Pretty Jane and the Viper of Kidbrooke Lane by Paul Thomas Murphy

Pretty Jane and the Viper of Kidbrooke Lane: A True Story of Victorian Law and Disorder: The Unsolved Murder that Shocked Victorian England by Paul Thomas Murphy (Pegasus Crime, 2016) 270 pages


I love books like this, for some reason (and it has two colons in the title!). The notion of an unsolved mystery, even one where we are 99.99% sure who did it, intrigue me. I still hope I live long enough to find out who that Zodiac killer was in San Francisco, although I am sure he was a frustrated engineer or professor who killed only while in the area on business (which makes it hard to find a local to pin it all on). But I certainly don’t think the theory put forth by Trump followers that Zodiac was Ted Cruz is feasible, given their ages. 🙂

Moreover, although I am the most squeamish of people when it comes to visual depictions (or real ones) of blood or gore, I can read accounts of the most horrid events without blinking. And the crime in Pretty Jane is lurid enough to satisfy the most blood-thirsty reader.

This event preceded the much more famous Jack the Ripper murders by more than 15 years. In 1871, the city of London included districts in the southeast (past the grounds of the Greenwich Observatory and Blackheath) that were little more than muddy lanes running along ditches and rows of trees and bushes. And along one of these muddy cow traces on the way to Well Hall Farm and Shooters Hill before dawn on a Tuesday in late April, PC (Police Constable) Donald Gunn came across a woman sprawled in the road, her face bashed in so badly that her brain was exposed (p. 3).

Yet the woman, dressed in the “going out clothes” of a humble Victorian servant known as a “maid-of-all-work,” still lived and stretched out a hand to PC Gunn. Horrified, he ran to get help and, by the time he returned, the woman had slipped (thankfully) into a coma. She survived in a local hospital, against all odds, until that Sunday, when she died, her identity still unknown. An autopsy revealed that the woman was two months pregnant, suggesting a motive for the crime (p. 24).

As the police scrambled to find missing young women in the area, the site of the murder became a place of pilgrimage. The working poor of the area, and there were many, came to honor one of their own (p. 22). This show of support became a constant throughout the investigation and trial, and the book includes a picture, facing page 133, of the monument erected at the site of the victim’s grave.

Later that Sunday, a woman whose niece had gone missing provided the clues needed to identify the victim. She was Jane Maria Clouson, age 16, a servant at the home of Ebenezer Pook, a well-known printer in Greenwich. Detectives focused on his son Edmund, age 20, a quiet young man who suffered from epilepsy and blamed a fall for the blood stains the detectives found on his clothes. Unimpressed, the police arrested him, based on the added testimony of Jane’s family that Edmund had promised to marry Jane and had arranged to meet her that Monday night so they could run away together.

The police even managed to find the murder weapon, discarded on the grounds of Morden College, located between the scene of the crime and Edmund’s house. The weapon was a plasterer’s hammer, an odd tool with a hammerhead on one side for hammering nails and an ax blade on the other side for scraping away plaster from a wall. The police even found a shopkeeper nearby who had sold one only the week before the murder to a man who could have been Edmund.

It looked like a justified arrest and a solid case to bring to trial. But from that point on, things went quickly downhill for the prosecution. Ebenezer Pook has the wisdom or the good fortune to hire as his son’s lawyer a man named Henry Pook (no relation), a bulldog of an attorney who bombarded everyone involved with threats of lawsuits for slander and libel and often followed through. By the time the trial began later that year, lawyer Pook had managed to make Edmund seem to be the victim of a grasping young girl – and a not-so-good-looking one at that – who had set out to trap a husband from the first day of her employment.

In fact, the Pooks had to recently let Jane go. Why? The police wanted to know. Because, said Edmund, Jane was a “dirty girl,” a comment that could be read in as many ways then as it would be today.

I don’t think I need to tell you how this rich versus poor story turned out. Jane could no longer speak in her defense, and witnesses melted under lawyer Pook’s withering cross-examination. Edmund Pook lived out his otherwise dull life and died in 1920. Jane has the better memorial on her grave.

If you want to read this book – and I hope you do – you might consider reading it after you read about a murder that happened in England in 1860, at a place west of London called, oddly, Road. Together, the Road murder and this book show how early detectives struggled to fight for justice in the face of well-off families who could afford lawyers to fight off claims of wrong-doing among the upper-classes. How much have things changed, really?

There’s another reason I’m glad I’m talking about this book and crime and justice.

For a week and a half, from May 9 until May 17, I was part of the jury pool at Superior Court in downtown Phoenix. So, starting at 7:30 on Monday morning, fully 500 of us sat in a room and waited to be called upstairs for jury selection for one of the trials starting up that week. Most were simple, 3-day affairs with selection, trial, and decision rendered in the same week (yes, he did cause the accident). This is good, because there is no testimony for a jury on Fridays (that’s reserved for motions and lawyer-judge conferences). And if they don’t use you, you get sent home and excused for 18 months.

I lasted until about 3:30 PM that Monday. At first I was happy not to be called in the groups of 65, then I was wondering “what’s wrong with me?” Then they called 200 (!) of us to fill out a questionnaire that had more than 80 questions and we weren’t supposed to talk about until our involvement ended. We were “admonished” not to speak even to each other about the trial were being considered for, lest we poison the other jurors with our biases (the case involved the sexual abuse of children under the age of 10). So I ended up as prospective juror #126 for this case, which was expected to last for 20 trial days, or 4-6 weeks. Half of the people said they couldn’t possibly stay on a jury until the end of June, and the judge let them all go, on their word (“I have un-refundable plane tickets next month, Your Honor”).

The rest of us got to sit while we were interviewed, in numerical order, to find a smaller pool of 30, out of which would come the jury of 16 (12 and 4 alternates, but in Arizona, you don’t know the alternates until the trial is over). The first day, they interviewed 24 of us, and not all numbers were included due to the earlier dismissals.

Sitting and talking was boring, but with just enough distractions to prevent you from doing anything meaningful, including work, reading, or even playing stupid games. They got the 30 (actually, 29) they needed at #115, so I escaped by a mere 6 people. Considering it took almost two weeks to pick a jury, I’m kind glad I didn’t get roped into this for 4-6 weeks more.

I wonder if I should write more about my jury experience or not. (The case, if you want to follow it, is the Chris Simcox case in Arizona. I actually formed an opinion about his guilt or innocence, just based on my gut feeling when I looked into his eyes – and that look was across the room. I was surprised at the feeling, and a bit thrown off by it, so I won’t tell you what it was.)

The China Mirage by James Bradley

The China Mirage by James Bradley (Little,Brown, 2015), 417 pages

TCM Bradley

I love books like this, the kind that take something you learned in high school (“Mao took over China and chased those others guys to Taiwan or Formosa or whatever…”) and expand on it until you realize that you really knew nothing about it at all. I knew it would be good because I had read Bradley’s The Imperial Cruise about how Teddy Roosevelt more or less gave Asia to Japan because Teddy thought the Western-suit-wearing  Japanese much more enlightened than the dress-wearing, pigtailed, opium-addicted “Chinks.”

The book starts with the opium trade and how way too many East Coast rich-folks families got their money in China in the 1800s thanks to the opium trade. Grown in India, the sale of opium in China (page 17) helped to address the flow of Western wealth to China as Europeans and Americans grew to love tea and silks and other products, while the Chinese mainly shrugged at the goods the “sea barbarians” offered for sale.

Americans, including Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s grandfather Warren Delano (page 19), made their way to the few places in China like Canton where foreigners were allowed to live and trade, relying on local corruption to smuggle opium past the emperor’s guards and sell it to peasants. Once their fortunes were made, $100,000 being the minimum “competence” profit made before age thirty, they returned to American and invested the funds in railroads or other legitimate business ventures. FDR’s granddad had the misfortune to lose his million or so and had to return to the dirty business of the “China trade” to make another million. Fortunately, the Opium Wars (pages 25 and 32) made it safe for outsiders to encourage drug use among the Chinese without worry.

Where Americans traders went, in Africa or Asia, missionaries followed. Most of them were restricted to the enclaves where foreigners lived a Western lifestyle in Western houses and strolled Western streets. Their converts—what few there were—consisted mainly of servants living among them (many of them placed there to keep an eye on the suspicious foreigners).

This set the stage for the China mirage, which is this: missionaries in China, mainly from America (although Lawrence of Arabia’s mom was there as well), sent home dispatches playing up their conversion success and representing everyday Chinese as eager to Westernize/Americanize and trade the Emperor and Mandate of Heaven for modern town-hall democracy. The missionaries did this mainly to raise money, and in this they were spectacularly successful.  But, as Bradley details, the truth was very different.

On page 21, Bradley outlines the way that raw Chinese culture appeared to Americans like Delano. In China, honored guests sat on the host’s left and ate food from bowls with chopsticks as they drank warm wine. Incomprehensible letters ran from up to down and right to left. They put family names first, let servants walk before them instead of trailing, and their compasses pointed south. Perversely, the men wore gowns and the women wore the pants in the family.

However, China’s culture, as mature as any in the world, could match Western culture point-for-point, technology-for-technology, writer-for-writer, artist-for-artist, right down the line. Not many Chinese were going to buy into America’s and Europe’s posture of superiority, not when things like gunpowder and spaghetti and paper had started there and then looped around and returned as great innovations. Especially when their big breakthrough (Christianity) playing up original sin and the need for saving. Most Chinese could not grasp what was sinful about living why a foreigner had to save them (page 40).

The missionaries, instead of converting whole tribes as they did in Africa, had to admit that they had little to no success in China. Reverend Sydenstricker, who went to China with Henry Luce, the father of Time magazine’s founder, admitted he had made only 10 converts in 10 years (page 41).

The book moves on the detail the rise of the “China Lobby” in the United States, a group of well-meaning Americans, many of whom had been born in China of missionary parents, who felt that China just needed one more little thing, such as more Bibles, to convert the whole nation into good members of a democracy and consumers of American goods. A man named Charlie Soong (note the Americanized name) came to America as a laborer and ended up at Duke University, where the young entrepreneur convinced missionaries that it would be more efficient to print the Bibles in China instead of shipping them over from the US (page 87). Most of the money went right into Soong’s pocket.

The bulk of the book follows the Soong family as he and his daughters form alliances and marriages with Sun Yat-Sen and Chiang Kai-Shek, and even Mao Zedong. One of the great missed chances in history concerns America’s WW II backing of the (barely) Christianized Chiang Kai-Shek and his wife, Soong Mai-Ling, instead of the more well-liked Mao. While Chiang’s “locust army” always needed $100 million more to fight the invading Japanese (money spent futilely chasing Mao), Mao was busy gaining the trust of the peasants (their landlords backed Chiang) and inflicting losses on the Japanese with next to nothing.

Bradley makes another point few authors do: the Japanese did not view the attack on Pearl Harbor as a sneaky surprise. Americans in Chinese service with the “Flying Tigers” had been attacking Japanese for years, according to them, and the oil embargo in late 1941 (done without FDR’s consent) was seen as the last straw. Pearl Harbor was a side show for the real Japanese target: the oil in the Dutch East Indies (page 286). There’s lots more, but I’ve run of room. ..

You know, it’s Mother’s Day (Bradley dedicates this book to him mom), so I look back at how many things my mother told me that I took as gospel as a child. She loved FDR and told me that if he had lived to be 100, the people of American would have voted him president as long as he liked. I’m not sure about that, because Churchill did and they got rid of him quick enough once he had won the war. In any case, I will never forget Madame Chiang Kai-Shek (Soong Mai-ling) for two reasons. First, she lived to the age of 105 (1898-2003), and second, my mother thought she was a nasty, evil woman (she brought her own silk sheets to the White House). And my mother told me solemnly that Generalissimo Chiang guy wasn’t any better (Churchill and Truman both called him “General Cash My Check”: page 306 and 336). In fairness, mom considered Mao Zedong (Tse-Tung back then) a dog-eating murderer.

Although the book goes up to the end of the Vietnam War (it used to be Viet Nam, remember?), the bulk of it takes place from about 1900 to the end of World War II. (Oddly, the Boxer Rebellion, when the Chinese tried to drive out the “foreign devils” once and for all, is barely mentioned on two pages: 65 and 93.) The Korean War breaks out on page 346 and Vietnam on 357 (the main narrative ends on page 371).

That said, there are plenty of books on the details of Korea and Vietnam. Bradley’s point is that once Joe McCarthy started asking “Who lost China?” around 1950 and costing Harry Truman any chance at re-election, the die was cast for future. We HAD to stay in Asia! And the “don’t trust China” lobby is still around today.

Skeletons on the Zahara by Dean King

Skeletons on the Zahara: A True Story of Survival by Dean King (Back Bay, 2005) 351 pages + 16 page “Reading Group Guide”

Skeletons on the Zahara cover image
Skeletons on the Zahara

I found this book tucked away on a shelf in my local B&N, the kind of fortuitous finds as you walk by that I’ve talked about before. I bought the book and proceeded to devour it in enormous bites: 10, 20, 50 pages at the time, staying up much too late for my own good just to see what happens next to these poor American sailors shipwrecked in 1815 and enslaved by the wandering tribes of the Western Sahara. The good news is that most of them made it back to the USA, although many with mind and body so shattered that they had only a few years left to live. The teenage cabin boy, however, died in 1882 at the age of 82, showing either the resiliency of the young or how the harsh life of the cabin boy back then prepared one for suffering and deprivation.

I told you I like to see connections, not just “I liked it…it had a beat and I could dance to it.” (Wow, is that an old reference. I got to listen to an older mom in B&N yesterday trying to explain what these odd, flat platters were that held spiral grooves with music on then called vinyl to her dumbfounded son: “Way back beyond CDs, beyond tape cassettes, there were once…” (insert wide-eyed look of awe and reverence here) “…records.” That was trippy. For those who now think I spend all my time in bookstores, let me just say “Yes.”)

Anyway this isn’t about how the CD guys screwed up digital sound so badly that people are going back to the original equalized analog recordings…although I am tempted to see the future of ebooks in this mass abandonment of what could have and should have been a much more enriched experience for users (sigh). OK, my spleen has been purged of its foul humors for now. Let’s see if I can speak intelligently about the book instead of The Book.

I’m back to the “Zahara” now, which is how they spelled it in 1815. We know a lot about their adventures because two of the survivors published accounts of their time as captives before they were ransomed by the British agent in Swearah, the biggest port in Morocco. The Americans, who obviously had not spent a lot of time in Africa recently due to the war, wisely passed themselves off as British seamen, who were valued by the more sophisticated tribes and ransomed either in the north or in Saint Louis on the Senegal River in the south. In between was more than a thousand miles of desert. The trick was buying the captives at a low enough price to make ransoming them profitable, with would-be rescuers fighting or negotiating their way through tribes anxious either to claim the Americans for the prize or to work them to death as slaves.

Captain Riley published the story of his ordeal as An authentic Narrative of the Loss of the American Brig Commerce (the full title is all of 74 words long(!): I have used the first 11 words only). This book was one of the most popular in the early 1800s in America. Every library had to have one, and a young Abraham Lincoln read the tale and never forgot what Riley had to say about the degraded life of a slave, and not even for life (page 311).

As a tale of misadventure, you can’t beat the voyage of the Commerce. The War of 1812 had just ended, a war vigorously opposed by New England traders, and eleven men from Connecticut were anxious to get back to sea to settle three years of accumulated debts and inactivity. Some had succumbed to the temptation of smuggling or trade with Canada, but some of the crew had recently been released from captivity while trying to run the British blockade of American ports. The plan was to sail to New Orleans, then Gibraltar and Africa, exchanging cargo in each port, perhaps looping back through the West Indies before returning to Connecticut. However, high winds and seas drove them off course and onto the rocks and wrecked them on Cape Bojador opposite the Canary Islands on August 28, 1815, one of the most desolate places on the west coast of Africa (page 46).

Even as the survivors staggered ashore, the locals (who proudly treated each wreck as treasure ships filled with materials essential to desert survival) showed up to help relieve the crew of money, clothing, cargo, and even timbers and nails needed to repair their longboat, which was damaged on the rocky beach. After one man, picked up in New Orleans, was killed or left for dead (the captain wrote it both ways at different times), the other 11 took to sea in the longboat, but head back to land in desperation a few days later.

Now weak and claimed by the Arabs nomads, the sailors are split up into 3 or 4 loose groups that sometimes meet but mostly wander until Riley convinces the desperate son-in-law of a sheik that he and his men are more valuable as ransomed survivors than weakened slaves. The story of Sidi Hamet escorting these men through hundreds of miles of hostile territory makes up the bulk of the narrative.

If there is a limitation to “Commerces” struggles, it’s that for about half of them (5 of 11), their enslavement lasted all of about two months. Yes, about eight weeks; 60 days. Imagine what they would have endured for years on end, a fate probably played out for 4 of the original 12 on the ship (one was apparently killed, and the other 7 returned home).

Author King is a specialist in writing about sailing ships and yachts. While researching another book, he stumbled across the book written by Captain James Riley, age 37, of Middletown, Connecticut, the captain of the ill-fated Commerce. His book came out in 1817, shortly after the first five captives had been ransomed by the American agent in Gibraltar through good services of the British consul in Swearah, William Willshire. Another survivor, Archibald Robbins, 22, who was held in slavery much longer than Captain Riley, also published an account, which King merges into a single narrative for the first time in this book.

The differences in the two accounts is startling, according to King. Captain Riley tried to learn the Arabic language his captor’s spoke, and was smart enough to meet his owners halfway by trying to understand how this survival mentality differed from the American culture of plenty. Robbins, on the other hand, never missed a chance to sneer at this “heathen” way of life with disdain and went as far as to pretend to be a total moron, unable to learn even simple tasks like herding camels because he feared that otherwise they would never part with him. Since both survived, it’s hard to condemn one or the other, but the extra beatings and abuse Robbins had to put up with make his strategy seem risky at best (why bother to feed a lazy, worthless idiot?).

I loved the books packaging. It includes a roster of names, several illustrations, plenty of maps, a vocabulary of desert terms (a friq is loose collection of small families traveling together), helpful footnotes, and a reader’s guide. King even risked life and limb to travel part of the route on camel.

King found the desert and people mostly unchanged in the past 200 years.

The Poet and the Vampyre by Andrew McConnell Stott

The Poet and the Vampyre: The Curse of Byron and the Birth of Literature’s Greatest Monsters by Andrew McConnell Stott (Pegasus Books, 2014) 434 pages


I discussed Ada’s Algorithm about Ada Lovelace last week and fully intended to move on to something else like Stephen Baxter’s Proxima: soon, I promise. But Stott’s book was stacked right underneath Ada and I started looking through it again and decided to do these two books back-to-back, sort of like bookends. One of the things they have in common is that both authors completely trash Byron, at least as everything other that a brilliant writer (his letters are as entertaining as his poetry).

In fact, if you had any warm fuzzy feelings about Byron, and Mary and Percy Shelley, as human beings who you might be interested in partying or hanging out with, this book might put those feelings to rest. If there was anything worse than being friends with narcissistic Byron, it was having the utter misfortune to be his child. His daughter Ada was forbidden to study literature because her mother Annabella feared the potential risk that her brain might be wired like her father’s.

This book pivots around the story of Byron’s adventures in Switzerland during the summer of 1816 (the famous “year without a summer”) after he fled England. He left because of his wife Annabella’s poisoning the atmosphere regarding his behavior (the most scandalous being Byron’s incest with his half-sister), and also because his creditors were closing in. Byron, as the book points out, considered collecting the royalties on his literary works beneath a noble like himself. Combined with his elaborate lifestyle—Bryon traveled the continent in a replica of Napoleon’s ornate carriage (page 16), which he neglected to pay for—the poet constantly found himself short on ready cash but long on people who were more than willing to “lend” him what he needed in exchange for a brush with greatness.

So Byron is the poet of the book title. Who is the “vampire” guy?

That would be Doctor John Polidori, newly minted physician (he was only 20) hired to accompany Bryon on his continental adventure because Bryon, in addition to his deformed foot, suffered from maladies as diverse as headaches and chronic constipation (page 21). Although born in England, Polidori’s Italian roots were enough for Byron to heap frequent scorn on his abilities as a writer (page 19 and elsewhere) and mock him whenever he liked. When Polidori stayed behind on an excursion, Byron wasted no time in rejoicing, “Thank God…Polidori is not here” (page 149). The animosity was obvious from the start: “I don’t like this ori” wrote Bryon, apparently objecting to the doctor’s foreign-sounding name (page 18). However, the party needed Polodori’s language skills, so they signed him up.

The “Vampyre” in the book’s title refers to the famous “competition” that the Shelleys and Byron and Polidori engaged in once they realized that not only was the summer of 1816 coming late to the Swiss Alps, but it was not coming at all. Therefore, Bryon challenged the foursome to write “ghost stories” during the time that the chilly and rainy weather kept them housebound.

Percy Shelley doesn’t seem to have written anything at all (page 146). He did write two major poems that summer, drafts of which were found in a trunk in a bank vault only in 1976 (page 178: I love stories like this). Byron’s effort amounted to a few rough pages, although these would greatly vex Polidori when his book called The Vampyre appeared with Byron credited as author (page 239). Mary Shelley, of course, worked for eighteen months and produced her book Frankenstein in 1818.

Byron doesn’t seem to have wanted to take credit for the first thorough expression of the vampire theme in English. “What do I know about Vampires?” he wrote to London. But this seems mainly because he considered Polidori’s prose far beneath his own poetry.

Almost everyone who appears in this book comes to a bad end. By 1824, all of the males were dead. Byron himself, of course, managed to totally dissipate health and talent in a constant quest for stimulation, mainly sexual in nature. His death in Greece at 36 in 1824 from fever probably says as much about the state of his immune system as the unhealthy swamps he camped in. Shelley drowned while swimming with a friend in 1822 at the age of 29. And Polidori went first, committing suicide in 1821 at 25 after the controversy over the authorship of The Vampyre left him drained and a severe carriage accident. The only people who lived out a relatively normal lifespan were the two women of that summer: Mary Wollstonecraft (nee Godwin) Shelley and Claire (also known as Clara and Jane) Clairmont.

Stott does a nice job of fleshing out Mary and her step-sister Claire. They grew up in the Juvenile Library, a bookstore for children in London run by George Godwin, Mary’s father, a famous free-thinker and author. He met Mary Wollstonecraft in 1796 and soon embraced the new “rights of woman” and “free love” movement (page 65). This was not quite the women’s lib and free love of the 1960s, but just the thought that women could chose the men they slept with was enough to rock the world. Marriage was still necessary when a pregnancy came along (birth control came much later), but Mary and Clair soon changed even that.

Percy Shelley was married when he met Mary (his wife soon committed suicide), and Claire bombarded the married Byron with letters until he became her lover (the term “groupies” comes to mind). Claire became pregnant with Bryon’s child after they joined him in Switzerland, a daughter who Byron all but ignored, born in early 1817. Mary ultimately landed her man; Claire did not. Byron was mean enough to suggest that Shelley, who had already run off with both girls when they were only 16, might be the father of Claire’s child (page 209).

Mary Shelley lived until 1851, dying at the age of 53 from a brain tumor (page 296). Claire had perhaps the best revenge on Byron and the rest, passing away in Italy at the age of 80 in 1879. By then she was a curious figure attached to the Regency Dandies of two generations before. The story of her odd legacy in the “free love” movement, starting on page 305, is likely worth a book by itself.

It’s clear the only people Byron respected were those who were wealthy enough to keep up with the poet and smart enough to spar with him intellectually. One of these was John Cam Hobhouse, a noble who Byron befriended at Cambridge and who remained close to the poet for the remainder of the poet’s brief life. At the time, England ruled the world and these people ruled England: people like Shelley, Byron, and Hobhouse. Mere mortals like John Polidori and Claire Clairmont could not hope to keep up, although they tried very hard.

The last word on the great Lord Byron must come from another rich and dissolute friend, Scrope Davies, the man with the trunk in the vault at Barclay’s Bank. While admiring the fact that Byron was “very agreeable and very clever,” he also wrote that Byron was “vain, overbearing, conceited, suspicious, and jealous…and thought the whole world ought to be constantly employed in admiring his poetry and himself; could never write a poem or a drama without making himself its hero, and he was the subject of his own conversation” (page 178).