Day 976: The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer

Cover for The Wicked BoyDuring a scorching 1895 July in East London, Robert Coombes murdered his mother while she was sleeping. He and his younger brother Nattie continued to live in the house for ten days with their mother locked in her bedroom, decaying. They hocked items from the house for money and attended a cricket game and a play. They told neighbors and relatives their mother had gone to Liverpool to visit her sister. They invited a laborer named John Fox to live with them, and they all slept downstairs in the parlor. Their father was away at sea at the time.

When the boys’ Aunt Emily forced her way into the house and found the body, Robert told her that his mother had beaten Nattie and that Nattie had asked Robert to kill her when he gave the signal. This story later seemed to have been forgotten, and Nattie testified against Robert in trial.

This crime was shocking to the Victorians, and there were many theories about it, from the morally debilitating effects of the penny dreadfuls Robert loved to ideas about children’s innate base instincts that must be covered over by civilizing influences. No one really knows why Robert killed his mother, but journalist and writer Kate Summerscale has her ideas.

link to NetgalleySummerscale was able to follow Robert’s movements to Broadmoor Asylum after his committal and traced his career in World War I as an instrumentalist and stretcher bearer. At first I wondered where the epilogue was going but figured it was connected with the opening of the novel, about a fleeing boy.

I found this book very interesting. Although most of it focuses on the crime and trial, I found this story of a murderer’s redemption satisfying.

Related Posts

The Invention of Murder: How Victorians Reveled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime

The Fall of the House of Walworth: A Tale of Madness and Murder in Gilded Age America

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8 thoughts on “Day 976: The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer

  1. Carolyn O September 27, 2016 / 1:36 pm

    I’m looking forward to reading this.

  2. themisanthropologist September 27, 2016 / 8:30 pm

    Interesting! I didn’t know she wrote another novel like that. I had read her novel about Mr. Whicher, which is also about a murder of a child during the Victorian era. That was pretty interesting too.

    • whatmeread September 28, 2016 / 8:16 am

      I hadn’t heard of her before, but I enjoyed this book.

      • themisanthropologist September 28, 2016 / 9:16 am

        The book is called The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher. It was pretty interesting because she also linked the crime to the rise and popularity of crime fiction.

      • whatmeread September 28, 2016 / 9:17 am

        I will look it up.

  3. Naomi September 28, 2016 / 9:38 am

    How horrifying, to be killed by your child. Although, I can’t help but wonder if she had it coming (maybe she was mean to them). And then to keep her body there, rotting. Surely it would have traumatized them for life?

    • whatmeread September 28, 2016 / 9:41 am

      That was pretty much the conclusion of the book, that the boys might have been abused.

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