This twenty-three year old Swiss valet was executed in July 1840, for murdering his employer Lord William Russell whilst he slept in his house in Norfolk Street, Park Lane. The trial was packed by the cream of London society and was a triumph for the detection skills of the newly formed police force. The execution was attended by two famous Victorian novelists but the case had an unfortunate affect on the subsequent reputation of a third.
Newgate0n the morning of Wednesday, the 6th of May, 1840, Lord William Russell, an aged member of the illustrious house of Bedford, was discovered to have been murdered in his bed, at his house, No.14 Norfolk Street, Park Lane. The deceased was the posthumous child of Francis, Marquis of Tavistock, eldest son of the fourth Duke of Bedford, by Lady Elizabeth Keppel, daughter of the second Earl of Albemarle. He was the third and youngest brother of the two late Dukes of Bedford, and uncle of the existing duke, who was the seventh of the family who had succeeded to the title. He was uncle also to the noble and highly talented Lord John Russell, who at the time of this most melancholy catastrophe held the office of Secretary of State for Colonial Affairs. By his marriage with Lady Charlotte Villiers, eldest daughter of the fourth Earl of Jersey, his lordship had seven children, several of whom were still alive and were married into other noble families; but at the time of his death he was a widower, his wife having died in the year 1806. His lordship was born in August, 1767, and was consequently in the seventy-third year of his age. Lord William Russell resided, attended only by his servants, at the house in Norfolk Street, Park Lane. His household consisted of two female servants — a housemaid, Sarah Mancer, and a cook, Mary Hannell — his valet, Francois Benjamin Courvoisier, and a coachman and groom, all of whom lived in the house, with the exception of the two latter individuals.The house was small, and consisted of only two rooms on a floor. On the basement storey were the kitchen and the usual offices, and a room used by Courvoisier as a pantry. On the ground floor were two parlours, used as dining-rooms; on the first floor were the drawing-room and library; on the second floor were the bedroom and dressing-room of his lordship; and in the story above were the sleeping apartments of the servants. His lordship was a member of Brooks’s Club, in St James’s Street, and usually spent a considerable portion of the day there; but he generally dined at home, and then, having passed several hours in reading, commonly retired to rest at about twelve o’clock. The valet had been in his lordship’s service for a period of only five weeks; and in the course of that time had been heard by his fellow-servants to express himself in terms of dislike to his master, whom he described as testy and dissatisfied, and to declare that if he only had his money he should soon return to Switzerland, of which country he was a native.On the 5th of May his lordship rose at nine o’clock, and breakfasted at the usual hour; and at about noon he went out to go to Brooks’s, in accordance with his usual habit. Before he quitted the house, however, he called his valet, and gave him several messages to deliver, amongst which was one to the coachman to prepare his carriage and be in readiness to take him home from his club at five o’clock. Upon Courvoisier going into the kitchen after this, he declared his fears that he should forget some of his errands; and when he recounted them he omitted that to the coachman. At half-past five his lordship returned home to dinner in a cab, and showed some dissatisfaction at the neglect of his servant; but it does not appear that he exhibited any such anger as could well excite a feeling of hatred or ill-will. Dinner was served at about seven o clock; coffee was subsequently handed to his lordship, and at about nine o’clock he retired to his library.At this time the three house-servants only were at home. Some other persons had called in the course of the day, but they had all left; and now Courvoisier, Sarah Mancer and Mary Hannell only were in the house, Hannell had been out, but upon her return Courvoisier admitted her, and it was observed that he locked and chained the street door after her entrance. Supper was, at about ten o’clock, prepared in the kitchen, and some beer was fetched by Courvoisier; but he quitted the house and returned by way of the area, and the gate and kitchen door were fastened by Hannell upon his readmission. The means of access to the house from the street, therefore, were closed, and the only entrance from the back, on the basement storey, was through the pantry.At about half-past ten the women-servants went to bed leaving Courvoisier to attend upon his master, and it was not until half-past twelve o’clock that his lordship rang his bell for him to assist him in retiring to his apartment. On the following morning, at about half-past six o’clock, Sarah Mancer, the housemaid, rose from her bed, and, having dressed herself, quitted her bedroom. As she passed the door of the valet’s room she knocked, in order to awake him, and then proceeded downstairs.Upon reaching the lower floors of the house she found everything in such a state of confusion as to excite a suspicion in her mind that thieves had entered the house with a view to the commission of a robbery. She hurried through the drawing-room, the parlour and the passage on the ground floor, and there she found the furniture strewed about, the drawers and boxes open, and a bundle lying on the ground, as if ready packed up to be carried off, while the street door had been unfastened, and was only upon the latch.A momentary examination of these matters was sufficient to excite alarm in her mind, and, hurrying upstairs again, she repaired to the cook to inform her of what she had seen, by whose directions she at once proceeded to the apartment of the valet. Ten minutes had scarcely elapsed since she had previously knocked at his door, and half-an-hour was ordinarily occupied by him in dressing, but, to her surprise, she now found him dressed and ready to descend. Hastily she informed him of what she had witnessed below, and he accompanied her downstairs.Upon his seeing the state in which the lower part of the house appeared to be, he exclaimed “Oh ‘God! somebody has robbed us.” Mancer now suggested the propriety of their ascertaining whether anything had occurred to his lordship, and they went together to his bedroom. Immediately upon their entrance Courvoisier proceeded to the window to open the shutters, but Mancer went to the bedside, and saw the pillow saturated with blood, and his lordship lying in bed, dead, with his throat cut. The woman screamed and ran out of the room, then rushed from the house and obtained the aid of some neighbours and of the police, by whom a surgeon was called in.Upon the entrance of these persons, Courvoisier, whose conduct throughout the whole transaction had been of the most singular description, was found dreadfully agitated, leaning on the bed where the body of his master lay; and although questions were asked him he made no answer, and took no part in the proceedings which succeeded. In a few minutes he appeared to recover, and at his suggestion an intimation of the occurrence was conveyed to the son of the deceased nobleman, who resided in Belgrave Square.When Courvoisier went downstairs he immediately took Sarah Mancer into his pantry, pointed to some marks of violence which were perceptible upon the door, which was open, and remarked: “It was here they entered.” The police now took possession of the house, and a minute examination of the premises was made, the result of which was a firm conviction in their minds that the murder had been perpetrated by an inmate of the house, and that a simulated robbery had been got up.A parcel was found to contain many articles of his lordship’s property. A cloth cloak, which had been hanging up in the hall, was found rolled up, and within it were his lordship’s gold opera-glass, his gold toothpick, a silver sugar-dredger, a pair of spectacles, a caddy-spoon, and a thimble belonging to the cook; but it was remarked that the latter articles were of a nature which a thief would rather have put into his pocket than have packed up in so large a parcel; and although the drawers of the sideboard in the parlour and of the writing- desk in the drawing-room were pulled open, nothing was found to have been extracted.In his lordship’s bedroom a state of things presented itself which tended to confirm the suspicions of the police, and to supply a motive for the crime. His lordship had been in possession of a case containing ivory rouleau boxes, which were usually employed to hold gold coin. The boxes which belonged to his lordship would hold about five hundred sovereigns, and it had been remarked by Courvoisier that although he was entrusted with the keys of his master’s drawers and trunks, his lordship would never permit him to go to this case. Upon examination by the police the rouleau case was found to have been opened, and the rouleaux having been searched, fruitlessly, for money, they had been placed on one side. The jewel-box and the note-case of the deceased had also been opened, and while from the former several articles of small value had been taken, from the latter a ten-pound note, known to have been in the possession of his lordship, had been carried off. A purse which contained gold had also disappeared.These circumstances induced a strong suspicion against Courvoisier, and his boxes were searched, but nothing was discovered which tended to fix upon him the guilt of the crime; but it was nevertheless thought advisable that he should remain under surveillance. On Friday, the 8th of May, a police officer examined the floor, the skirting-board and the sink, and behind the skirting-board he found five gold rings, the property of his lordship. In the same place were also found five pieces of gold coin and a piece of wax. Behind another part of the skirting-board was found a Waterloo medal, which was known to have been in the possession of his lordship, with a ribbon attached to it; and there was also found the ten-pound note which has been mentioned before.The fact of the discovery of this note was a most important feature in the case. If it had been removed from the note-case, in which it had been placed, by any ordinary thief, it would undoubtedly have been carried off by him. Found as it was, however, concealed behind the skirting-board of this pantry, it was taken as almost conclusive of the guilt of the valet, because no hand but his could have placed it in that position; for it was proved that, from the moment of the discovery of the murder, he was placed under surveillance, and could not, therefore, have conveyed away anything from the house.A further search was subsequently made, and a split gold ring, on which his lordship had kept his keys, and which had been attached to his watch by a ribbon, was found; and then, on the evening of the next day, a locket was taken from Courvoisier’s pocket; it contained a small portion of the hair of the nobleman’s deceased lady. A short time before his murder he had missed this relic, to which he attached great value. Upon this the police thought fit to take Courvoisier into custody, and, after he had been taken off, still further discoveries were made.On the 11th of May a chased gold key was discovered; and on Wednesday, the 13th, it was determined to examine the sink in the pantry. A part of the sink was covered with lead, and when that portion had been removed in the course of the investigation, it occurred to the police officer that there was something extraordinary in the appearance of the lead. He turned it up, and there he found the watch which had been placed at the noble lord’s bed-head on the night of the murder, but which, the next morning, was discovered to have been removed.Find the Old Bailey on the MapThese were the material facts adduced in evidence against Courvoisier upon his various examinations before the magistrates; but strong as were the suspicions excited against him, it was felt that there was still good reason to believe that he would escape conviction. An experienced attorney, Mr Flower, was engaged to conduct his defence, and so strong a feeling had been excited in his behalf that a liberal subscription was raised among the foreign servants in London to defray the expenses of employing the necessary counsel to appear for him at his trial. Mr Hobler, an attorney, was engaged on behalf of the prosecution; and at length, on Thursday, the 18th of June, the trial of the prisoner came on at the Central Criminal Court, before Lord Chief Justice Tindal and Mr Baron Parke.The court was then crowded, and amongst the noble and distinguished individuals present were the Duke of Sussex, the Countess of Charleville, Lady Burghersh, Lady Sondes, Lady A. Lennox, Lady Granville Somerset, Lady Julia Lockwood, Lady Bentinck; the Earls of Sheffield, Mansfield, Cavan, Clarendon, Lucan and Louth; Lords Rivers, Gardner and A. Lennox; M. Dedel, the Dutch ambassador; Marshal Saldanha, the Portuguese ambassador-extraordinary; Sir Gilbert Heathcote, Sir Stratford Canning, Sir W. Montagu, Colonel Fox, Lord Frederick Gordon, Hon. Mr Villiers, etc. As a proof that every part of the court was brought into requisition it may be mentioned that the prisoners’ dock was filled with chairs, every one of which was occupied.Mr Adolphus, Mr Bodkin and Mr Chambers appeared for the prosecution. The prisoner was defended by Mr C. Phillips and Mr Clarkson. The prisoner, who was an alien, elected to be tried by a jury of Englishmen; and when the indictment was read he pleaded not guilty. Evidence in proof of the circumstances which we have detailed was then produced, and the first day’s proceedings had closed when new and important testimony, affording conclusive proof of the guilt of the prisoner, was discovered.In the course of inquiries which had been made subsequent to the murder, some articles of plate were found to have been removed from the house of his lordship; but, after the minute examination of the house which took place, there was good reason to believe that this portion of the transaction had occurred long before, and not after, the murder. All the efforts of the police to discover this stolen property had proved ineffectual; and, although large rewards had been offered for its production, it was not until the evening of the first day’s trial that it was brought forward. An intimation was then conveyed to Mr Hobler of the fact of its being in the possession of Madame Piolaine, the keeper of a French hotel in Leicester Place, Leicester Square; and when it was inspected by persons who were competent to speak to its identity, they at once most positively proved that it was the same which had been formerly in the possession of his lordship.The circumstance of this most extraordinary discovery was directly notified to the prisoner’s attorney; and when Courvoisier was by him consulted as to the truth of the allegations made, he at once admitted his guilt. At this stage of the proceedings it was felt that such a confession placed the advocates who had been employed on his behalf in a condition of the greatest difficulty. For them to have thrown up their briefs would have been at once to admit the uselessness of any efforts to save their client from an ignominious death -a duty to the performance of which they had pledged themselves; and it was therefore deter mined that they should continue their defence of the prisoner, although the line of conduct which it became proper to pursue was necessarily much altered by the discovery which had been made to them.The instructions which they had originally received went to the extent of calling upon them to endeavour to procure the implication of the female servants of his lordship, and of the police, who were to be charged as their companions and associates in crime in the murder of Lord Russell, and in a conspiracy to secure the conviction and execution of the valet; but although the former portion of this defence was of course deemed fit to be withdrawn, a considerable degree of abuse was heaped upon the police by Mr C. Phillips in his speech for the defence of the prisoner, in consequence of some improper conduct of which, he alleged, they had been guilty, tending to prejudice his case, and even going to the length of fabricating evidence to excite suspicion in the minds of the jury against him.Mr C. Phillips addressed the jury at very great length on the part of the prisoner; he contended with great talent that the evidence was that of suspicion only. Lord Chief Justice Tindal having summed up, a verdict of guilty was returned, and the learned judge passed upon the prisoner the sentence of death. On the following day the wretched man made a confession, in which he said:” His lordship was very cross with me and told me I must quit his service. As I was coming upstairs from the kitchen I thought it was all up with me; my character was gone, and I thought it was the only way I could cover my faults by murdering him. This was the first moment of any idea of the sort entering my head. I went into the dining-room and took a knife from the sideboard. I do not remember whether it was a carving-knife or not. I then went upstairs, I opened his bedroom door and heard him snoring in his sleep; there was a rushlight in his room burning at this time. I went near the bed by the side of the window, and then I murdered him. He just moved his arm a little; he never spoke a word.”An execution outside the door of NewgateThe execution was carried out at Newgate, on the 6th of July, 1840. The hangman was the notorious Jack Ketch and the trial was attended by both Charles Dickens (a regular at these events) and William Makepeace Thackeray. The latter published an article about the execution in Frazer’s Magazine later in the month. A third novelist of the period had a rather different experience. This was William Harrison Ainsworth, then famous for his nlovel about the higwayman Dick Turpin. However, he had also published, in the previous year, a sensational novel about another notorious criminal, Jack Sheppard. The latter had been a violent robber who escaped from Newgate four times before he was finally hanged at Tyburn in 1742. The novel was adapted to the stage by John Buckstone and it opened at the Adelphi in the Strand on October 28 1839. It was the hit of the season and ran for 121 performances finishing the run on April 11th 1840. It went on a tour of the Provincial theatres in May, not long after the murder. During Courvoisier’s trial it was put about that he had either read Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard or attended the play before committing the murder. This provoked a wave of concern at the effects of cheap, theatrical adaptations on working-class youth culture. The popular opinion was that the charge against Ainsworth seemed incontrovertible. Unfortunately, his status as a good Victorian and a serious literary novelist never fully recovered even though he went on to write some of his more famous historical romances in the following years. Dickens managed to avoid similar problems, but, despite the fact that Ainsworth had been a major influence on his early career, with his characteristic selfishness he publicly and privately distanced himself from Ainsworth.