Murder By The Book by Claire Harman tells the story of Lord William Russell‘s murder in 1840, Great Britain. As this is a true crime, you can easily do an online search, find the family tree, and learn all there is about his case, and the person convicted and executed for this murder.
Claire Harman points out what is not online, what is not clear, and why doubt remains in the murder of Lord William Russell.
On May 6, 1840, the dead body of Lord William Russell is discovered by his employees. He is in bed with his throat slit. The trachea was cut through, he seemed to have a scarf wrapped up to his chin, a towel was placed over his head, and the covers were pulled up. Considering the state of the house, it seemed to be a robbery gone bad.
On May 10, 1840 François Benjamin Courvoisier (August 1816 – 6 July 1840), Russell’s Swiss-born valet, was arrested. However, the investigation could not go fast enough for family, close friends, and the public. More people were enlisted, more people entered the Russell home, more people who messed up any traces of evidence, and of course, more people to change the crime scene and plant evidence.
Meanwhile, the general opinion about Courvoisier was both good and bad. He was a foreigner but one without a criminal record. He had been in the UK for a while, had served in British homes, and at trial he opted for a jury of 12 Englishman though he had the legal right to have six from his home country. People’s opinion went from disdain to fascination to infatuation to celebrity status.
Dr. Henry Elsgood lived nearby and was the first one called by police to come to the crime scene. He thought that Russell had been dead for 3-5 hours. The slit was about five inches deep and seven inches long. As the trachea was cut clean he thought death was instant. The sharp instrument was not found.
Police had turned down the bedding and removed the cloth from Russell’s face. Elsgood had to remove what he thought was a comforter from Russell’s chest. It had been pulled all the way up to his chin. The comforter turned out to be a scarf. To whom did this scarf belong?
Russell’s shirt collar was pulled wide open obviously to make space. The slit went from the top left shoulder over the trachea. The scarf was pulled up to the chin and a cloth was placed over the victim’s face. The killer(s) took care not to spill blood and keep it localized. They were not in a hurry.
Russell’s own doctor, John Nussey, arrived later. He thought that the victim had been dead for 6-7 hours. He noticed that the ball on Russell’s right thumb had been cut off. Defensive wound? Were there any other defensive wounds?
Nussey said that Russell was “a physically frail man” and that he was deaf, had a hernia, wore a truss, and from the way it was around his body, he suspected a slight struggle.
Representing the Crown at trial was John Adolphus. He came armed with arguments, a 3D-model of Russell’s home, and a sketch artist. Adolphus agreed that Courvoisier had a clean record and came highly recommended as a valet. He even went so far to state that the evidence against the defendant was circumstantial. But it was all in the little things. A blood drop here and there, some stolen items found hidden in the house, and a misspoken word or two. Adolphus’ court strategy was to show to the jury that a good man went bad, that this murder happened without premeditation, and that the good man could no longer restrain himself.
For the defense, Charles Phillips appeared. He was an unusual choice if you consider a valet’s salary. This is a consequence of the blurring lines and the celebrity status. His salary was paid by another man, Sir George Beaumont. Phillips case didn’t seem bad. Everything was circumstantial, Courvoisier had no criminal record so, as long as no stolen items popped up that could be connected to his client or Russell, it should all work out.
One mistake by Phillips must be mentioned here: he failed to cross-examine the cook, Mary Hannell. It is the beer and the wine she had the night before Russell’s dead body was found. Did the wine taste normal? Was Russell in the habit of drinking wine before bed? Did he have a wine glass in his bedroom? Was she intoxicated enough to not hear anything out of the ordinary? Despite this mistake, it didn’t look too bad for the defense until the box popped up. I am going to let you read about that yourself. Harman does a great job describing the events. The jury took an hour to find Courvoisier guilty.
After the sensational case was over, some people started to doubt the verdict. After all, police knew about an upcoming reward and some officers were keen on it. Some even threatened Courvoisier in revising his statements. People debated Phillips’ defense style which was harsh to some witnesses but others found that he was in his right to defend his client any way he found necessary. But there was more doubt. For example, where did the murder weapon really came from and where did he dispose of it?
Harman lists all the points that she believes remain unsolved despite the fact that Courvoisier confessed and was found guilty in court. One of the problem is that he confessed several times and left several signed statements. Somewhere in there is the truth.
Let’s start with the options as listed by Harman.
- Motive: was Courvoisier long enough employed by Russell to have developed such a hatred needed to kill? He had been there for just 5-6 weeks. Yes, starting a new job is hard and getting to know daily routines is frustrating. But does it amount to enough negative energy to kill? IF money was a motive, I’d say, sit out the job quietly and hope to inherit a stipend from the old man.
- Accomplices: it is doubtful that Courvoisier did this all alone and if we had to pick an accomplice, an old friend might be a good bet. Henry Carr was an old friend and worked with Courvoisier at their previous employer. He is also overheard saying that he expected money soon. Enough to get him to Australia. I wonder why didn’t Courvoisier make a plea arrangement with the crown after he was found guilty. Why didn’t he give up the name of accomplices?
- The box: the person who ultimately brought the box into the story, and you need to read that yourself, clearly has a history.
- Robbery: if money had been the motive than Courvoisier could have stolen small pieces throughout his employ. Small things that disappear but attract no attention. So why was this burglary staged as it was? Small items and leave the bulk behind?
- Revenge: was Lord William Russell a bullying employer? There isn’t enough information to make any judgement but this old man relied on servants for everything. At his most vulnerable state, washing and dressing, he needed a valet. Would he bully them around? Maybe, but this only adds to motive if all servants were also underpaid or food was withheld, etc.
- Reputation: Courvoisier didn’t have a reputation for enraged behavior, bullying, or being violent. He is described as “consistently quiet and inoffensive.”
But there is still one unsolved point that Harman doesn’t list. It goes back to motive. I cannot prove it unless Dr. John Nussey, Russell’s general practitioner, left notes. But you cannot prove the contrary either. There is another alternative explanation for the same facts and gaps that Harman brings forward in the book.
If you are part of a very powerful family in 1840, known to Queen and government, the last thing that you want to do is to bring shame to the family. Having a criminal record brings shame. Dying of natural causes does not bring shame. Being murdered while not having any ties to the criminal world, does not bring shame. Committing suicide brings shame. You dishonor your family, you are deemed to have abandoned your faith, and you may not be buried next to the one you loved all your life. And, she is buried in the ancestral vault at St Michael Churchyard, Chenies, Chiltern District, Buckinghamshire.
If you commit suicide, your insurance company, most likely, will not pay your beneficiaries. But I am not sure that this was the most pressing issue on Russell’s mind. This man might just have had a strong enough desire to die, to be reunited with his wife, but saw no way out without bringing shame upon his family.
Harman open her book with information about Russell. Everything in that first chapter, can be seen as the actions of a strange or a very lonely man. Thinking along those lines, it might even have been the onset of dementia.
What is in the first chapter that made me think along these lines?
On page 4, Harman writes that Russell had asthma and a hernia. He wears a truss for back support. On the same page: “I feel too old” as he refers to his extensive traveling days that are now over.
On pages 8 and 9, we learn that he was happily married to Lady Charlotte who gave him seven children. Only two remained, the others passed away. Charlotte’s death at just 37 years of age “stunned him.” He kept on him at all times a strand of her hair in a gold locket. It was his most treasured possession. So when he lost it, he was very upset.
After Charlotte died, Russell became more isolated despite an overtly busy life of traveling and staying with friends. Russell’s “eccentricities and absent-mindedness were often remarked on.” He preferred to be at his clubs, hardly had visitors, and spent a lot of time alone in his study with his art. His staff thought it was too quiet. All the extravagant behavior on pages 10 and 11 tell me that someone was covering up immense pain by outrageous extrovert behavior. But in the end, it could not stop the pain.
Lady Hardy did not think that Russell would ever marry again. When he visited her in 1822, in Lausanne, he had the habit of “putting his watch in his mouth as he paced up and down the room. One morning he announced that he had lost his watch and suspected his manservant of having stolen it.” But when Lady Hardy joked that he swallowed it “in one of your absent fits” his reaction was “do you really think so? It is possible.” But of course it was not possible due to the size of the watch and the chain. He had simply misplaced it.
On page 12, a nephew, who was fond of him, wrote in his journal about Russell’s life that seemed “neither respectable nor useful.” Lady Holland remarked that Russell was “an unhappy wandering spirit who wanders about from tavern to tavern without knowing why or wherefore.”
So, here is an intelligent man who became very lonely after his wife passed away. Is it possible that he was developing dementia, knew it, and wanted out? Yes. Is it possible that he was tired of being alone and wanted out? Yes. For both reasons, there is one scenario that first the facts and gaps as listed but not mentioned by Harman.
The conditions need to be right so yes, there are some ‘what if” remarks here, however, they are not impossible.
What if one day, Courvoisier and Russell somehow talk. Not as servant and master but as man to man. Maybe this happened after an argument when they both calmed down. What if Courvoisier told him about wanting to go back to Switzerland? And what if Russell expressed his loneliness?
What if somehow the book “Rookwood” by William Harrison Ainsworth came up? One of the most influential works of the time sparked the debate that is still on topic today: should we glamorize crime and criminals in books and plays? Should we even discuss serious crimes in works of entertainment or literature? Ainsworth’s portrayal of criminals caused a blurring of lines between criminality and heroism. For more on this, read Harman’s chapter “This nightmare of a book.” Then came the book “Jack Sheppard.” Courvoisier mentioned it. He had read the book and saw the play. In one of his confessions, he said that it inspired him to kill Russell. But I don’t believe that. It didn’t inspire him. He was asked and the book gave him the courage.
The house held many valuables. What was stolen that night was not representative of the owner’s wealth. Part of what was stolen was found hidden inside the house. What was taken out of the house were not the most expensive pieces but items that could be easily identified as belonging to Russell.
The plan that Courvoisier and Russell could have made is simple: Russell commits suicide, maybe by drugs in a drink. He dies in his sleep. Either Courvoisier and/or an accomplice then slits his throat. The accomplice gets away and Courvoisier stages the burglary. Both accomplices get paid, no shame was brought to the family, Russell’s lonely days are over, and he is reunited with Charlotte. At the end of the book, there is the tip that Henry Carr expected a big sum of money that would enable him to emigrate to Australia. How both men would get paid eventually, that is unclear to me. But as Harman discusses near the end of the book, there are a lot of unanswered questions and interesting people in this case.
To convince Courvoisier, Russell may have pointed out that he does not kill anyone because at the time that his throat is slit, he is already dead. So, if caught, Courvoisier would be guilty of mutilating a corps. That crime does not carry the death penalty and even if he gets arrested, there is no hard evidence that he committed that crime.
Henry Carr was a servant at Courvoisier’s previous employer, the Fector Family. He could have been the naked man spotted in the neighborhood. Read that yourself. But the nakedness here means: easy to rinse off and leaving no bloody clothes anywhere.
Mutilation of a corpse
If Russell had been alive when his throat was slit the blood flow would have been awful. But, if Russell had already been dead, and did not have a pumping heart, the flow could be stemmed by a pillow, a scarf, blankets, and be directed to go down into the mattress versus spraying up as it would if the heart was pumping. If Russell was indeed already dead in bed and someone then slit his throat, his body could still have spasms that could explain the topped off part of his thumb.
Courvousier’s confessions are partly false. He details everything what happens before and after the crime and even added sentiments. He tells almost nothing about how he killed Russell. Well, maybe that is because he didn’t. He may have assisted Henry but they both mutilated a dead man. In their minds, they didn’t kill anyone and so they behaved as such.
Maybe Russell used the famous books hinting that to do right you sometimes must break the law. That the law is not always just and that it takes a strong man to set things right. He just wants to end his life and be reunited with his wife. That is not a crime. However, if he commits suicide, he brings shame on his family. But if his actions can be covered up, and the people who help him are provided for, then it works out for everyone, right?
We have no prove that this idea did not simmer in the minds of Courvoisier and Henry. We do have ample proof how influential those books were. Harman explains it all.
We also do not know whether a full autopsy including toxicology took place. Maybe the obvious cause of death stopped the authorities from searching further. Maybe his family’s status stopped further probing as it may not have been deemed appropriate. However, if you look at this case from a modern point of view, a full autopsy makes perfect sense.
I wish we knew what medications Lord Russell took, what did he have in the house to self-medicate, was there anything that he could have used to poison himself? Any valium, arsenic, or morphine around?
Courvoisier may have taken pity on Russell. Russell may have manipulated his young valet’s impressionable mind to make him do what he wanted. How would you prove this? One way would be to check documentation from Dr. Nussey. Did Russell in his doctor’s professional opinion show early signs of dementia? Had he ever expressed a desire to die? Did he ever mention suicide? Was he depressed?
Let me know your thoughts about this case. You can discuss it with others here.
Harman wrote an excellent book. The pace is good, the chapters are not too long, there is a map, table of contents, eight illustrated pages, an aftermath, a postscript with unanswered questions, a list of characters, notes per chapter, a bibliography, and an index. This is highly recommended reading for those who love historical mysteries and unsolved cases.
Even if you think that I wrote a lot, many even too much in this review, trust me. There is a lot more in Harman’s book. My other book reviews are here.