle cellars send up 24 bottles of brandy. For the Christmas meal, fifty turkeys are prepared.

"A really wonderful meal," a well-fed Lord Torrington told his readers, "How I live to tell the tale I don't know." His narrative concludes, "I never saw more real happiness than the scene of the mother and all her children: the Prince Consort lost all his stiffness... Altogether a jolly Christmas."

Sadly, no one could know it would be the last Christmas at Windsor. After Albert's death (see December 14) in 1861, the Queen could not bear the memories and preferred instead to observe the holidays at Osborne on the Isle of Wight.

December 24, 1876 --- "You May Not Enter"

An irreligious confrontation for a Christmas Eve, to be sure, takes place in the doorway at St. James's Church in Hatcham.

The Rev. Arthur Tooth refuses to admit a minister sent by the Bishop of Rochester to replace him. Mr. Tooth had been admonished by his Bishop to cease certain "Romish" practices. In 1874, Parliament had passed the Public Worship Regulation Act.  It was "Low Church" versus "High Church."  The former had hoped to drive out the rituals of the Catholic mass which had been creeping onto the altars of the so-called "High" church. Specifically, the Rev. Mr. Tooth was accused of countenancing "immense wax candles, bells and incense" and he dared to perform his duties while dressed in red robes.

Tooth claimed civil law had no jurisdiction in his church. Independently wealthy and Cambridge-educated, Mr. Tooth had nonetheless become a popular figure in his working class parish and standing with him on this Sunday morning are two dozen churchwardens, representing - if you will - "muscular Christianity." The Bishop's minion is allowed to read his statement and then must perforce withdraw.

There was no violence.  Tooth simply told the other chap, "You may not enter."  The matter is handled with the courtesy befitting two gentleman of the cloth. Such defiance of the See, however, could not be tolerated and the matter soon stirred even the secular world. Suddenly, St. James's in a grim section of S.E. London, became a weekly Reformation battleground. Police had to be called out to preserve Sunday morning order; local roughs - eager for a row and ignorant of the issues - chose up sides.

When ordered to surrender the keys to his church, Rev. Tooth again refused. He was finally ruled to be "contumacious" and ordered to jail. There, he languished for 28 days - winning martyrdom status. Released, he rallied his supporters and repeated his defiance, "What you are opposing is the intrusion of secular authority in spiritual matters." One exasperated Bishop prayed for "the extraction of Mr. Tooth." The Times denounced him as well: "He was imprisoned for contempt, he is released with contempt."

After his release, Tooth broke back into his old church one Sunday morning.  He threw open the doors for a sunrise service for 400 of his faithful. The police arrived too late.

In the end, Tooth's original jail sentence was overturned on a technicality and he threatened to sue for false imprisonment. Instead, he resigned from St. James's claiming "My health is broken." He relocated to Croydon where he operated a boys orphanage.

The Rev. Mr. Tooth in Vanity Fair

December 23, 1890 --- The Pram Murders

24-year old Mary Eleanor Wheeler is hanged at Newgate Prison.  Her final, words: "The sentence is just, but the evidence false."

Mary Eleanor Wheeler earned her living "receiving gentleman visitors" in her North London flat. She fell in love with one of them, a furniture removal man named Frank Hogg. Her lover was a married man and his wife was expecting.  Eleanor forgave him. Indeed, a quasi-bigamous relationship developed.  At the trial, a letter Eleanor wrote to Frank was introduced, "I love you with all my heart and I will love her because she will belong to you."  Eleanor nursed Phoebe Hogg back to health after the birth of Frank's daughter.

In October, Eleanor wrote Phoebe, inviting her to visit and bring "our darling child." Mother and daughter were never seen alive again. The baby was found dead from either suffocation or exposure along the Finchley Road. Phoebe was found, her head crushed and her neck cut through to the spine, dumped in woods in South Hampstead. In nearby St. John's Wood, police later found a blood-stained pram. When police found Phoebe's body, Eleanor was taken to the morgue to help identify the remains. There, Eleanor's bizarre behavior, her nervous laughter especially, prompted police to search her flat. They found signs of a "ferocious struggle" and a bloody poker.

Several witnesses testified that they saw Eleanor pushing a pram through the crowded streets of Kentish Town.  The pram seemed to be carrying an unusually heavy load. The man in the case, Frank Hogg, did not escape suspicion.  Had he conspired to do away with his inconvenient wife and child and return to his lover? But Hogg had a very good alibi and a lack of evidence saved him. Still, he was hissed at every appearance and needed a police escort to escape the London rnob. Eleanor's defense was very weak; her lawyers claimed there was only circumstantial evidence.  Why would Eleanor want to murder a women she'd obviously come to accept? The accused was a very slight woman and the defense argued that she would not have been strong enough to push a pram all that distance with two bodies inside.

The jury took less than an hour to find her guilty.  Justice Denman, denouncing her "prurient and indecent lust," donned the black cap and sentenced her to hang.  Appeals for commutation failed.  The Spectator decried any sympathy for this woman: "[There is] a distinct and most evil tendency to make of "love" an excuse for crime in the woman ... that nothing is too bad for the adulterer, and nothing too compassionate for the adultress."

The sketch of Mary Eleanor Wheeler from the National Portrait Gallery.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

December 22, 1891 --- The Great Pearl Mystery

In a dramatic conclusion to a sensational trial, the great barrister Sir Charles Russell sobs as he informs the court that he must throw in his brief.  His client, now facing perjury charges, has fled Britain.

In February, Major and Mrs. Hargreaves had invited her young cousin, Ethel Elliot to come stay at their home in Torquay.  Ethel and her fiancee, Capt. Osborne, remained with the Hargreaves for several days.  Soon after the guests had left, Mrs. Hargreaves discovered some of her jewelry was missing, most notably a pair of earrings "with pearls as big as filberts." The jewels had been kept in a secret box in a location known to very few, including Miss Elliot.  Advertizing her loss, Mrs. Hargreaves heard from Spinks, the well-known jewelers of St. James, London. They reported that a young woman had sold them the jewelry for 550 gold sovereigns. The sale took place only a day after Miss Elliot had left Torquay.  The woman had given a name and address that proved false.

Spinks returned the jewels to Mrs. Hargreaves who began to openly talk of "this sad business with Ethel Elliott." She told friends, "Of course, she took the jewels." Miss Elliot, now Mrs. Osborne, sued for slander. Across Britain, all were asking "Did she do it?" Her defenders suspected spiteful old Mrs. Hargreaves of being jealous of the much younger and quite beautiful Ethel and her dashing military husband.  There was also another guest at Torquay who was known to have some rather heavy racetrack debts.

Ethel Elliot Osborne was on the stand for two days and her story was unshaken. The Spectator noted: "With her look of innocence, and her frankness in meeting cross-examination, she had carried the audience by storm." Then, the crash. A moneychanger reported a young woman had exchanged a bag of gold coins for 50-pound notes. At the Bank of England, investigators traced one such note that had been used to purchase linens in Mayfair. It bore a damning endorsement: Ethel Elliot.

The defendant having fled; the verdict was given to the Hargreaves who say they have no wish to prosecute the matter further.  However, Justice Denman agrees to issue a warrant (on Christmas Day no less) for Ethel's arrest for perjury.

She was returned to London for trial in March.  Pregnant and pleading hysteria, she was, nonetheless, given nine months hard labor. She served but one and was released due to poor health. The Great Pearl Mystery was finally over.  The Times spoke for many in wishing Mrs. Osborne "kindly oblivion"

The courtroom sketches in The Penny Illustrated Paper

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

December 21, 1899 --- Winston Bloody Churchill

The British consul at Lorenco Marques wires London: "Please inform relations that Winston Churchill arrived today."

Since escaping from a Boer P-O-W camp nine days before, the young war correspondent had become something of a national hero. Captured in mid-November in an attack on a British reconnaisance train, Churchill claimed noncombatant status as a correspondent for The Morning Post.  The Boer officers who took him in, however, insisted Churchill took an active part in the affray. Not content to await clarification, Churchill went over the wall of a prison latrine in Pretoria. In his memoir, My Early Life, he recalled the moment:

"Now or never! I stood on the ledge, seized the top of the wall with my hands, and drew myself up. Twice I let myself down in sickly hesitation, and then, with a third resolve, scrambled up and over ... I was free!"

The Boers posted a reward for Churchill, dead or alive: "An Englishman, 25 years old, about 5 ft. 8 in. tall, average build, walks with a slight stoop, pale appearance, red-brown hair, almost invisible small moustache, speaks through his nose, cannot pronounce the letter "S."

Churchill hopped a train heading east to Portuguese territory.  He abandoned the rail before daybreak, still in Boer territory. Perhaps only Churchill could have found a British mine operator willing at great risk to hide him, albeit at the bottom of a rat-infested pit. The object of dramatic headlines at home - CHURCHILL ESCAPES! - and a desperate manhunt, he was finally smuggled out aboard a goods train to the coast. At first, a consulate staffer turns him away only to be greeted with a roar: "I am Winston Bloody Churchill!"

The Boers accuse Churchill of breaking his word not to escape. Worse, political enemies at home accused him of abandoning fellow POW's. (Claiming "My conscience is absolutely clear," he later won two libel actions.) In his first post-escape dispatch to the Morning Post, Churchill used his celebrity status to rally the homefront: "Are the gentlemen of England all fox-hunting? ... For the sake of our manhood, our devoted colonists, and our dead soldiers, we must persevere with this war."

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

December 20, 1886 --- A Torrent of Filth

At last, the month-long Campbell v. Campbell divorce action comes to an end.  The Times called it "an unsurpassably offensive business."  The beautiful Lady Gertrude Campbell had charged her husband with cruelty and adultery. Lord Colin, eldest son and heir of the Duke of Argyll, countered by claiming that his wife had taken no fewer than four lovers, including the 8th Duke of Marlborough and Captain Shaw, the heroic commander of the London Fire Brigade.

For four weeks, the public had revelled in the sordid details of life at 79 Cadogan Place. Lady Gertrude testified that upon her wedding day she was informed that due to her husband's health, the marriage could not be immediately consummated.  He claimed it was fistula; but she learned that Lord Colin's "specific complaint" was syphillis. Although he professed to have been cured, he soon infected his wife and all physical relations between the two ended.

The charges and countercharges of infidelity seemed unending.  Lady Campbell said her husband had slept with men and had also raped a servant girl. That young lady, however, was found to be virgo intacta and Lady Gertrude's credibility suffered. The lawyers for Lord Colin detailed her Ladyship's numerous gentleman callers.  The most frequent visitor was Marlborough, a notorious philanderer and divorced from his wife.  The jury was informed that Lady Campbell's doctor, Thomas Bird, was found asleep in her bed, though the wags quipped that it would have been worse had he been found awake!  A servant testified to peering through the drawing room keyhole to see Lady Campbell and Capt. Shaw in flagrante delicto on the floor.   The jury was actually taken to Cadogan Place to peer through said keyhole.  Lady Campbell's lawyers pointed out that a key in the lock would have frustrated any peeping toms.  In the end, Lady Gertrude put up the unique defense that she simply did not have the time for adultery, between her social obligations and her charity work in Stepney.

After all this, the jury dismissed both petitions. The Spectator described the trial as a "torrent of filth [with] no result except to vitiate still more the already vitiated atmosphere of society." Lord Colin drifted off to India and an early death. Lady Gertrude never remarried, her beauty captured by Boldini in a painting (left) done ten years after the trial, which now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery. A portrait of her nude by Whistler was destroyed by the artist's wife. When Marlborough died suddenly in 1892, he left her £20,000 (roughly her court costs) "as proof of my friendship and esteem."

Monday, December 19, 2011

December 19, 1843 --- A Christmas Carol

Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol is published to immediate acclaim and frantic sales.

Dickens came up with the idea for his holiday tale while on a visit to the great mill city of Manchester earlier that year.  There, he was struck once again by the poverty amidst the affluence.  It took Dickens but six weeks to pen the tale of the redemption of Mr. Scrooge, "a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner!" Still, he had not completed the writing until early December, requiring a heroic rush to publish in time for the holiday.

Dickens oversaw all the publishing details; A Christmas Carol appears in an elaborate, illustrated, gilt-edged volume and first day sales - at a modest five shillings - are a remarkable 6,000; 15,000 were sold by Christmas Eve. Exhausted by the effort, Dickens "broke out like a MADMAN." The effort is worth it. Thackeray exulted: "It seems to me a national benefit and to every man or woman who reads it a personal kindness."

For Dickens, however, it brought little happiness or money. The story is promptly plagiarized; "Parley's Illuminated Library" came out with a ten-penny edition, "re-originated from the original." In early January, Dickens sued and quickly won an injunction. "The pirates are beaten flat," he cried. In the end, however, his adversaries would just file bankruptcy leaving the author with nothing but huge legal bills. Presaging the gloom of Bleak House, he wrote: "It is better to suffer a great wrong than to have recourse to the much greater wrong of the law."

Dickens soon feuded with the publishers (Chapman & Hall) over the final bills for the fancy printing. Sounding a bit like Scrooge himself, he fussed: "What a wonderful thing it is, that such a great success should occasion me such intolerable anxiety and disappointment."  Dickens was in a bit of a money crisis; his last novel, Martin Chuzzlewit had also failed to meet expectations.  Firing his publisher, Dickens decided it would be cheaper to live abroad and took his pregnant wife and family into Italian exile, remaining there until the spring of 1845: "I am not afraid, if I reduce my expenses; but if I do not, I shall be ruined past all mortal hope of redemption."

Illustration from

Sunday, December 18, 2011

December 18, 1899 --- A Child's Murder

A London jury convicts Louise Masset of the murder of her 3-year-old illegitimate son. She will hang.

Louise was 36, French-born, and earned her living giving lessons in her native tongue to "children in respectable homes." She lived in Stoke Newington with a sister. 

In October, the body of a boy had been found in the ladies room at Dalston Junction on the North London Railway. Police believed he had been first struck with a brick and, while stunned, suffocated. His clothes, bearing any tell-tale laundry marks, were removed and the body had been left naked beneath a shawl.  The horrible discovery received great attention in the press and a woman came forward to identify the child.  Helen Gentle, who lived in Tottenham, said she had been foster-mother to Manfred Masset but only a few days before she had returned the child to his mother.  Louise Masset had told her she was taking the child to his father in France.

Manfred's clothes and some of his toys were found in a dustbin at the Brighton rail station. Police soon learned that Masset had been in Brighton that very weekend, on a holiday with her new young man. Investigators also determined that the brick used to strike the child - while common enough - was the same paver used in the backyard at Stoke Newington. Louise told her sister, "I am being hunted for murder but I have not done it."

At her trial, the Crown argued that Louise, hoping to at last be married, found that Manfred was an embarrassing nuisance. In her defense, Louise offered a tale of two women from Chelsea, who were struck by little Manfred's beauty and offered to raise him for £12 a year.  That was considerably less than the Tottenham charges. Louise suggested that the Chelsea ladies simply took the advance payment and slew the boy. The prosecution scoffed and the jury hardly blinked. At the verdict, Louise cries, "I am quite innocent."

The Times - noting the clumsiness of the crime - concluded, "It is next to impossible to follow the workings of a feminine mind of the criminal type." Queen Victoria received a letter on behalf of dozens of Parisian governesses: "[We] ask a great Queen, who was always a perfect mother, to have pity for the unworthy mother who killed her child."

There was no respite; Louise Masset was hanged on 9 January 1900. Her last words: "What I suffer is just."

Sketch from the Penny Illustrated Paper

Saturday, December 17, 2011

December 17, 1869 --- The Welsh Fasting Girl

In the Dyfed village Llanfihangel-ar-arth, 13 year old Sarah Jacob dies at her home.  Sarah was known across Britain as the "Welsh fasting girl," who supposedly hadn't eaten in over two years.

Evan Jacob, a servant with six other children, claimed that Sarah had remained in bed, unfed, since a serious illness in 1867. The family doctors had despaired, "There is no cure but the Great Doctor."' People came from all over to see the bedridden miracle girl, dressed in a bridal gown, sitting up in her bed and reading her Bible. Sarah's bed would be sprinkled with coins and flowers by day's end. A visitor described her as "Undoubtedly very pretty. Her face was plump and her cheeks and lips of a beautful rosy color."

The mighty Lancet, Britain's leading medical journal, condemned the public interest, suggesting that Sarah had been "disordered by religious readings" and censoring her father for "stupidity." The Times sniffed, "The Welsh are just the people among whom a superstitious illusion of this kind might rise." After several months of fasting, sceptics created a "Watchers Committee" made up of the local vicar, a few doctors and four nurses dispatched from Guy's Hospital in London. The child was never left alone; other than an occasional moistening of her lips, Sarah received no food or drink. The watchers watched.  Forced to truly fast, after eight days, she died in delirium.

The outrage is immediate; how could these adults, doctors and nurses stand by and let this little girl die for the sake of some ludicrous experiment? The nurse during Sarah's final hours told an inquest: "Had she asked for food, I would have given her some." Another of the watchers, who was with the child until the last, said she heard her make no admission of deceit. The coroner's jury ruled that death was due to "starvation and negligence... on the part of her father."

Evan Jacob and his wife Hannah (pictured) were convicted of manslaughter; he got a year's hard-labor, she served 6 months. The judge declared, "Although the girl might have been, and probably was, a consenting party to the fraud, parents are bound to supply the wants of their children of tender years." Despite the furor, no members of the "Watchers Committee" faced any criminal charges.

The photographs of Sarah's parents from

Friday, December 16, 2011

December 16, 1897 --- Murder in Maiden Lane

Only thirty minutes before the curtain is to rise on Gillete's "Secret Service" at the Adelphi Theatre, Covent Garden, the star of the play is stabbed to death in Maiden Lane.  William Terriss (left) had been attacked at the stage door, falling to the ground and screaming, "Oh. my God, I am stabbed." Reportedly, he dies in the arms of his mistress and co-star Jessie Millward, whose name is discreetly absent from newspaper accounts of the tragedy.

The attacker is immediately arrested, he makes no bid to flee. He is quickly identified as an unemployed actor known in the West End as the mad Archer." Richard Archer Prince surrenders his long kitchen knife to a constable, sneering at his victim, "He has had due warning. Mr. Terriss would not employ me, and I was determined to be revenged."

For some time, Archer - as he was known in the theatre - had importuned Terriss and others for money. Terriss had helped him repeatedly, until the man grew tiresome and he referred him to the Actor's Benevolent Fund, providing a letter of introduction describing Archer as "a hardworking actor." In reality, he was a supernumerary, an extra.

Terriss' death is tragically true to the melodramatic roles for which he had become one of the best known actors in London. While The Times had written "His fine voice and stately figure were natural advantages which largely made up for the lack of the higher qualities," the ticket-buying public loved him. When they buried "Breezy Bill" in Brompton cemetery, 50,000 people turned out. A floral wreath from the Prince of Wales was one of dozens on the coffin. The period's most famous actor, Sir Henry Irving defied public censure by escorting Miss Millward to the gravesite.

Archer was placed on trial; he plead "Guilty, with great provocation." The jury found that although he knew what he was doing and to whom, he was obviously not responsible for his actions. Declared guilty but insane, Archer spent the last forty years of his life in the madhouse at Broadmoor.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

December 15, 1857 --- Lady Ellesmere's Jewels

Edward Jackson, a London fence, is ordered transported for a term of ten years for his role in the sensational case of Lady Ellesmere's stolen jewels.

In January of 1857, William Atwell and a few mates were lurking about the West End hoping to do the odd bit of pilfering. They soon espied a carriage bearing a noble crest.  They did not know that the carriage was carrying the Countess of Ellesmere who had left her home in St. James's Square and was heading for Paddington Station for a train to Windsor Castle.  To visit Her Majesty, the Countess had packed a small case with her finest jewels.  This case and the rest of her various portmanteaus were tied to the top of the carriage.  Alas, the jewel case was not very well secured and Atwell and his chums simply ran alongside the vehicle and pulled it free. Somehow, the case wasn't even missed until the Countess arrived at the station.

The thieves were rather ignorant of their good fortune and took their booty off to Shoreditch where Jackson was the first to open the locked case. The thieves thought they had swiped an actress' trunk with costume dresses and paste jewelry. Shouted one, "Why, thems are sparks?" Jackson gave them £40 for the lot (the newspapers estimated the value of the stolen stones at £16,000).

Atwell was no dummy; he could read.  The papers were full of the news of the "Great Jewel Robbery."  He read a reward poster offering £500 for the missing case, and he realized he had sold too cheaply. After a heated palaver with Jackson, Atwell received a little more for efforts.  But the thief soon ran afoul of the law for another burglary and, facing a long jail term, he decided to sing. His lengthy confession, in the argot of a street thief, read like something out of Defoe or Fielding. His tale - notes The Annual Register - prompted great amusement "owing to the immeasurable difference between the commercial value of the prize and the ignorant estimation of the brigands."

Alas, very few of the Ellesmere jewels were ever recovered; Jackson had broken up much of the stuff so as to make it more safely hocked, a pair of diamond earrings were even flung into a vacant lot in Whitechapel .  Jackson admitted putting some of the rest down his WC.  Jackson's wife, who knew all about her husband's occupation, was found not guilty. 

The Times suggested that the real villains of the entire affair were Lady Ellesmere's "stupid careless servants" who ought "be made to suffer a suitable penalty."

The portrait is that of the 1st Earl of Ellesmere who died between the day of the theft and the trial.  The jewels were always identified as "being the property of Lord Ellesmere."

December 14, 1861 --- The Death of Prince Albert

The nation is plunged into mourning by the terse announcement: "On Saturday night, the 14th inst., at 10 minutes before 11 o'clock, his Royal Highness the Prince Consort departed this life, at Windsor Castle, to the inexpressible grief of Her Majesty and of all the Royal Family."

Prince Albert was just 42. Never in robust health, he'd been burdened with work and family cares. Although already ill, he had gone to Cambridge to confront the Prince of Wales regarding the Nellie Clifden affair (see 16 November). Back at Windsor Castle, he collapsed with a severe fever on 2 December. His condition steadily worsened until the Royal physicians alerted the nation, "the symptoms have assumed an unfavorable character."  He had seemed to rally and more encouraging bulletins had been issued, all making the news of his death that more shocking.

In their final moments together, Victoria and Albert whisper in German, she asks for and receives "einen Kuss." At his last breath, the Queen kisses Albert's "dear heavenly forehead" and is led away, wailing "Oh! My dear Darling." She wrote her eldest daughter, Victoria, Crown Princess of Prussia, "My life as a happy one is ended."

The cause of death is announced as typhoid fever, but some modern medical detectives suspect stomach cancer. Victoria blamed her eldest son for Albert's illness and didn't want him anywhere his father.  Only a message from his sister brought the  Prince of Wales to the bedside at the last minute. The embittered Queen writes Vicky, "Much as I pity, I never can or shall look at him without a shudder."

Victoria could not bear the funeral, retreating instead to Osborne. Horrified that Albert should be buried near her "wicked uncles" at Windsor, she began planning the construction of the mausoleum at Frogmore. She also ordered that nothing be changed in Albert's room. Lord Clarendon recalled: "Everything was set out on his table ... the pen and blotting-book, his handkerchief on the sofa, fresh flowers in the glass, etc. etc., as I had always been accustomed to see them, and as if he might have come in at any moment."

Today, the 150th anniversary of the Prince's death, the Daily Mail reports a London auction house has obtained a letter written by the Queen two years after her husband's death.  Commiserating with a friend who was about to lose a loved one, Her Majesty wrote of her own loss: "To the poor Queen this blessing so needful to her has been denied and she can only hope never to live to old age but be allowed to rejoin her beloved great and loyal husband before many years elapse."

The Queen survived her husband by nearly forty years.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

December 13, 1867 --- The Fenian Outrage in Clerkenwell

At 3:45 on a Friday afternoon, a tremendous explosion shakes London's Clerkenwell Jail. The blast topples some 200 feet of the jail wall while the concussion and flying debris levels dozens of adjoining tenements in the crowded Corporation Row. It is the first Irish terror attack to hit London. This modern "Gunpowder Plot" is the work of the Fenian band known as the Irish Republican Brotherhood, which hopes to free its jailed leader, Richard Burke.

The blast is timed for the daily exercize period when the inmates would have been out in the yard.  But an informer had tipped off the jailers and all the prisoners are locked in their cells.

Several residents recall seeing a man "dressed something like a gentleman" casually rolling a barrel to the base of the wall.  The man then struck a match to a fuse and dashed away only moments before the barrel, loaded with black powder, exploded. The wall was massive, 25' high by 3' thick, yet a gaping hole was blown clear through it.  The "collateral damage" in the neighborhood is horrible; more than 100 people are badly injured, many of them maimed. The death toll would eventually climb to 30. Many of the victims are children who play along the jail wall.

Condemnation of the bombing is universal; The Times calls it an "unexampled atrocity" planned by men "whose fierce passions. seared consciences make them regardless of human life." Several suspicious loiterers are quickly rounded up but the accused mastermind, Michael Barrett, the man who lit the squib, was run to ground in Glasgow. Returned to London, he was convicted, condemned and became the last man publicly hanged in England in May, 1868.

The Clerkenwell outrage brought the Irish "troubles" to the heart of London. The Illustrated London News hoped the callousness of the plot would shake those who held a "secret sympathy" with the Irish cause: "The instincts of common humanity will prove stronger than the aspirations of national feeling [and] what is due to the brotherhood of man will be held to impose more stringent obligations than what is claimed by any other brotherhood."

The Fenian attacks on London would continue, reaching their peak (in the Victorian period) with a series of bombings in the early 1880's.

Monday, December 12, 2011

December 12, 1864 --- The Great Dublin Scandal

A Dublin courtroom is "crowded to suffocation" for the opening of a libel trial growing out of a vile scandal.

Dr. Sir William Wilde (left) is Ireland's leading oculist.  His son, Oscar, is a boy of nine.  Mary Travers, a former patient of Dr. Wilde's and a doctor's daughter herself, had been spreading the most disgraceful stories.  The word is that she and the doctor had a lengthy affair which he had ended.  In retaliation, she had circulated around Dublin a pamphlet claiming that she had been raped by her doctor, who had disabled her with chloroform. She did not name Dr. Wilde directly, but the figure of "Dr. Quilp, a newly made knight" was unmistakeable. She hired newsboys to pass the pamphlet out during a lecture Dr. Wilde gave at the Y.M.C.A! Her screed concluded, "It is sad to think that in the 19th Century a lady must not venture into a physician's study without a bodyguard."

Dr. Wilde might well ignore Miss Travers - after all, he had fathered three illegitimate children in his day.  [Oscar Wilde had three half-sisters who all died young.]  Lady Wilde, however, was not willing to let the matter pass unchallenged.  Lady Jane Wilde, whose florid verse appeared under the name "Speranza", wrote to Dr. Travers to complain of "the disreputable conduct of your daughter" and warned "No threat of additional insult shall ever extort money from our hands." Incredibly, Miss Travers sued Lady Wilde for libel.

The trial, lasting several days, lives up to its bawdy expectations. Mary describes the alleged rape, recalling how she awakened to find Dr. Wilde babbling, "Spare me, oh, spare me" and offering to pay her way to Australia. Dr. Wilde did not testify. On the stand, Lady Wilde insisted that her husband's philandering was beside the point, "I took no interest in the matter." It was her reputation that she was defending.

After a week's titillation, the jury found that Miss Travers had been libeled by Lady Wilde but awarded her just one farthing. The Wildes were made to pay all the court costs, however, exceeding £2000. Dr. Wilde's medical reputation was badly hurt by the scandal. 

Meanwhile, Dubliners repeated the doggerel:
An eminent oculist lives in the [Merrion] Square.
His skill is unrivaled, his talent is rare,
And if you will listen I will certainly try
To tell how he opened Miss Travers' eye.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

December 11, 1844 --- Not in my Lake District

Writing to the Morning Post from his home at Rydal Mount near Ambleside, the Poet Laureate, William Wordsworth, expresses his dismay over the proposed Kendal and Windermere Railway intruding into his beloved Lake district.

Beyond the smoke and noise of the project, Wordsworth is concerned that the newly-passed "Cheap Trains Act" - requiring third class carriages on all trains - will flood Cumbria with hordes of city dwellers.  He argues that such "imperfectly educated" individuals will not be able to appreciate the beauty and tranquility of the Lake district.  He writes, "There is no benefit to be gained by transferring at once uneducated persons in large bodies to particular spots where the combination of natural objects are such as would afford the greatest pleasure to those who have been in the habit of observing and studying same."

Beyond letter-writing, the overwrought poet penned an ode entitled On the Projected Kendal and Windermere Railway.  The poem begins:

Is then no nook of English ground secure
from rash assault? Schemes of retirement sown
In youth, and 'mid the busy world kept pure
As when their earliest flowers of hope were blown,
Must perish; how can they this blight endure?

He closes plaintively:

Speak, passing winds; ye torrents, with your strong And constant voice, protest against the wrong.

It wasn't particularly good poetry, nor was it successful. One critic derided Mr. Wordsworth for suggesting that the Lakes be set aside as a "game preserve" for poets. In April, 1845, the Board of Trade approved the railway, and without mentioning the poet, concluded: "An argument which goes to depriving the artisan of the offered means of occasionally changing his narrow abode ... for the fresh air and healthful holiday which sends him back to his work refreshed and envigorated . . appears to us to be an argument wholly untenable."

The railway was built. Wordsworth went out to inspect the works regularly; the "navvies," he noted with pleasure, "seem to feel the spirit of the place."

A sketch by Carruthers showing the poet, perhaps, fretting over the approaching Mancunian hordes.

December 10, 1885 --- Cruelty to Pigeons

In London Police court, the Clerk of the Works at the British Museum (Mr. Charles Pulman) is found guilty of having ordered the poisoning of the pigeons which nested by the thousands in the museum portico.

The story broke when an anonymous letter from "A Reader in the British Museum" had appeared in The Times under the headline "Barbarous Cruelty." The correspondent described the stricken birds, staggering about the pavement with their beaks contorted in anguish. In many cases, the poison failed to prove lethal and the sickened birds had to be clubbed to death. The disconsolate writer condemned the attack, "There is no prettier sight in London than to see these tame and trustful creatures fearlessly gathering round the feet of those whose daily amusement it is to feed them."

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals charged that thousands of birds were killed by a "fiendish mixture" of oatmeal, bird seed and wine. William Brightwell, the museum's head gardener, testified that Pulman had ordered that the laced seed be put down to stupefy the birds, making their removal easier. However, wine being too expensive for the scope of the project, Brightwell substituted methyl alcohol, with fatal results.  Though guilty, Pulman's punishment is light - a mere five shilling fine. The presiding judge, while bowing to the RSPCA's "exceedingly creditable" presentation, concludes that the pigeons had become an intolerable nuisance.

Within days, however, the story recaptured the headlines when Pulman sacked the hapless gardener. Brightwell took his case to the mighty Times; with 25 years in Her Majesty's service, he had been dismissed simply for having done his duty "faithfully and truthfully." The paper demanded an explanation, "Surely [Mr. Pulman] must remember the parable of the unmerciful servant." Pulman admitted that the action was "singularly ill-timed," said he said Brightwell's dismissal had been long contemplated. However, public concern for the lowly gardener would not flag and Brightwell was found a new post at the Houses of Parliament.

The Museum's south portico - from

Friday, December 9, 2011

December 9, 1873 --- Outrage at a Seance

An outrageous incident disrupts a London seance with the leading medium of the day.  Florence Cook, a beautiful 17-year old tradesman’s daughter from North London claimed to inhabit the spirit of “Katie,” daughter of Morgan, the legendary pirate “King.”  Her invitation-only séances were not to be missed.  Gentlemen must bring trinkets to entice “Katie” to appear. 

On this evening, with Florence safely locked in her cabinet, the spectral form of “Katie” manifested herself in the dark room.  Suddenly, in violation of all the rules, Herr Volckman leapt from his seat to tackle the “spirit.”  There was a wild struggle, Volckman was subdued, and Katie collapsed to the floor.  The room was cleared and when the lights came back on, Katie was gone, and Florence was there, appearing unwell.  Volckman’s treachery was inexcusable but he announced that it was no ghost he felt in his arms. Florence/Katie’s reputation was badly shaken by what one occult paper called a “Gross Outrage at a Spirit Circle.”

Enter William Crookes.  He was 41, married, and a self-taught chemist who had discovered thallium and was a fellow of the Royal Academy of Science.  After his brother was lost at sea, Crookes turned his interest to the spirit world.  Given his credentials, Crookes was soon established as the “investigator.”  He agreed to determine, once and for all, if Florence and Katie were one and the same person.  To better isolate his subject, he took Florence home with to his laboratory on Mornington Road.  She remained there six months.

Through the magic of his newly invented "spirit lamp," containing phosphorised oil, Crookes claimed he was able measure and photograph both Florence and a co-operative “Katie.”  He declared that Florence and her pirate friend were indeed separate beings, different in height, complexion and hair color.  The Spiritualist, the leading publication for true-believers, hailed the news, saying Crookes had “placed beyond all question” the authenticity of Florence’s powers.
By far, however, the Crookes report was met with bemusement in the secular world, and vicious hostility from the scientific.  Adding to the public’s general merriment and the scientific derision was Crookes detailed accounts of his “physical” contact with "Katie."  He recalled one moment: Feeling, however, that if I had not a spirit, I had at all events a lady close to me, I asked her permission to clasp her in my arms … Permission was graciously given and I accordingly did – well, what any gentleman would do under the circumstances.
While a modern researcher might well call Crookes methodology “highly eroticised but unfailingly respectable,” his contemporaries were less forgiving.  Enemies suggested that the scientist had been seduced by his attractive houseguest, while his wife was confined to bed expecting the couple’s tenth child.  So many rumors circulated that Crookes finally issued a statement: “My good and true wife knows everything about this and quite approves of my conduct.” 

Florence Cook's powers soon faded.  Crookes and his wife lived to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary.  He was knighted in 1897.  In 1907, there were word of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry; but he never got it.  He never retracted any of his spiritualist writings. He died in 1919 having worked well into his 70’s, developing fertilizers, new sewage disposal schemes and inventing the “Crookes lens” for eyeglasses.  All of this, surely, more in the physical, than the psychical, realm.

Photograph at

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

December 8, 1845 --- Curry Soup

Amidst the alarming reports of the failure of the potato crop and the resultant widespread privation across Ireland, the Duke of Norfolk offers a "helpful" suggestion as to how to feed the starving. Curry Soup.

The 12th Duke, one of Britain's leading Catholic peers, rises to speak among the well-fed attendees at the dinner marking the conclusion of the local fat stock show in Steyning in Sussex, near Arundel, the seat of the Norfolks. His Grace proposes bringing into Ireland large quantities of curry powder; curry, he reminds all, is to the Indian masses what the potato is to the Irish. He suggests that a pinch of curry powder in hot water will make a delightfully warming soup.

His Grace confided that in support of his theory he actually went out and bought some curry and boiled up a batch of his proffered potage: "If a man came home wet and cold and had nothing better than warm water, a little of this spice put into it would make him go warmer and more comfortably to bed than he would without it ... I mean to try it among my laborers."  The Duke's proposal rather baffles his audience; his speech is interrupted as much by laughter as by applause. Defensively, he concludes, "I may be ridiculed hereafter for what I say; but as I said before, I don't care what is said, so long as I make the poor comfortable."

Ridicule is a fair summary of the response to the curry idea. The Times predicts that the noble cuisinnier will "go down to posterity with a pinch of curry powder in his hand." The Examiner recommends sarcastically that pepper be substituted, "because there is an idea of luxury in the name of curry, which might startle many frugal minds."

Punch, unusually for its taste, found it most unamusing; "The Duke's idea will offer small relief to those suffering "those distressing symptoms of vacuity which result from living on seven shillings a week." Finally, The Spectator made a very salient dietary point --- the weekly questioned the comparison of a diet reliant on the potato and one based on curry, attacking Norfolk for "entirely overlooking the rice." Fearing the effect of the hot spice on an Irishman's empty stomach, the editor urged, "In the name of charity, my Lord Duke, give the poor devils brandy!"

December 7, 1889 --- The Carpet Quarrel

Another opening; another show for Gilbert & Sullivan.

At the Savoy Theatre, The Gondoliers premieres to universal acclaim. The Globe's critic called it, "One of the best, if not the best." W.S. Gilbert praised Arthur Sullivan's "magnificent" score and Sullivan, in turn, lauded his partner's "individual brilliancy." Yet Gondoliers will mark the beginning of the end for the famous partnership.

The cause of this bitter disagreement became laughingly known (to all but the participants) as "The Great Carpet Quarrel."  Gilbert, an attorney by training and ever-sensitive to slights, real or perceived, erupted on receipt of his first royalty check from Richard D'Oyly Carte, the impressario who had staged their work for almost a decade. From the proceeds of The Gondoliers, D'Oyly Carte has deducted £4500 for "pre-production costs," including £500 for a new lobby carpet. Gilbert argues that a lobby carpet is not covered under their agreement to pay for "repairs incidental to the performance." After storming out of his meeting with D'Oyly Carte, Gilbert writes to Sullivan: "I left him with the remark that it was a mistake to kick down the ladder by which he had risen - a sentiment which I hope will meet with your approval."

But Sullivan sided with D'Oyly Carte. Calling both gentlemen "blackguards," Gilbert severed relations with Sullivan: "The time for putting an end to our collaboration has at last arrived. After the withdrawal of Gondoliers, our united work will be heard in public no more."

In the end, D'Oyly Carte - flushed by the show's profits - agreed to refund £1000. Having won his point, Gilbert sought a reconciliation. Sullivan was receptive, "I am physically and mentally ill over this wretched business. I have not yet got over the shock of seeing our names coupled not in brilliant collaboration over a work destined for world-wide celebration, but in hostile antagonism over a few miserable pounds."

The partnership, however, already strained by diverging ideas on music, had sustained an irreparable blow. Subsequent efforts are not their best. In 1897, at a benefit performance of The Sorcerer, the two bowed coldly without speaking and never met again.

Sketch from

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

December 6, 1879 --- The Disappearing Duke

The 5th Duke of Portland is dead at the age of 80. In magnificent understatement, the published obituary reports that "in his later years, he became somewhat of a recluse."  To be sure, the locals called him "the disappearing Duke," and that was the title of a 2003 biography by Keel and Crofts.

William Cavendish Scott Bentinck succeeded to the title in his early 50's.  He never married and spent the rest of his life and much of his fortune (estimates range as a high as £3,000,000!) on a network of underground rooms and tunnels at the family's country seat at Welbeck Abbey. A great subterranean hall, some 160' long by 65' wide, was carved out to house his art gallery. He built vast stables and an arena for riding, below ground.

Despite the expense, "He kept no company and gave no entertainments on any occasion." Lady Ottoline Morrell wrote: "The poor deluded owner seemed to assert his power and pride in making all the buildings as large and lonely as possible, banishing grace and beauty and human love and companionship, and leaving his fellow-beings in order to live in tunnels."  

A tunnel, a mile long and wide enough for two carriages, linked the Abbey to Worksop station. If called to London, the Duke boarded his curtained wagonette which was driven to the station and placed upon a special rail car. No one saw him. Servants and workmen on the estate were told to "pass him as they would a tree." People were sacked for as much as touch of the cap. In London, his home in Cavendish Square was surrounded by a 60-foot screen of glass and stone, which nettled his neighbors.

Rumored to be disfigured, even a leper, the Duke was instead rather a handsome man of peculiarly old-fashioned dress. As one would expect, his funeral was private; he had left instructions that the expense was to be as small as possible consistent with decency. A cousin becomes the 6th Duke yet mystery would surround the succession. In 1898, a Mrs. Druce filed a claim that her late husband was the Duke's son, born to an illegitimate daughter of an Earl, whom the Duke had secretly wed.  This claimant, now in Australia, was the true 6th Duke. Mrs. Druce insisted that old Duke had led a double life, posing as Tom Druce, who managed the warren-like Baker St. Bazaar. When His Grace tired of the ruse, he staged old Tom's death, complete with a weighted coffin to be buried at Highgate.

Even in fading memory, the 5th Duke was so legendary the unusual tale seemed plausible. After years of wrangling, Druce's coffin was dug up and experts proclaimed that the body inside was that of Tom Druce. The claim collapsed and the proponents - those that hadn't fled, were charged with perjury. The 6th Duke found Welbeck Abbey unbearable and sold it to the Army which finds use for it to this day.

Monday, December 5, 2011

December 5, 1881 --- A Barmaid's Suicide

Emma Cummins, a one time barmaid at London's famous Criterion Restaurant at Piccadilly Circus, is found dead in her rooms near Hyde Park. The verdict was suicide, she had taken some phosphor.  A note left behind implicates Lt. Henry Ponsonby, a decorated naval officer and scion of one of England's finest families.  The note concluded, "If this will be a warning to anyone who is likely to be tempted I shall not have died in vain .. Don't spare him for as sure as I am writing this, he has killed me."

Lt. Ponsonby at first denied any involvement with the dead woman. When summoned to appear at her inquest, however, he confessed to a "very slight" acquaintance. He admitted renting the flat where she died; he said it was a temporary arrangement.  Their relationship had ended as "we did not get on very well together."  When he asked her to move out, she got angry and vowed she would ruin him. Friends of the dead woman said Emma had told them that Ponsonby had promised to provide her with £25 a month.  Instead, he sent her away with £10 and a venereal disease. It should be noted that Ponsonby's doctors testified that the officer had a clean bill of health.

Regardless, the coroner's jury quickly affirmed the police ruling of suicide and the foreman - citing their "intense feelings of disgust and abhorrence" - added "Lt. Ponsonby, although not legally, is morally responsible in causing the death of the said deceased. And, further, he is deserving of the severest censure."
The coroner administered nothing more than a finger-wagging "Let this be a lesson to you" lecture, which the officer heard with "dignified submission."

The public's verdict, however, was much more severe. A 30-man police escort was required to lead Ponsonby through an unruly crowd that was compared to an American "lynch mob." Ponsonby was soon stricken from the rolls of Her Majesty's Navy. His wife divorced him. 

The Times, deploring the entire case, found fault with the increasingly popular "bars," such as the Criterion, with their "perpetual half-flirtation." The paper warned other barmaids: "Girls who suffer themselves to be led away have no right to expect constancy on the man's part ... It is, so to say, a recognized part of the game."

Photo from

Sunday, December 4, 2011

December 4, 1884 --- The Mignonette

In extraordinary proceedings before the Court of the Queen's Bench in London, the captain and first mate of the yacht, Mignonette, are convicted and sentenced to hang in perhaps the most famous case of murder and cannibalism on the high seas.

The Mignonette had left Southampton in May, bound for Australia, but in July the yacht foundered and sank in the South Atlantic. After nineteen days adrift in a dinghy, the four man crew had exhausted all fresh water and food. Captain Tom Dudley, an experienced yachtsman, approached crewmen Edmund Brooks and Edwin Stephens with the idea of killing the fourth, Richard Parker.  The 17-year old Parker was comatose from having drunk sea water. A pen-knife to the jugular served, and the men then drank Parker's blood, ate the heart and liver, and nibbled on "left-overs."

Within days of "the 'orrid deed" the three survivors were picked up by a passing barque and brought to Falmouth. They kept no secrets from the local magistrates and "the Terrible Tale of the Sea" was soon known across England. The men were first to be tried at the assizes in Exeter but owing to the legal issues raised, the case had been moved to London before the Lord Chief Justice.  The prosecution relied on the evidence of Brooks who had turned reluctant witness, insisting he had nothing to do with Parker's murder.  He admitted, however, he had dined with the others. 

Dudley and Stephens now face the noose. Lord Chief Justice Coleridge, in pronouncing sentence, declares: "The duty of a captain to his crew [imposes] on men the moral necessity, not of the preservation, but of the sacrifice of their lives for others, from which in no country, least of all, it is to be hoped, in England, will men ever shrink."  The power of the law re-affirmed, few objected when Home Secretary Sir William Harcourt commuted the sentences to six months imprisonment, not at hard labor.

The Standard wrote, Dudley and Stephens "are men deeply to be pitied, scarcely to be censured," while The Saturday Review reminded its readers: "The depositories of power must hold fast to principles without which the earth would indeed be full of darkness and cruel habitations."

Sketch from The Graphic

Saturday, December 3, 2011

December 3, 1840 --- "The Boy Jones"

At about 1:00 am, a cheeky lad is discovered hiding beneath a sofa in the Queen's dressing-room in Buckingham Palace.

Edmund (Edward, it varies) Jones is a 17-year old tailor's son who had been found on the Palace grounds two years before. Dismissed then as a harmless prankster, the boy was freed with a simple warning. This visit, in which he gained access to the Queen's private rooms, cannot be laughed off. Her Majesty, awakened by the commotion, is greatly upset.  The palace doctors note "symptoms of other than a satisfactory character" beset their Royal patient, who is expecting her first child.

"The Boy" Jones is called before the Privy Council that very afternoon. He admits having jumped the wall along Constitution Hill and then enetred the palace through an open window. For two nights, until he was found by a Palace page, Jones had the run of the place. He claims to have sat on the very throne of England. Sleeping beneath beds and sofas by day, he prowled the kitchens by night. Asked why he did it, Jones says "I want to know how they live at the Palace, I am desirous of knowing the habits of the people," and he suggests he might one day write a book.

The Press demands the boy be severely dealt with and that security at the Palace be intensified before a more dangerous intruder enters the precincts. Jones gets three months in jail, with required time on the treadmill. Yet within days of his release the following March, he was once again found in the Palace. Exasperated, the Privy Council then orders an additional three months at hard labor, followed by impressment into the Royal Navy. The last trace of the "Boy Jones" came at his discharge, in Malta, in 1847.

The incidents provided evidence for needed improvements at the Palace which Prince Albert called "a disgrace to the Sovereign and the nation." Parliament approved funds for modernization and refurbishment of the Palace. Among the additions, the now famous balcony facing the Mall, first used to acknowledge the cheering crowds drawn to London for the opening of the Great Exhibition in 1851.

Sketch from Jan Bondeson. Queen Victoria's Stalker: The Strange Story of the Boy Jones. Amberley, 2010.

Friday, December 2, 2011

December 2, 1842 --- Murder on the High Seas

The chief mate and four seamen aboard the East India Company's Clydesdale are charged with killing the ship's cook.  The barque, had just docked at Liverpool, home from Bombay. 

The victim was Philip Keal, a "colored" man, actually Jamaica-born. Only a few days out from port, Keal had taken to his berth, complaining of stomach cramps. The first mate, John Bowman Reynolds, went below and ordered Keal to make breakfast. Keal refused. According to the testimony of another colored sailor, Reynolds then said, "You skulking ------, I'll send down some tackle and bouse you up." Assisted by the others, Reynolds lowered a rope into Keal's cabin and with a noose around the sick man's neck hauled him up to the deck. There, wearing only a shirt, drawers and socks, Keal was left "in a stagnant state" exposed to November sea conditions in the north Atlantic. The ship's captain came upon the scene and ordered Keal taken below; but by then, the poor man was dead.

The case had caused "a considerable sensation" in the port city and a large crowd attends the inquest. The coroner concludes that "with little doubt, death is due to suffocation." There is widespread outrage at the conduct of the seamen; The Illustrated London News is sorry to report, "all of whom are white men, and, we regret, for the sake of our country and of humanity... natives of England."

The accused are brought to London and tried at the Old Bailey for "murder on the high seas."  On the opening day of the trial, however, the men are ordered freed. The indictment had specifically charged them with causing the cook's death by strangulation or suffocation. Yet, the coroner admits that Keal's death might have been caused by exposure or even by the poor man's constipation - the source of his pre-existing stomach pains - which, in the doctor's opinion - might have produced "congestion of the brain." Baron Alderson, presiding, said it was "regrettable" but he had no alternative but to dismiss the charges. He did lecture the men, saying that their conduct had been "extremely bad... for which they ought to be sorry for the rest of their lives."

The slipshod handling of the case is a scandal. The Times demanded action, noting that there are 10,000 ships flying the British flag around the world: "We are bound to see that each one of these, in her longest and
most distant separation from the shores of her mother country, shall ever feel the presence within her of English law."

Joseph Heard's Port of Liverpool, painted a year later (1843)

Thursday, December 1, 2011

December 1, 1893 --- To Reichenbach Falls

The readers of the December issue of The Strand Magazine are little prepared for the monthly offering from a favorite regular contributor, John H. Watson M.D.  The doctor writes: "It is with a heavy heart that I take up my pen to write these the last words in which I shall ever record the singular gifts by which my friend Mr. Sherlock Holmes was distinguished."

Thus begins "The Final Problem," the somber tale of the great detective's fateful meeting with Professor Moriarty, "the Napoleon of crime." Above Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland, a fearsome struggle ended with the two men plunging to their deaths. Watson concluded sorrowfully: "There, deep down in that dreadful cauldron of swirling water and seething foam, will lie for all time the most dangerous criminal and the foremost champion of the law of their generation."

Grief-stricken is not too strong a term to describe the reaction among those who had followed the detective's exploits since he first appeared in "A Study in Scarlet" in Beeton's Christmas Annual for 1887. The literary world had seen nothing like it since Dickens killed off Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop.  Angry letters, and a few threatening ones, filled the postbox at the Strand's offices. Black armbands enjoyed a vogue. "Keep Holmes Alive" clubs were formed.

The author of the Holmes tales, Arthur Conan Doyle, is in Switzerland with his TB-stricken wife, out of reach of his outraged readers. In his memoirs, he recalled growing tired of the detective story, regarding it as "a lower stratum of literary achievement." Visiting Reichenbach with his wife, he mused: "A terrible place, and one that I thought would make a worthy tomb for poor Sherlock, even if I buried my banking account along with him."

Conan Doyle would find success in other genres elusive and pecuniarily disappointing; few then and fewer today read, for instance, The Tragedy of the Korosko. Sherlock Holmes reappeared in 1901 in "The Hound of the Baskervilles," an instant best-seller. In 1904, "The Empty House" opened the long-awaited collection, The Return of Sherlock Holmes. Doyle wrote: "Fortunately no coroner had pronounced upon the remains, and so, after a long interval, it was not difficult for me to respond to the flattering demand and to explain my rash act away. I have never regretted it."

Sketch from The Strand, captioned "The Death of Sherlock Holmes."