Today’s Heinous Yet Truly Morbid Fact!
The mournful cawing of crows and creaking of bare branches lent the woodland in the remote Kent countryside a sinister enough air, but late one autumn afternoon it was rent by an even more chilling sound.
As he would later testify in one of the most sensational murder trials in Victorian Britain, an old farmer who was passing through was convinced that he had heard a woman’s scream.
For a few moments he wondered whether he should investigate, but the noise was not repeated and so he walked on, puzzling at his foolishness in mistaking the whistling wind for a female in distress.
This decision would come to haunt him as he learned that, in a grimy hovel nearby, heiress Harriet Staunton was being held captive by a gang led by her own husband.
This ruthless fortune-hunter plotted to dispatch both her and their baby son Tommy in a manner later described by a judge as ‘so black and hideous that it would be difficult to find its parallel’.
The year was 1876. But so horrible were the details, that the Penge Murder Mystery, as it became known, was still being talked about in the Thirties when it inspired a novel by schoolteacher turned author Elizabeth Jenkins.
Now the novel has been republished. And it follows the case so closely, detailing the greed and astonishing barbarity of Harriet’s tormentors and the extraordinary quirk of fate which eventually brought them to justice, that it has brought this cruel episode terrifyingly to life.
The perpetrators’ actions were all the more heinous given that Harriet Staunton was a particularly vulnerable young woman.
It has been suggested that this daughter of an Essex clergyman had been deprived of oxygen at birth but, whatever the cause, she undoubtedly became a grown woman with the mental capacity of a child.
Her father died when she was only 12 and, it might be argued, she was further cursed when a great-aunt left her the very considerable sum of £5,000 — the equivalent of around half a million pounds today.
In those days, a woman’s property went automatically to her husband upon marriage, a fact not lost on 23-year-old Louis Staunton, a smooth- talking auctioneer’s clerk from Streatham in South London, who was ten years Harriet’s junior.
He got to know her through his sweetheart, 15-year-old Alice Rhodes, a publican’s daughter who would also become implicated in Harriet’s murder.
Their machinations began when Alice’s father died and her mother was remarried. The mother’s new husband was Thomas Hinksman, a cousin of Harriet’s, and Louis Staunton saw his opportunity when this wealthy but impressionable young woman came to stay at the Hinksmans’ home nearby in Waterloo.
With his dark good looks and seedy charm, he easily persuaded Harriet that his gifts of sweets and treats of oyster suppers after visits to the theatre were proof of genuine affection, and after the briefest of courtships she returned home and announced proudly that they were engaged. This despite the fact he had never broken off his relationship with Alice.
Her mother’s suspicions about Staunton’s motives were confirmed when, on the Sunday after Harriet’s return, he came to visit the family. When she told him marriage was out of the question, he pointed out that Harriet was well past the age where she needed parental consent and there was nothing she could do about it.
He was right. The more Harriet’s mother opposed the marriage, the stronger grew Harriet’s child-like determination to do as she pleased.
At one point, her mother tried to place her under the protection of the Court of Chancery as a lunatic, but the application was refused, and Harriet and Louis were married in Clapham in June 1875.
Harriet’s mother refused to attend the wedding and, a few weeks later, received a letter from her daughter explaining that her husband objected to her calling upon them and saying, as she later recalled, that ‘she thought I had better not come, to prevent any disturbance between them’.
Although this was in Harriet’s hand, the accurate spelling alone was enough to tell her that it had not been written unaided — and she was right to be worried, for the next time she saw her daughter she was in her coffin.
The spring after the letter was sent, Harriet gave birth to son Thomas, but her husband showed little interest in either his newborn child or his wife. He wrote to Alice Rhodes assuring her ‘there will be a time when Harriet will be out of the way and we shall be happy together’, and soon afterwards he used Harriet’s money to buy Little Grays, a farmhouse near the Kentish hamlet of Cudham. Just 20 minutes walk away was the rundown cottage that was to become Harriet’s prison.
This was home to Louis’s younger brother Patrick, a struggling artist married to Alice’s older sister Elizabeth. Together, the two sets of siblings began plotting to get rid of Harriet.
That summer, Louis ensured that she was cut off from all her family and friends by moving her and her baby son to a tiny upstairs bedroom in Patrick Staunton’s cottage, which was safely hidden from public view.
At the same time, he and Alice moved into Little Grays where they began living together as man and wife. Alice played the part to the full, wearing a wedding ring and introducing herself to unwitting villagers as Mrs Staunton.
They were unaware that the real Mrs Staunton was imprisoned upstairs in her brother-in-law’s cottage. It was here in this squalid cell, with no curtains, washing facilities or proper bed, just boards across three trestles, that the cruel quartet began the process of slowly starving to death Harriet and the baby.
To prevent her escape, her outdoor clothes were taken away and locked in a trunk, with the collection of fine dresses and jewelry she had delighted in wearing over the years taken over to Little Grays, to be rifled through by Alice Rhodes.
She was forbidden from leaving her room, and the family’s maid, Clara Brown, recalled how Patrick Staunton, a violent and domineering man, made it clear what would happen if she did.
‘You must not come downstairs you damned cat, or I’ll break your back,’ he would snarl at her.
By this point, Harriet’s mother was making desperate attempts to track her down. By chance, she bumped into Alice Rhodes at London Bridge station and noticed that she was wearing Harriet’s favourite brooch.
Rhodes insisted Harriet had given it to her, but Harriet’s mother was unconvinced and, when the Stauntons’ charwoman in London told her they had moved to Cudham, she tracked them down to Little Grays and demanded to see her daughter.
Louis Staunton refused to let her in, and she had no choice but to go back to London, unaware of the misery being endured by her daughter in the nearby cottage.
That October, Harriet attempted to run out into the garden when she heard her husband and Alice Rhodes cavorting together on the lawn, but Patrick Staunton grabbed her, struck her across the face and pushed her back into the house.
Her screams reached the ears of that passing farmer, but from then on the only signs that there were two human beings incarcerated upstairs were the baby’s feeble cries and Harriet’s desperate animal-like whispering as she scratched feverishly at her lice-infested skin.
As winter came, the cold and continual hunger eventually took a toll on them both. On the afternoon of Sunday, April 8, 1877, Patrick and Elizabeth Staunton took baby Thomas to Guy’s Hospital in London, claiming to be acting on behalf of a mother who was unable to take care of him.
By then a year old, the child was little bigger than the size of a newborn and had a bruised cheek — no doubt testimony to Patrick Staunton’s cruelty. He died of malnourishment that same evening and, the next day, Louis Staunton visited a nearby undertaker, posing as a friend of the father, and asked that the body be removed from the hospital and given the cheapest funeral possible. There were no mourners in attendance.
Five days later, Harriet was also nearing death. Keen to prevent any doctor from seeing the terrible conditions in which she had been living, the Stauntons waited until she was half-conscious, then dragged her from the house and took by her open carriage, and then by train, to a lodging house 12 miles away in the London suburb of Penge. She died there not long after her arrival. Just as planned, a local doctor accepted their false account of her symptoms and certified that she had succumbed to apoplexy.
The Stauntons might have got away with their crime but for an almost unbelievable coincidence. When Louis Staunton went into a local post office to inquire about where to record the death, the man behind him in the queue was Louis de Casabianca, the husband of Harriet’s sister.
Casabianca, who just happened to be in the area and wanted a stamp, was well aware Harriet’s family believed she was in Cudham, so when Staunton mentioned his dead wife’s age, and the name of that place, he made further inquiries and discovered that the deceased was, indeed, his sister-in-law.
He alerted the local police and the subsequent inquest recorded the full horror of Harriet’s suffering.
She was half the usual weight for a woman of her size and her body was in the filthiest state imaginable with ‘dirt which had to be scraped off like the bark on a tree’.
The soles of her feet were horny and caked with grime, which suggested that she had been denied shoes for quite some time, and her matted and insect-ridden hair completed a picture of suffering which appalled the nation.
Within weeks of the arrest of the four conspirators on charges of wilful murder, their effigies were being displayed in the Gallery of Horrors at Madame Tussaud’s waxworks, and thousands of souvenir-hunters descended on Little Grays when the house and its effects were put up for auction that summer.
When the case came to trial in September, the public gallery was full of well-heeled ladies who remained in their seats throughout the lunch breaks, eating sandwiches and drinking champagne as if they were at some kind of society party.
They were enthralled as the defense team outlined the Stauntons’ astonishing claims that Harriet was an alcoholic who had refused all offers of food, and evidence from medical experts who claimed that she had died not of starvation but meningitis brought on by tuberculosis.
None of this convinced the jury. The four defendants were found guilty and sentenced to death, but with just days to go before their hangings, there was a remarkable turn of events.
The medical profession was furious that evidence put forward by some of its leading lights had been dismissed by both the judge and the jury, and some 700 top physicians signed a letter of protest to The Lancet. Faced with such a strong and vocal body of apparently expert opinion, the Home Secretary of the day reviewed the case.
Somewhat surprisingly, given that she was clearly fully aware of what had gone on, Alice Rhodes was given a full pardon and released.
As for the others, they had their death sentences commuted to penal servitude for life.
Three years later, Patrick Staunton died of consumption while still behind bars, but his wife was released quietly in 1883 and even Louis Staunton, the longest-serving of all three, was out by 1897.
To Harriet’s family, this hardly seemed like justice and it seems that they were right to be outraged. Some 40 years later, the legendary pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury would give a speech to the Medico-Legal Society about the case.
In this, he suggested that the findings of Harriet’s post-mortem were overwhelmingly in favour of starvation, lending even greater poignancy to the lines of a then popular ballad about her plight: ‘No one to love her. No one to care, For the poor starving wife, in secret despair.’
Culled from: Daily Mail
Awful, awful people. I can’t believe those idiotic doctors intervened on behalf of Staunton like that.
Here’s the book that is mentioned briefly in the article:
Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins
Here’s sweet, childishly naive young Harriet, at the time of her engagement to Louis:
And here’s 23-year-old Louis Staunton and his 15-year-old mistress Alice:
What a loathsome couple!
Follow-Up Du Jour!
Yesterday I featured a morbid mirth from MFDJ-patron Eleanor Cooney’s wonderful book Death In Slow Motion, Eleanor wrote to tell me that there is also a website dedicated to the book, which details her complex relationship with her Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother. You can read more excerpts from the book here too. Great stuff!
Death In Slow Motion
Morbid Mirth Du Jour!
Thanks to David for this one.