In the summer of 1895, readers of British newspapers were both shocked and gripped by the case of two boys accused of killing their mother in her London home.
The decomposing body of Emily Coombes had lain in bed for ten days while her sons, aged 12 and 13 had a jolly time. They played cards, went to cricket matches and to the seaside and ate their favourites foods. They fobbed off relatives’ inquiries about their mother with a variety of reasons for her absence. Only when neighbours noticed a sickening smell coming from the terraced house was the crime revealed. One local newspaper described the murder as ‘the most horrible, the most awful and revolting crime that we have ever been called upon to record.”
The true-life story of Robert Coombes and his younger brother Nathaniel (known as Nattie) is revealed in Kate Summerscale’s The Wicked Boy.
This book is a forensic examination of the events before and after the day in July when Robert stabbed his mother with a knife he had bought specifically for that purpose. Robert admitted immediately that he had killed his mother, explaining that it was because Nattie had been beaten for stealing food and he thought he would be next. Nattie was let off the murder charge so he could testify against his brother,
When Robert appeared for trial at the Old Bailey, the key question for the jurors was whether he was mad or just bad.
Contemporary opinion was that criminals and lunatics had certain physical characteristics that distinguished them from normal people. Robert’s demeanour contradicted that theory however. While his brother sobbed and shook with fear, Robert was cool and calm, a picture of a young gentleman dressed smartly and neatly in a boater and blazer.
Some of the Coombes’ neighbours testified that he was a clever and musically talented child, well-spoken and well-dressed. His teachers described him as obedient and unusually bright.
If he wasn’t mad or bad had he killed his mother in the interests of self preservation? Was it true, as both children claimed, that Mrs Coombes was prone to sudden outbreaks of violence against her children, particularly when her husband was away at sea?
Summerscale posits another idea: that Robert was influenced by the Penny Dreadfuls —sensational comics which chronicled the adventures of pirates and highwaymen — a collection of which were found in his bedroom.
In the end the jury brought in a verdict of guilty but insane and he was sent to the Broadmoor high-security psychiatric hospital for an indefinite period.
At this point in the narrative other authors may have brought the book to an end with a short summary of what happened to Robert subsequent to his conviction. But Summerscale is nothing if not a completist and also a meticulous researcher. The Wicked Boy is packed with social, historical and political details but Summerscale never allows the factual content to detract from the story itself.
She visited Broadmoor, discovering the lad was a model prisoner who learned to sew and to to grow veg and became a skilled chess player. By chance she found a picture of his gravestone in Australia and discovered he had emigrated after 17 years incarceration, had won a medal while serving in World War 1 and was a well respected leader of a military band. The very model of an upright citizen about whose previous troubles no-one in Australia was aware.
If the details about Robert’s childhood are interesting, it was the sections about his time at Broadmoor and then his military service that fascinated me the most. I had imagined Broadmoor at the end of the 19th century to operate an austere regime but it was actually rather enlightened. Robert was allowed access to books, could walk in flower gardens and encouraged to take part in activities like chess and billiards. He was taught to play the violin and the cornet to almost a professional standard.
At the start of World War 1 when the Australian government pledged its full support for the allied cause, Robert enlisted for the army. He was despatched to Egypt for training and then to Gallipoli where he served with great distinction, being mentioned for his bravery under sustained attacks. He also led the troops to and from the trenches in France, playing stirring tunes on his cornet.
In due course he returned to Australia, living in a quiet shack in a remote valley where he grew and sold vegetables. When one of his neighbours was arrested for a vicious assault on his son, Robert stepped in and became the boy’s ward. Kate Summerscale tracked the boy — now a man in his nineties — to his home in Australia and learned how Robert had been a force for good in his life. That man, Harry Mulville, gave thanks to his de facto father by arranging a headstone for Robert.
By the end of The Wicked Boy it was impossible not to feel that whatever wrong Robert had committed in his early life, his rescue of another unhappy child, had in the end been his redemption.
The Wicked Boy by Kate Summerscale was published by Bloomsbury in 2016. It was shortlisted in the non fiction category of the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger Award in 2017. It went on to win the 2017 Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime. There’s an interesting interview with The Telegraph newspaper in which Summerscale explains what drew her to the story of the Coombes family.