Cover image for Death at the Priory : love, sex and murder in Victorian England
Death at the Priory : love, sex and murder in Victorian England
Ruddick, James.
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Publication Information:
New York : Atlantic Monthly Press, 2001.
Physical Description:
xii, 209 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 22 cm
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HV6535.G73 L67 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
HV6535.G73 L67 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf

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In 1875, the beautiful widow Florence Ricardo married Charles Bravo and made her home at the estate Priory. His sudden death was eventually ruled a poisoning. Now James Ruddick retells this gripping story of love, greed, brutality, and betrayal among the elite, offering an intimate portrait of Victorian culture and of one woman's struggle to live in this repressive society--and unmasking the true murderer for the first time.

Author Notes

James Ruddick is a journalist and television researcher

Reviews 3

Publisher's Weekly Review

Journalist Ruddick (Lord Lucan: What Really Happened) presents a colorful, entertaining account of an unsolved Victorian murder, rife with uneasy class and gender issues. The sensational 1876 domestic poisoning, which fascinated Agatha Christie and others, features archetypal mystery elements, including a gloomy south London mansion, inscrutable servants, rejected lovers, a despicable victim and a protagonist embodying her era's tortured sexual politics. The young Florence Ricardo attained fortune and social position after her alcoholic, abusive husband's death, but the discovery of her affair with the much older, prominent physician James Gully jeopardized her standing. Thus she enthusiastically agreed to marry attorney Charles Bravo. Unfortunately, Bravo emerged as a mean-spirited misogynist, controlling Florence's finances and treating her as his sexual possession, even following a traumatic miscarriage. In his final days Bravo dismissed Florence's servants willy-nilly, providing numerous suspects in his murder: one night, his water pitcher was spiked with a lethal dose of tartar emetic, a derivative of antimony. Initial suspicion centered on Mrs. Cox, Florence's taciturn housekeeper, who seemingly misled doctors and investigators, and Florence herself was humiliatingly grilled during the inquest. Despite widespread speculation, officials concluded that there was insufficient evidence against any of the suspects. Ruddick shrewdly surveys these events, illuminating his story with trenchant insights into key figures' lives and the social codes that encouraged Bravo's chauvinism and made Florence an outcast for her attempted self-determination. He catalogues previous theories about the culprit (Christie favored the jilted Dr. Gully), then offers a plausible hypothesis. This well-executed portrait of Victorian mores and malice will please the mystery and true-crime crowd and very possibly a wider audience. Eight pages b&w photos not seen by PW. (Jan.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Journalist/television researcher Ruddick (Lord Lucan: What Really Happened) here revisits an unsolved murder that generated a tumultuous 19th-century legal drama. Examining the sudden collapse and death of Charles Bravo at his wealthy wife's manor and the ensuing coroner's inquest branded by the Times as "the most disgusting exhibition to have been witnessed in this generation" he has produced a book that is both murder mystery and social history. However, the book is not convincing in either capacity. Ruddick notes that he acquired "privileged access" to original sources, including unpublished letters and family papers, but what he deems the "only plausible explanation" (i.e., that Florence Bravo poisoned her husband and concealed the crime with the help of her housekeeper) still relies heavily on speculation. Further, his provocative thesis that Florence Bravo's rejection of the feminine status quo and her "attempt to take control of her life" foreshadowed a pattern of social change is worthy of a much more precise investigation than Ruddick provides here. Recommended for large public libraries with an interest in Victorian history. Robert C. Jones, Central Missouri State Univ., Warrensburg (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

School Library Journal Review

Adult/High School-A true-crime story that will hook readers from the beginning. A young woman, a faithful housekeeper, a former lover, an abusive husband-all are the ingredients of a classic murder mystery, but all play into this story of real life and death in 1876 England. Ruddick considers the facts, introduces the people involved, and "solves" a case that has fascinated people for more than 126 years. Just a few months into his marriage to Florence, Charles Bravo became desperately ill. Despite the best efforts of the finest physicians, he died after three days of terrible suffering. Within the week, two Scotland Yard Detectives were assigned to investigate foul play. A coroner's inquest was held and the scandalous details of lives were divulged. Despite five weeks of testimony, the jury announced that there was "insufficient" evidence to name Bravo's murderer. That's where the case remained until the author began conducting his own investigation in 1999. He became hooked as he read about and revisited the case and tried to bring a fresh perspective to an unsolved poisoning. Teens will find this a fascinating look at the lifestyles of the Victorian age.-Peggy Bercher, Fairfax County Public Library, VA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One The Bridge of Sighs The physician should control, and not pander to, his patient. DR JAMES GULLY, The Water Cure in Chronic Disease Florence Campbell would never forget the first time she saw Alexander Ricardo. Even years later, after suffering prolonged abuse at his hands, she would remember that night and speak of it with a fondness that surprised people. He had been standing with a group of officers, wearing the grey-green colours of the Grenadier Guards. 'He was a very dashing and handsome boy,' said Peter Ricardo, a descendant of his family. 'He had no shortage of female admirers.'     Twelve years later, speaking to her father's secretary about that night, Florence could recall every detail: how she had effected an introduction; how they had danced together three times and then gone out onto the balcony, away from the other guests. Ricardo was the model of a military hero, straight out of a novel by Jane Austen. His hair was thick and black and cut short. His face was lean, with dark eyes and heavy, hooded brows. Florence told her sister Edith that he looked Byronic. She was dazzled by handsome men--it was a joke between the sisters--and Alexander was 'easily' the most handsome she had ever met.     As they sat on the balcony, she said, she picked her way carefully over his credentials: his father was a Liberal MP, he told her, and his mother was a great society beauty, the sister of the Duke of Fife. 'He told me that he had been in the army all his life, since a boy,' she said later, 'although his family wanted him to take up business.' Now twenty-two, Ricardo had been stationed in Canada, at the Royal Military College, for two years.     The following day Florence spoke to her father. It was done carefully, discreetly. Most young women of her generation had perfected paternal relations into an art form. And Florence had to be more careful than most. Robert Campbell was a staunch Protestant, a Calvinist, who regarded the selection of a suitable marriage partner for his daughters as of equal importance to expanding his vast commercial empire. But Campbell liked the sound of Ricardo. He knew of the family--John Ricardo, the boy's father, had founded the International Telegraph Company--and his mother was a neighbour of theirs in Belgravia. He asked Florence to bring the captain to lunch.     For Alexander Ricardo the attractions of nineteen-year-old Florence Campbell were obvious. Her auburn hair was long and rich, styled in the close ringlets that were then just becoming fashionable amongst actresses such as Ellen Terry and Sarah Fielding. She had a voluptuous figure, which she accentuated with impossibly tight dresses from Collard and Jay's. Her eyes were a cool, dispassionate grey, framed by small, fragile features. It was the kind of face, looking at it now, which must have aroused masculine protectiveness.     As a child Florence had been infuriatingly stubborn, sulking for days when she didn't get her own way. She kept that characteristic in adulthood, and people remarked on how headstrong and determined she was. But there was a vulnerability to her also, a kind of inner fragility. She adored animals, particularly horses, and often seemed to retreat into their world when she was anxious or upset. Her mother remembered how her eighteenth birthday had been ruined by the death of a family pet, which she had mourned for weeks.     One of the most striking things about Florence was her voice. She had spent her early years in Australia, following her father around the various mines owned by the Campbell family, and she could apparently pass for one of the Adelaide population. Yet all her relatives spoke with Scottish accents, and as she grew up their dialect affected her as well. To complicate matters further, she was given elocution lessons as a teenager. The result was an accent that seemed to belong to the English upper classes, but which would meander back to her formative origins when it came across certain words.     Robert Campbell liked Captain Ricardo and gave permission for him to court his daughter. When the time came for them to leave Canada, Ricardo arranged for three months' leave and spent the summer at the family's country house, Buscot Park, in Berkshire. Buscot still stands today, a vast Palladian mansion, with square Georgian windows and Regency columns. The park must have been at its most beautiful then. Campbell had designed a huge lake that powered a new distillery, and had built an arbour and water garden.     Six weeks later, at the beginning of August, the couple became engaged. The wedding was fixed for 21 September 1864. The newspapers talked excitedly of a union between two great families of Europe. The Ricardos were Dutch Jews, of enormous antiquity and grandeur, while the Campbells were Scottish landowners. 'The service is to take place at Buscot church,' said an Oxfordshire newspaper, 'and is to be conducted by Samuel Wilberforce.'     After the honeymoon, which was spent on the Rhine, the couple returned to England and took up residence at a sumptuous house in the West Country. An idyllic life seemed to stretch ahead. Robert Campbell gave his daughter a marriage settlement of £1,000 a year, and loaned the couple his houses in Brighton and London during the holiday season. But by the spring, barely seven months into the marriage, he received word from his daughter that things were already going wrong.     The kernel could be traced back to a discussion that had taken place on the honeymoon. Florence had told Alexander that she wanted him to give up his career in the military. He was married now and the next natural step was to have children--lots of children. A military career did not fit with his civilian responsibilities, she said, it made a secure family life impossible.     It was barely nine years since Britain had been beaten back in one of the worst military conflicts of the century: conditions for troops in the Crimea had been appalling; casualties had been high; the Light Brigade had been wiped out in a disastrous charge at Balaclava. The British army continued to sustain imperial interests in southern Africa, India, Australia and the Far East. Tensions ran high between the nation states of Europe, busy carving up Africa. It was a dangerous time to wear a uniform. What if Alexander was sent abroad? What if he was lost in conflict? It was more than likely, Florence argued; it was highly probable.     For Alexander the army had been a way of life. He had never done anything else. He could see his wife's point of view--he was his father's only son and there was a duty to further the lineage. But there was little in civilian life to attract him. He had no interest in business or commerce; politics bored him; the old professions--medicine, law, academia--left him cold.     In the spring of 1868 Alexander obtained an honourable discharge from the Grenadier Guards. Florence had finally won him over. The couple moved to Gatcombe Park and started a round of leisured, aristocratic pursuits: hunting, fishing, horse-riding. They gave regular parties and Alexander amused himself with occasional regimental dinners. But they were to prove futile diversions. He tried to involve himself in the family business--the International Telegraph Company was setting up an operation in northern Europe. He also found investors for Robert Campbell's new method of industrialized farming. But these pursuits almost always petered out. Alexander, rootless and bored, felt adrift without his regiment. He grew irritable and depressed. He and Florence began to argue. Within a year the whole edifice of the marriage was under strain.     Soon after his discharge, Florence discovered that Alexander was seeing another woman. Gossip from the servants confirmed that he had been sleeping with a girl who lived in the West End. Rumours also reached her that he had been seen with women at hotels in Sussex and the West Country. Florence confronted Alexander, who initially denied the stories. Later he confessed and promised to end the affairs. But his fidelity was always short-lived. He was good-looking and adventurous, much desired by women, whom he also found irresistible.     At the same time, Alexander's drinking began to get out of control. He had always been a heavy drinker--his friends were notorious dilettantes, and drinking was a way of life in the army, a test of masculinity. But now it seemed that Alexander couldn't function without it. 'It became apparent that he was dependent upon his brandy,' Florence recalled.     On several occasions Florence 'remonstrated' with her husband, imploring him to pull himself together and get his life in order. 'I pleaded with him to stop drinking,' she said. But nothing worked. On one occasion he was knocked down by a carriage on a country road and spent six weeks in bed. He experienced a terrifying attack of delirium tremens during his recuperation. But it didn't cure him. It was as if he had pressed a self-destruct button; as if he was on a collision course with the dark sides of his own personality.     'Our relationship was under great strain,' Florence said. 'I was very happy with him when we first met. He was very kind. But he gradually became more and more abusive--always attacking me and saying terrible things.' The terrible things were numerous--that he should never have married her; that she didn't understand him; that she had trapped him; that she controlled him; that she had ruined his life. 'Captain Ricardo said many mad things when he was drunk,' recalled Florence's mother. Florence came to the conclusion that her husband was a deeply troubled man, hiding behind a veneer of respectability, who was tortured by self-loathing. Only the army's rigid discipline, the security of its structure and routines, had kept Alexander afloat.     Looking back, Florence's reaction to her marital problems had something ritualized about it: at first she denied the problems existed and made excuses for her husband. When she could no longer lie, not even to herself, she ran away, spending weeks alone at her father's villa in Brighton, or touring the coast with friends. Finally--when her nerves were in shreds--she succumbed to a still rage. 'I did not know from one day to the next what state he would be in,' she said. 'I never knew whether he would abuse me when he came home at night. I could not even speak to him without being abused. I grew extremely depressed and ill.' She made up her mind to leave him.     The moment came just before Christmas, 1870. She was 'reproaching' her husband for insulting her sister during a lunch party, and his mood gradually darkened. Eventually he snapped, striking his wife in the face, three times. She screamed and struck at him with a hand mirror. Chairs were overturned. The valet rushed into the room and restrained his employer. It was a climactic scene: the effective end of a marriage. Florence packed a suitcase and summoned a carriage to take her at once to Buscot. It was nine o'clock at night and the journey took five hours, along treacherous and obscure roads.     Florence's parents were shocked by the sight of the thin and trembling girl who arrived on their doorstep. 'It was clear that my daughter had had a nervous collapse,' said Mrs Campbell. They took her into the drawing room, listened as she told them how Alexander had beaten her, and then called a doctor. Two hours later she went up to her old bedroom and slept.     Florence's return presented Robert Campbell with a fashionable dilemma. Campbell cared deeply for his daughter. 'He called her "little Florrie",' said Diana McManaway, Campbell's great-great-granddaughter, whom I interviewed in New Zealand. 'She was his favourite and he had spoilt her as a child.' But Campbell could not tolerate the idea of a man and wife being formally separated. Florence's decision to leave her husband was 'morally offensive', he believed, and could not be sanctioned. In the morning he told her that she had a duty to stand by her husband, regardless of his behaviour, and that he would arrange for her to be sent back to London. He promised to speak to Alexander as a compromise. At this point Florence became hysterical. Her father's reaction mined that deep seam of stubbornness that had been inside her since childhood. 'She said she would not return to Alexander under any circumstances,' recalled her mother. 'She would leave the house and never come back if we insisted.' Eventually Mrs Campbell intervened. She suggested that Florence go away for a while--alone--so that she could recuperate and reassess her feelings. That might also shock Alexander into reform. Florence could be admitted into the Hydro, a high-class sanatorium, run by the famous physician, James Gully. When she felt better she could make a proper decision about her future.     It was a typical Victorian compromise--postponing the issue, finding a formula on which everyone could agree. Florence saw it as her only realistic option, and so, three days later, she arrived at Dr Gully's clinic in Malvern, the Worcestershire spa town on the Welsh borders. Life at the Hydro reminded Florence of growing up. She had been raised at Buscot Park, a ten-bedroom mansion surrounded by 3,000 acres of parkland. She had swum in the lake, walked down to the church every Sunday, played in the woods with her sisters. It had been a remarkably insular and relaxed childhood. The Hydro had that feeling of shelter, too. Its atmosphere was designed to protect its patients from all the stresses of their highly industrialized society. The clinic was large and roomy, Tudor in origin, with fine Regency furnishings. Patients had private rooms, looking across to the church and the promenade gardens, and could wander over its endless manicured lawns. Newspapers were banned. So were visitors. Inside, time stopped and the problems of the world seemed comfortably remote.     On her arrival Florence exchanged her corsets and satin gowns for a plain cotton dress, loose-fitting and airy. She began a daily routine that was regimented: baths at seven-thirty, a walk on the hills before breakfast, a light meal, tennis in the afternoon, a swim before dinner, and then bed at nine. Her diet was rigid, too: the social poisons were banned--sugar, tea, coffee and alcohol--replaced by spring water, wholemeal bread, fish and vegetables. The staff encouraged her to sit in the drawing room and meet the other patients, to talk over her problems freely in a supportive atmosphere. There she met women like herself: lonely, idle, sexually repressed women whose self-esteem had been shattered at the hands of their husbands.     At the end of the week Florence had her first consultation with the Hydro's director. Dr Gully had first met her when she was a child of twelve. 'I had known Robert and Anne Campbell for thirty years,' he said. 'I had treated the whole family. I first saw her as a child when she came to me with a throat infection. During that time she would visit my surgery and take tea with me.'     Gully must have cut an impressive figure, seated at a vast walnut desk in the dense stillness of his surgery. He was a small man, now in his mid-sixties, bald and pale. His face had never been handsome, not even in his youth, and now it was plump and lined. But in his features he had a gentleness, a soothing strength, that was striking to see. The Prime Minister, Lord Aberdeen, said he was 'the most gifted physician of the age', while Charles Darwin called him 'my beloved friend'. His manner exuded a quiet charisma. When he spoke, his voice was cultured and warm. People remarked on his ability to charm small children out of their screaming fits, or to soothe the palpitations of people who brought him their hysteria.     Women in particular seemed to find Dr Gully attractive. When they went to see their own physicians--with the vague symptoms of depression and anxiety so prevalent in Victorian England--they usually received a uniform dispensation: they should concentrate on being better wives, on fulfilling their marital duties. They should pull themselves together and count their blessings. If the physician was severe enough in his thunder the women would go home shaken and subdued. They would resume their quiet lives without a word. But eventually the reprimand would wear off, the old problems would resurface, and the women would again crowd into the surgery.     Gully's views were very different. He had learned long ago to abandon stern remedies in favour of a more progressive approach. He did not see women as other men saw them--as little more than domestic slaves, needing only to have children in order to be fulfilled human beings. Instead, he believed that all kinds of female neurosis --hysteria, depression, anxiety, hypochondria--were actually unconscious responses to the pressures that women were under: pressure to be chaste and pure, to be ambitionless and domestically efficient; the pressure to think of their husbands and children but never of themselves. 'All these pressures are worsened by their boredom,' he wrote, 'and their lack of sexual satisfaction.'     Gully spent two hours with Florence. He knew at once that she was a model patient. She was obsessed by her health and the minor ailments that afflicted her. She couldn't concentrate. She wept uncontrollably. Hundreds of such women had come and gone over the years. Gradually she went over the story of her disastrous marriage--Alexander's womanizing and alcoholism; his failed attempts at reform; her own depression; her father's harsh response to her situation.     At the end of the meeting Gully startled his patient. He announced that there was only one course of action that would be effective in helping her. She must find the strength to defy her father and separate completely from her husband. Nothing else would work. 'I had not seen Captain Ricardo as a patient,' he said. 'But it seemed to me that he was beyond reform, and I advised Mrs Ricardo to separate from him. I promised to assist her in that separation in whatever way I could.' Gully said that if Florence was willing to do this he would make himself her legal guardian and arrange for the separation papers to be drawn up. He would instruct his lawyers to secure an annual alimony payment from her husband and allow her to remain at the Hydro free of charge.     Florence could barely believe her luck. She had decided long ago that her marriage to Alexander was over. But she could see no way out of the situation. Now she was being offered the protection of a powerful man, a man whose status and resources equalled those of her own father. 'I was grateful to him for taking the situation in hand,' she said. 'I felt that a great burden had been lifted from me.'     Florence wrote to her husband immediately, informing him that she was not coming home. She also wrote to her family, asking them to respect her decision. As is often the case in an abusive marriage, Alexander reformed the moment he realized that his wife was sincere in her intent. But by then it was too late, as it always is. His telegrams went unanswered. His letters were left to gather dust on the dressing table. When he arrived at the Hydro he was informed that Florence would not see him and ejected by the two men who ran the pump rooms. A month later he went abroad.     With Ricardo's shadow lifting, and her own health improving, the way was clear for Florence to start a new life. Gully had succeeded in negotiating a settlement for her with the Ricardo family, giving her a measure of financial security. He told her that he would arrange for her to be discharged from the clinic as soon as her separation had been ratified. But Florence said that she had nowhere to go. She could not return to Buscot. Her father had made it clear that she was not welcome there. She had no friends outside her husband's social circle. Her brother William lived in Surrey, but he was married and had his own life. 'I was completely alone and isolated,' she recalled.     Gully arranged for Florence to rent a house in Malvern, where she could keep in touch with the women she had met at the Hydro, and visit him from time to time to discuss her progress.     What Florence had not told Gully, however, was that she did not wish to start a new life because she could not face leaving him. She was already under his spell, within his aura. In fact Florence had decided that she was in love with Dr Gully. It had not been a sudden, blinding realization. It had been slow and steady, from a seed of mere gratitude--and a gentle awakening to his charms. 'He is the cleverest man I have ever met,' she wrote. During her treatment she had taken to lunching with him. Once or twice they had had dinner together. Then, one afternoon in the spring, he had suggested that they walk on the Malvern Hills, up to Willow Cresent, his favourite point, so that they could admire the views. For the first time he had actually spoken about himself. They had settled on the grass and he had chatted to her about his past, his career in medicine, his family. Florence remembered it later as the moment when a professional relationship became a mutual friendship--and when she began to fall in love, really in love, for the first time in her life. 'He told me how he had been born into money but his family had lost it all when he was a boy,' she recalled. 'He said it was the best thing that ever happened to him because it forced him to get out and earn a living.' Gully explained how he had trained in Paris, how he had become disillusioned with the rigid orthodoxy of Western medicine. He told her that he had studied country folklore, herbalism and spiritual healing. His approach was holistic and increasingly maverick. But he was not a quack. His life had been changed overnight, he admitted, when he had read a paper advocating something called hydrotherapy--the use of water to cure physical disease. Hydrotherapy provided a focus for his discontent with modern practices, and an opportunity to innovate a treatment that he believed was rooted in scientific principles. He had moved to Malvern the following year, a town already famous for its mountain spas. By 1850 he had published many books and was receiving patients from America and Europe.     But it was not just Gully's professional status that had attracted Florence. She found that he had a magnetic personality, too. One evening in March she had heard him give a lecture to Malvern's civic leaders. She sat in the audience in the small town hall, surrounded by businessmen and newspaper reporters, and listened to him urging people to support public services. His gift of oration thrilled her. She wrote to her sister the next day, describing the event. A week later Gully gave her a copy of a play he had written-- A Night in the Bastille --which had run successfully at Drury Lane. Florence told her sister that Gully's friends included two prime ministers, an array of scientists, and many figures from the worlds of art, literature and music. Tennyson, she said, went to him year in, year out, without fail. Queen Victoria studied his theories and took the treatments he prescribed. So did Florence Nightingale, whom he had once saved from a nervous breakdown. At the time he was treating Florence he was also treating Charles Darwin, who had come to him with a severe chest infection. ('Gully has made me stop taking snuff,' Darwin complained, 'my chief solace in life.') (Continues...) Excerpted from Death at the Priory by James Ruddick. Copyright © 2001 by James Ruddick. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrationsp. ix
Acknowledgementsp. xi
Introductionp. I
Part I 'The Strange Death of a Rising Young Barrister'
1 The Bridge of Sighsp. 9
2 Games of Consequencep. 32
3 The Mistress of the Housep. 42
4 'An Extremely Dangerous Woman'p. 54
5 The Last Weekendp. 65
6 'A Most Perplexing Illness ...'p. 70
7 The Investigationp. 85
Part II Who Killed Charles Bravo?
8 Vanity and Curiosityp. 99
9 'The Curious Demeanour of the Dying Man'p. 109
10 Not Murder, Manslaughterp. 119
11 Upstairs, Downstairsp. 124
12 Above Suspicionp. 127
13 'A Good Little Woman'p. 135
14 'Bitter Trouble'p. 148
15 The Shadow on the Ceilingp. 160
16 Conclusions: Under the Veilp. 171
Aftermath: A Dozen Broken Livesp. 178
Notesp. 190
Reference Sourcesp. 201
Indexp. 204