July 2016

The true-crime writer, a different kind of sleuth

Behind the Book by
My fascination with the story of The Wicked Boy began when I read a newspaper report from July 1895 about a horrific murder in East London. The body of a 37-year-old woman had been found rotting in the front bedroom of a small terraced house while her two sons, aged 12 and 13, played cards in a room downstairs.
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My fascination with the story of The Wicked Boy began when I read a newspaper report from July 1895 about a horrific murder in East London. The body of a 37-year-old woman had been found rotting in the front bedroom of a small terraced house while her two sons, aged 12 and 13, played cards in a room downstairs.

When confronted by the police, the older boy, Robert, immediately confessed to having stabbed Emily Coombes to death 10 days earlier. He said that he and his brother, Nattie, had plotted together to kill her. Both were charged with murder and remanded in jail.

Intrigued by why the boys had killed their mother, I decided to seek out more information about the crime. There were scores of newspapers published in England in the mid-1890s, many of them digitized and easy to search, and their richly detailed reports helped me chart the movements of the brothers in the days before and after their mother’s death. Then I started to look further afield. 

Almost as soon as I began searching online, I found a digitized transcript of Robert’s trial for murder at the Old Bailey. (Nattie had been discharged so that he could testify against his brother.) The transcript gave me a wealth of leads: names of the boys’ neighbors, relatives, schoolteachers, employers; the pawnbrokers with whom they pledged goods; the owner of a coffeehouse at which they dined; the shopkeeper who sold Robert the murder weapon. It also supplied details of the mental instability in the family—Robert’s as well as his mother’s.

At the National Archives in Kew, southwest London, I found transcripts of the witness statements and the documents submitted in evidence at the trial. Among them was a letter in which Robert tried to scam money from a cashier at the London docks; a letter in which he tried to persuade his father, who had sailed to New York, to send money home; and a letter from Emily Coombes to her husband, written on the day before her death. This last note gave me my first direct glimpse of the victim of the murder, not just as the object of her son’s violence but as a loving, protective, agitated woman.

I visited the working-class East London street on which the family had lived. Their house had been demolished, but most of the buildings in the terrace were still standing. Directly opposite was the brick wall of a school playground, with the word “BOYS” inscribed by the entrance arch. Robert had graduated from this school just a few weeks before the murder. He had been a star pupil, a clever and musical boy much praised by his teachers, but after graduating he had faced a lifetime of grinding labor in a shipbuilding ironworks on the Thames. I walked from the schoolyard to the site of the shipyard by the docks.

Some commentators argued that Robert had been inspired to murder by the “penny dreadful” stories that had been found in his house. I tracked down as many as I could of the titles identified in court, many of them reprints of American dime novels. It was astonishing to sit in the British Library reading the very stories that Robert had read, and to imagine the fantasies that they fed: of wealth and glory, adventure and escape.

At the Old Bailey, Robert was found “guilty but insane” and sent indefinitely to an asylum for criminal lunatics. I learned from the asylum records that he had been discharged 17 years later, at the age of 30. At first, I could find no trace of his life after this, but eventually, on a website about Australian cemeteries, I came across a photograph of his gravestone in New South Wales. The stone bears a plaque inscribed with his name, his date of death and his military rank and number. By checking these against First World War records, I learned that he had served with honor at Gallipoli. 

My only clue to what became of Robert after the war was a phrase on the gravestone: “Always remembered by Harry Mulville & family.” I traced the Mulville family through the New South Wales telephone directory, and then traveled to Australia to meet Harry Mulville’s youngest daughter. Thanks to her, I was able to learn the ending of Robert Coombes’ story. Though he seems never to have spoken about the murder to those he knew in Australia, in 1930 he performed an act that could be understood both as an atonement and as a kind of explanation of his crime.

English writer and journalist Kate Summerscale, formerly the literary editor of the Daily Telegraph, transforms odd and fascinating history into thrilling, award-winning narratives, from the social timeline of marriage to gripping true-crime tales. In The Wicked Boy, Summerscale exhumes the details of a fascinating Victorian-era murder mystery. Essay text © 2016 Kate Summerscale.

This article was originally published in the July 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

It’s Private Eye July at BookPage! All month long, we’re celebrating the sinister side of fiction with the year’s best crime stories. Look for the Private Eye July magnifying glass for a daily dose of murder, espionage and all those creepy neighbors with even creepier secrets.

Kate Summerscale

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The Wicked Boy

The Wicked Boy

By Kate Summerscale
Penguin Press
ISBN 9781594205781

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