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.)