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facts and fiction - the beatifying of Jonathan Whicher
on 5 October 2014
This is a example of what a true crime book should be, with one major exception - it makes a hard-done-to saint out of Jonathan Whicher. In fact it ignores all of Whicher's malfeasance in this case.
I have read many reviews that say there is far too much information about the sociological history of the time. From my point of view (as a lecturer in Forensic and Criminal Psychology, Criminology and Crime History) it is the awareness of the sociology of the time that makes understanding the crime clearer. You should not apply the sociological standards of today to 150 years ago, nor should you apply them to 10 years ago. If you truly want to understand the crime then you need to appreciate the historical context. This is one of the most difficult concepts to get a student of the genre to understand and it is something that the author has done well.
It is a very well researched, well written book, accurate to the known facts of the case - yet it ignores all the information available about the corruption and behaviour of Jonathan Whicher.
The murder of three year old Saville Kent in 1860 and its investigation by Scotland Yard detective Jonathan Whicher was the first "country house" murder and set the standard for the fictionalised versions to come.
*** please note - there are spoilers below ***
Jonathan "Jack" Whicher was a man of the old school - a man who would do or say anything to get the confession and/or the conviction - he was one of the original corrupt coppers.
He was renowned for his use of violence, threats of violence, threats against family, and the general manipulation of his chosen "guilty party" (his "suspects" were usually easy to manipulate because they were usually poor and uneducated) in order to get a confession.
When the confession wasn't forthcoming Whicher would walk into the courtroom say "I am Whicher of Scotland Yard and (s)he is guilty" and that was it - his word was taken and the poor soul would be sentenced to death. I have always wondered how many people (men, women and children) Whicher sent to the gallows (or to hard labour) knowing that he had the wrong person and that he had just lied on the stand to keep his 100% solved/conviction rate.
Yet when this little town in the countryside didn't fall to their knees in worship of the "great one", he became so frustrated and annoyed at how "backward" they were that he began insulting to those in authority to him. At one point suggesting that the head magistrate had been "sired by a pig".
Whicher walked into the room which had been appointed for the magistrate hearing and said his usual "I am Whicher of Scotland Yard and she [pointing out Constance Kent] is guilty of the murder of Saville Kent" only to be left stunned as he was told that he would be required to present evidence pointing to her guilt as his word was not enough.
A disbelieving Whicher rallied quickly.
Amongst the "evidence" he presented was:
- Whicher stated that Constance had disposed of clothing (a nightdress) which was blood stained. Asked where the blood stained clothing was, he was forced to admit that none had been found. This caused much muttered consternation with those who were present in the hall. It was later stated in the book that the local police chief had found the item and had disposed of it in order to bring disrepute upon Whicher - this is not true.
- A cloth had been found in the undergrowth on a dirt track. Whicher enquired what it was for and was told it was a cloth used by women who were menstruating. Whicher then jumped to the conclusion that this cloth must have belonged to Constance. There was no evidence to show it belonged to anyone in the Kent household, in fact, it could have belonged to absolutely any female in the district.
- Whicher then went on to tell the court that Constance was guilty because she had no morals and was a "loose woman" - when asked to put-up-or-shut-up he said that she was menstruating and that only sexually active women menstruate. The men present showed their disgust and derision at this statement by laughing and jeering at Whicher, but these men that Whicher was dealing with were mainly farmers and not the toffs from London who knew (or wanted to know) little about the ins-and-outs of feminine monthly activity.
- Whicher went as far as to suggest that Constance and her brother William were having an incestuous relationship and that this accounted for her menstruation. This was met with absolute outrage in the court.
- Whicher was questioned as to how Constance could have carried the child (along with the weapon) down stairs, out of the house and held him while slitting his throat. His response further shocked and infuriated the court room. Whicher stated that William must have been her "helper" during the murder of Saville because he was her lover and in her power.
Whicher was asked for proof of this and said "you have my word that it is so and that is enough".
Once again the room roared its absolute disgust and the magistrates stated that they were appalled that a "man of the law" would stoop to suggest such things without any proof. Even the press, which had supported the "great one" were turning on against him. One report stated that Whicher was grasping at straws and was saying anything just blacken the reputation of an innocent 15-year-old girl.
On went the questioning for over an hour.
Whicher had tried to find anything that would show Constance in a bad light. He had gone to her school and approached her teachers and her classmates, he even went to the grounds keepers to see if they had any gossip.
One of the young girls called to testify at the hearing was a school friend of Constance. Whicher stated that she had told him that Constance hated Saville and that she had repeatedly said she wished him dead.
When the girl took the stand she was asked "have you ever heard Constance say anything against her brother Saville?" To which she answered "no" and continued that "Constance was delighted to have a new brother to care for".
It was at this point that Whicher stood up and started to take over the questioning of the child. He towered over her and according to the record shouted at the child and was deliberately intimidating.
Whicher was a man who was not accustomed to being countered by a lawyer or even a judge. In fact Whicher was notorious for taking things into his own hands in a court room. If he thought that the prosecution was not forcing an issue enough or if things were not progressing fast enough he would step in and take over the questioning of the witnesses himself - something which would never be allowed in a court room in this day and age and it was something which was not allowed by the magistrate in that court room during that hearing. Whicher was told to sit down.
The magistrate asked if she had said what Whicher had told them. She said "yes" and when asked why she had said those things about Constance she told the court that Whicher had frightened and threatened her.
Whicher brought 2 other girls to the hearing to "testify" against Constance. Both girls withdrew their statements saying that Whicher had told them if they didn't say what he wanted them to he would have their families arrested. One of whom stated that she had been questioned by Whicher in her room, alone (there was no chaperone present), and that he had lost his temper with her and struck her across the face causing her "lip and nose to bleed and her eye to become blackened and swollen shut". The "matron" of the school testified to the girl's injuries.
While waiting on remand, Whicher had repeatedly visited Constance and threatened to have her father and brothers, William and Edward, arrested unless she confessed. He tried to frighten and intimidate her with threats of beatings and tales of what happened to girls like her in prison. He sunk so low as to promise that she would not go to prison if she confessed.
Whicher even brought her father in to talk her into confessing to save his reputation and business (as well as dressing a constable up as a priest in the hope that she would confess to him). Regardless of how little her father had done to intervene between his 2nd wife and his children (she was known to be violent to all the children including her own), Constance still loved him.
Constance, however, was stronger than they thought for a child of her age and she maintained her innocence.
The panel dismissed the charges against Constance and she walked free, back into the arms of her not-so-loving family and her father's care. This was, however, for a brief time as she was shipped off to a convent to become a nun. Whicher proclaimed this proof that the family believed she was guilty; others, who knew the family, said that the 2nd Mrs Kent had finally got her own way and had removed all 3 of the first wife's children from the household (Edward having run away to sea and died, and William who was shipped off to boarding school where he stayed and rarely came home).
So Constance was free, yet Whicher was not to be defeated. He still harassed Constance and her family at every opportunity. When William went to university Whicher contacted the institution telling them that William had assisted his sister to murder their brother and that he had done so due to the incestuous relationship. The university Dean, to whom the letter had been sent, contacted Scotland Yard in an attempt to discover whether or not the allegations in the letter he had received from Whicher were true. It was at this point, only a few weeks after the debacle of the magistrates hearing, that Whicher was "allowed" to "retire" from the force on health grounds. This stopped any further enquiry into Whicher's behaviour and removed his ability to use Scotland Yard to further his vendetta against Constance and her family.
When William gained employment Whicher contacted his employer with the same allegations (written as fact on stolen Scotland Yard headed paper) and William would be fired.
Whicher let it be known in London that, as far as he was concerned, Constance was guilty, but that the yokels in the village had let her go free, because they were too stupid to understand the "evidence" against her. Unfortunately for Whicher many people had read the coverage of the case and few believed him.
Whicher deteriorated into a fervent drunk (not that he had been teetotal beforehand) but even after his "resignation" he hounded Constance continually. Eventually Constance could take no more and with a promise from Whicher that he would stay away from her family (in particular William) she confessed - the deal was made in front of the convent's priest and it was his guilt at allowing this that made him publicly declare and acknowledge what had happened (but only after Whicher's death from alcohol related illness).
Whicher's technique of breaking down suspects in order to get confessions had taken a lot longer to work with Constance, but in the end it did work. She stood in the courtroom and was convicted, yet few believed that she was guilty.
Jonathan Whicher attempted to get his job back at Scotland Yard by claiming that he had been "dismissed" unfairly. His claims were met with as much derision as those he had originally made against Constance had.
I will point out now that there has never been any evidence to show that Constance Kent was the murderer of Saville Kent.
Looking at the family was easy (it is one of the first things you do - try to clear the household), as was picking on what he perceived to be a naïve and quiet girl who was despised by her step-mother (possibly one of the best examples of a "wicked stepmother" in history).
The stepmother was a woman who outwardly appeared caring but was in fact cold and cruel and couldn't wait to get rid of the offspring of her husbands first wife - even though she had been the housekeeper, then tutor and governess for the children, then finally lover of Mr Kent and had nursed Mr Kent's first wife when she became ill and died. The symptoms of her illness matching with antimony poisoning.
The future Mrs Kent definitely stood to gain a lot by the death of the first Mrs Kent, and by the removal of the children from the first marriage ... but the death of her own child? Well, it got rid of the unwanted children I suppose.
Mr Kent, however, is a more viable suspect. His 2nd wife had expensive tastes and a lack of understanding with regards to monetary control. His business was in a bad state - he had been "borrowing" money from the business to support his extravagant wife, he had pulled the children out of their expensive schools and had dismissed most of the servants. With his costly wife, 3 children from the first marriage, one from the second, one on the way and an inability to pay the local merchants for food and other supplies ... he could have easily reached the tipping point.
*** End of Spoilers ***
The author missed the opportunity to "open" the investigation to scrutiny, which is a shame as there were so many things that happened before, during and after the investigation to look at that raise questions about the murder and its investigation.
For example, Whicher ignored a window which had been forced open (the damage to frame was to the outside) and the footprints dirt which showed someone had entered there, saying with certainty that the killer came from within the household - yet he offered no reasoning for this conclusion.
Psychologically Whicher had become blinkered. He had come across a strong minded and educated teenage girl who had stood up to him and refused to be bullied or manipulated. This intelligent girl had annoyed at Whicher as her own knowledge and ability have allowed her to counter and question many of the things that he said and did. In doing so she had placed the target firmly on her own forehead and Whicher was loading the gun to fire.
When two strong minded people clash on opposite sides only one can win and in this case it was the highly corrupt Whicher.
One other thing that wasn't really made clear in the book is that defendants were not allowed to testify on their own behalf - they had to stand there and listen but could make no statement about their innocence (or guilt) to the court. So Constance would never have been able to say anything to support her claim of innocence or about the behaviour of Whicher towards her and her family.
I would have liked to have seen more honesty about the man, and less beatifying of one of the first corrupt coppers - other than that it is an interesting view of the Road Hill House murder case.