The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, or The Murder at Road Hill House by Kate Summerscale is quite the experience.
It isn’t a book. It is a case encyclopedia.
When you pick up this book it may seem like you are going to read about one historical case. But you soon find out it outlines a lot more.
This book describes the lives and times of everyone involved in the case, Detective Inspector Jonathan Whicher, the entire Kent family and staff, the local police force, the area, the authors inspired by the case, the books based on elements of this case, etc.
It is easy to get lost in the details as all information is intertwined. The case is not told separately from all those other stories. This is the book’s strength and weakness at the same time.
Frances Savill Kent (Aug 1856 – June 1860) was not yet four years old when he was murdered. His family called him Savill. His remains were found in the privy (outhouse) on his father’s grounds. The cause of death and the order in which the fatal wounds were delivered, changed over time. At first, the order was a stab wound to the heart with suffocation (mouth), then his throat was slit, and to make sure that he would really die he was submersed in the privy vault to drown in feces. Later, at trial, the order became first a slit throat with the suffocation, then a stab wound to the heart, and last, the submersion.
Why would anyone want to kill a little boy? If you look at the mindmap I made (see picture below) for this case there are two reasons.
- Jealousy: in the Kent family house lived two families. Samuel Kent, the patriarch, had married twice. With his first wife, Mary Ann Windus Kent (1808 – 1852) he had several children. Some passed away but are included here in chronological order: Mary Ann, Elizabeth, Edward, Henry Savill, Ellen, John Savill, Julia, Constance, and William. After his first wife passed away, Kent married the nanny Mary Drewe Pratt (1820 – 1865) who during the first Mrs. Kent’s life already served as Mistress of the House. Then the second Mrs. Kent became a mother herself. The children from the firsts marriage were treated as inferior (p.94) and some even had to share a room with the servants. This inferior treatment also included torturous treatment in Constance’s case. See p. 293. On p. 254 we learn more about that complex family life at the Kent house and how Constance wanted to avenge her mother.
- Revenge: this follows the jealousy element. It need not and revenge doesn’t have to be fatal. But here it did and it was. The inferior and torturous treatment that Constance suffered was not all there is to note. I will get back to this.
Local police versus the London Met
The investigation was complicated. Whicher found out soon enough that Samuel Kent was not a well-liked man for many reasons. The local Wiltshire Police mess up the investigation. And after several weeks without an arrest, the population got so restless that a call to the London Metropolitan Police was made. The London Met was the first in the English-speaking part of the world to start a detective branch. Detective Inspector Jonathan Whicher was one of the eight original team members.
After he arrived, it was clear that the local police force had not told him everything. Events were hidden and conclusions were based on theories that contradicted the crime scene. “It is well-known that detectives begin by assuming the guilt of some one, and then try how far their hypothesis will fit the circumstances.” And they did. As the second Mrs. Kent was the former nanny the local police let their eyes fall on the current nanny, Elizabeth Gough. After all, Savill slept in her room. But so did baby Eveline. Was Savill a witness to a transgression? Rumors plagued Whicher as well.
Whicher agreed with the local police force that the murderer was a female inhabitant of the Kent household, however he was not convinced at all that it was Gough. What would Gough’s motive be to kill Savill? Another person with access to Savill and with a good motive, was his half-sister Constance. The suspicions of Mr. Whicher are very well described in the book but notwithstanding those directed at Constance, nobody was initially brought to trial for the murder of Savill Kent.
Whicher also disagreed with local police on the route that the killer used to exit the house on the night of the murder. The local Wiltshire Police had an elaborate route in mind that Gough must have taken. Whicher, on the other end, was looking for the shortest, most direct route to the privy where Savill’s remains were found.
A turn of events
On April 25, 1865 Constance (21) turned herself in to the police. Why, why now? In her confession are inconsistencies and impossibilities that make it improbable. For example, she lifts an almost four-year-old child up in one arm, sneaks through the house, down the stairs, through a window, into a privy, and lights a candle. All this with just one arm without waking him or anyone else inside the house up. Another example, Constance claimed that she took one of her father’s razors from his dresser to use as murder weapon. A razor can definitely be used to slit a throat but it does not make stab wounds to the heart. Later, while in her holding cell, she writes to her solicitor that there was never any bad treatment by her parents. Other people have indicated that such was true. In her confession, Constance placed all the blame on herself, cutting off anyone suggesting that she had assistance in the planning or in the execution of the crime. She left no room for any mitigating circumstances or for an insanity plea. Why?
If she had used the torturous treatment in mitigation or plead insanity the other children from the first Mrs. Kent would have been questioned and/or might have lived under the cloud of suspicion. That would have endangered the one sibling who Constance loved most.
In July 1866, William turned 21 years old. As per his mother’s last will he received a bequest of 1’000 pounds.
William wanted to study biology at the university and have a career as a marine biologist. He did exactly that and became a renowned scientist. You can look him up online.
In 1872, Samuel Kent died. He left all his assets to the children from his second marriage and in doing so disinherited Mary Ann, Elizabeth, Constance, and William.
In 1884, William and his wife sailed for Tasmania. Eventually, these two would be joined by all William’s half-siblings. Despite their parents behavior, the children, including Constance after her release, stayed together.
There is a movie about this case. I recommend watching it after you finished reading the book. The movie will bring the setting to life as well as the characters but, as it is a different medium, it leaves out some of the details that make Summerscale’s book so good. For example, the family doctor plays a different part in steering Whicher’s mindset to Constance as a suspect.
William’s bequest is only mentioned on the scroll before the credits are shown. Undoubtedly, this opportunity for William was the biggest incentive for Constance to confess and to make sure all eyes were on her alone as a suspect. She was very close to William. She was willing to give her life so he could live his.
The movie also places Samuel Kent in a more favorable light. It shows him with more empathy than in the book, it doesn’t mention the disinheritance of four children, it hardly show why he was so disliked in the area and in his work, and only briefly touches on the stepmother scorning the first Mrs. Kent. In other words, if I had not read the book, I would have kept wondering about more reasons for Constance to be guilty. Other than that, the movie is well-done, well acted, and it does follow the case’s timeline.
Initially, I had trouble getting into the book as I was expecting a true crime story to unfold according to the case’s timeline. It was only after I realized that I was reading an encyclopedia-style book, that following it became easier.
The book has a list of contents, floor maps, a family tree, photographs, a list of characters, a postscript, a list of illustrations, a bibliography, and a cross-referenced index in the back.
The vast amount of information makes this book a great research tool. It also makes it a little harder to digest. The book, as a story, picks up pace and intensity in part III which is suitably entitled: the Unravelling. Highly recommended reading!
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