Death At The Priory; Love, Sex and Murder in Victorian England, by James Ruddick. 2001, Atlantic Books

An interesting story for the Victorian true crime genre. Florence Campbell had two disastrous marriages; her first husband Alexander Ricardo, an alcoholic, was abusive and neglectful. The second one, Charles Bravo, was arguably even worse. Both died while married to Florence. She was separated from Ricardo when he died in 1871; he basically drank himself to death. Bravo, however, was poisoned under mysterious circumstances in 1876.

More or less in between marriages Dr. Gully became Florence’s lover; he had a difficult marriage himself–his elderly wife was confined in an asylum. Florence, at least, was only ‘fooling around’ for a few months before Ricardo died; Gully remained married the entire time of his involvement with Florence.

He and Florence, at least, were simpatico. Apparently a rather charismatic figure, he had treated Florence for what was undoubtedly depression when she fled Ricardo. Owing to the arcane laws of the time, Gully was able to not only release her from his care, but in effect ‘adopt’ her, even though she was an adult. So, they had a wide open door to an affair, which was mostly good times for them.

Her pregnancy, and his botched abortion of it, not only meant the end of their affair, but led to subsequent miscarriages. Her extremely devoted lady-companion Jane Cox, a sort of hired wing-man, if I’m deducing Victorian domestic service roles correctly enough, introduced Florence to her late husband’s former employer’s family, the Bravo’s, specifically her contemporary, Charles Bravo.

Jane, by all accounts here, was a very capable, smart person, but was completely wrong in reading Bravo’s character. In short, he was a jerk. And though his family had a huge business empire, there were money problems; he sized her up as an attractive piggy-bank. Anyway, having been doubly disgraced already by Ricardo’s disgusting behavior, not to mention the revelation of her affair with her former doctor, she had no choice, given the boxed-up mores of the time, but to agree to marry Bravo, if she were to maintain her status as an upper-class woman.

Bravo quickly showed his true colors–haughty, arrogant, dismissive–and that just to the servants. To Florence he was plainly abusive: physically, sexually, and emotionally. Furthermore, he attempted, not completely successfully, to gain control of Florence’s fortune (she’d been lucky enough that Ricardo still had considerable wealth, and that he didn’t change his will). Even though he had some respect for Jane, as she’d brought Florence to him, he was deeply jealous of their close friendship.

So, what about Bravo’s poisoning? It’s amazing, that in the space of a few months from New Year’s 1876 to Eastertime, Florence had already suffered a lifetime of abuse from Bravo, not to mention two miscarriages. Bravo, meanwhile, had a mysterious, sudden illness–which took care of itself–but it seemed very much like a foreshadowing to the massive poisoning that killed him not long after. It’s hardly possible to think of anything more painful than having your intestines, as well just about all your internal organs, burn and shred themselves away.

So, as Ruddick details with scrupulous care, there were five possible suspects who could’ve given him the more-than-lethal dose of antimony that killed him so cruelly. Griffiths, the coachman Bravo had recently fired, certainly had motive: he was heard by an innkeeper making direct death threats against Bravo–which could nonetheless be dismissed as drunk talk. He also not only knew about the properties and dosage strengths of a antimony, he’d actually bought the stuff. But that was part of his job, which entailed caring for the horses, for which the poison had a legitimate medicinal use. The most important fact in his favor, though, is that he was in another county since being ‘given the sack’ around Christmas, 1875.

Gully is another convenient suspect. After all, Bravo had, to all intents and purposes, taken Florence away from him. Her affair with Gully was done with by the time Bravo showed up in earnest; Gully was discrete and wise enough to make himself scarce, even though he lived very near her place, the Priory. In any case, his reputation had already suffered once his affair with Florence was exposed, literally, when a guest walked in on them. Besides these facts, Gully never actually met Bravo; it seems impossible he would conspire to kill someone he had heard bad news about, but didn’t even know.

So that leaves Florence and Jane. This is the duo that Ruddick claims to have conspired in the murder of Charles Bravo. “I began the biggest historical investigation of the case ever conducted–an investigation that was to reveal the true story of what had really happened to Charles Bravo.” (p.3) I’ve no doubt, given the author’s deep and persistent research of the case, both in scholarly and journalistic methodology, that the first part of his statement is true.

But I would rather say, regarding the conclusion that he mentions in the latter part of this statement, that he reveals ‘a’ story of what ‘might have happened’ to Bravo, but not necessarily the definitive, open-and-shut case that he claims. Again, I can’t argue with the incredible effort that Ruddick undertook in writing Death at the Priory. And it’s a well-written, very entertaining work.

Back to Jane. Ruddick documents that since 1874, two years before Bravo’s death, she knew that her maternalistic Aunt Margaret, who was already ill, was going to leave Jane her Jamaican estate. In the event, Margaret died in 1879, instantly setting up Jane and her family in comfortable circumstances. Therefore, argues Ruddick, Jane, despite facing dismissal by Bravo, could count on her inheritance to sustain her. In other words, had Bravo lived, Jane would have to rustle up another position immediately. So, as with Griffiths, naturally she would resent the hassle that entailed.

Jane’s problem, however, was that she had no idea how long Margaret would live. As it happened, it took five years (1874-1879) from the time she knew of the inheritance until she came into it. After Bravo’s death, Florence couldn’t afford to keep her anyway, so Jane had to get by for three more years. Suppose Margaret had lived another five or ten years? Every year that went by would be like a fuse burning until she was at the mercy of other relations.

I’m not saying that she would’ve been over the edge of despair to contemplate committing, or conspiring to commit murder in 1876. In fact, it’s incredible to think that she would’ve had anything to gain by doing so; she would still be out of a job, not to mention the fact that she’d have to dodge a police investigation. Actually, she did dodge that. Not without some speed bumps, as the author points out. One of the weirdest discrepancies in the evidence is that Mary Anne, coming from the ground floor, had to rouse both Jane and Florence, when Bravo was calling out not far from their door.

As Ruddick notes, Florence was too out of it to notice anyway, but apparently Jane was awake. What I do find a bit arbitrary is how Bravo’s alleged ‘confession’ (that he poisoned himself) was an out-and-out lie. Since, as the author’s intrepid research made a call at the still-intact Priory, why didn’t he photograph Bravo’s room, instead of providing a drawing? Sure, maybe that wasn’t possible; and it’s a very good drawing.

I figure, based on a typical door-frame width (in the U.S.) of c.30,” that the room was about 9′ wide–and let’s say 12′ long. Taking the drawing’s scale as fairly accurate, it’s a very small room. But who is to say that two people, on the far side of the bed, facing the window–which I believe is where Bravo and Jane were when he allegedly whispered to her–could be heard by another (Mary Anne) who was near the door on the other side of the bed?

The whole point of whispering is to exclude someone nearby. Bravo could have told Jane something without Mary Ann hearing. Ok, so much for that possible (non?) incident. Florence, on the other hand, once she had come around, acted firmly and decisively. She was the one who wanted a doctor there right away; as it happened, the local doctor immediately made the correct diagnosis.

Ruddick talks a lot about antimony, laudanum, and other substances that were used for various purposes, some of which were ingenious. To induce vomiting as a method of curbing one’s desire to drink was harsh, but obviously effective. I think the author speculates though when he says that “(T)here can be no question, however, that Florence had received advice from her female relatives about method of controlling Alexander’s (Ricardo) drinking” (p. 157). He goes to state that she “begin to slip Alexander small doses of antimony” for that purpose. And, regarding Bravo “(P)otassium antimony tartrate had Florence’s fingerprints all over it” (p. 157).

Because Florence knew that the poison was used on animals, and she knew that it was on-hand in the stables, means only just that. If she had been suspected of poisoning her first husband, then that lets the horses out of the barn, so to speak. But Ricardo died when they were separated. Bravo didn’t drink heavily; his problem was his nasty habit of forcing sex on her. If that’s what she was hoping to stop, wouldn’t it make more sense to spike his water with laudanum? It suits her purpose to make him drowsy, not kill him.

If we take the author’s statements about Florence’s knowledge of antimony at face value, then she should’ve known how much was needed to kill a human. In fact it was enough to kill ten people; and that much was just in what Bravo drank. The amount used was absurdly excessive. That suggests to me that whoever laced the water with antimony didn’t know much about it.

The only other suspect is Bravo himself. I completely agree with the author that Charles Bravo was hardly the type to kill himself. I do think it was weird, as Ruddick points out, that in the miserable hours left to Bravo between the poisoning and his death, he didn’t say one thing, not one clue or hint, about who was killing him. He didn’t even ask who might’ve done it. My only explanation touches on guilt. Maybe he did realize what a jerk he’d been to his wife, so he wasn’t altogether surprised at what had happened to him.

He wasn’t so repentant that he would take his own life, but, having been poisoned, perhaps he knew why. That doesn’t help explain why he wouldn’t give up Florence; maybe he thought it would be impossible to prove that anyway. Which it was.

I did enjoy this book, despite my quibbles with it. I can’t resist one other argument: part of Ruddick’s narrative of Ricardo concerns his comment (p. 11) on the Crimean War: “(I)t was barely nine years (1856-1864) since Britain had been beaten back in one of the worst military conflicts of the century…casualties had been high; the Light Brigade had been wiped out…at Balaclava.”

Correct in so far as the Light Brigade was effectively destroyed; very correct that Crimea was second only to the American Civil War (1861-1865) for deaths and overall casualties in warfare for the period from the end of the Napoleonic Wars to World War I (1815-1914).

But the jist of his statement, that Britain was “beaten” in the Crimean War, is not at all accurate. The Allies (Britain, France, Turkey, and Sardinia) landed in the Crimea in 1854. Battling disease and weather as much as the Russian enemy, the Allies eventually took the strategic fortress of Sebastopol, ending the war. The Russians were the ones to have been “beaten.” True, they took what they wanted from the Turks twenty years later.

It could be said that no one ‘won’ anything. It was a poorly conceived war, and settled nothing. Given hundreds of thousands of casualties, though, the five hundred or so unfortunate troopers of the Light Brigade who were killed would barely be a footnote to the war had the account of that engagement not caught the attention of Tennyson.

I had a lot to comment on because there’s a lot of history covered in this book. I recommend Death at the Priory to those with an interest in Victorian-era true crime. See who looks the most guilty, I sure don’t know. 7/10.

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