EVRYONE loves a good murder mystery, don’t they?
Imagine coming across a true-life crime drama and discovering it had inspired the creation of today’s fictional detectives. I’m talking here about writers such as Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins and Arthur Conan Doyle, the man behind the world’s best-known fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes.
This same intriguing 19th century whodunit was then re-discovered and written afresh as a book in 2008.
I became more interested though after recently becoming aware of a strong, likely overlooked, Hunter Valley link.
My journey began after talking to well-known book-lover David McLean about interesting subjects forgotten over time.
“If you’re looking for a good, unusual yarn to chase up, have a look at the Kate Summerscale’s book (from 2008) called, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher,” he said.
“It’s a British book and involves a classic, if gruesome, murder mystery of a three-year-old boy in an English country house in 1860. The grieving family are suspected.
“Scotland Yard sends down one of its best detectives, a very good one called Jack Whicher, to solve the crime, as the local police seem unable to.”
The body of the boy had been found knifed and slashed in an outside toilet on the property. The boy’s nursemaid was arrested initially, but the victim’s father, Samuel Saville Kent, was not well liked. Local police were baffled.
McLean, of Cooks Hill Books, said he was very familiar with Summerscale’s book, sub-titled ‘The Murder at Road Hill House’. The book was also often in demand at his shop and had been made into a major ITV period drama of the same name a few years later. This was followed by three TV movie spinoffs.
I was only vaguely aware of the first TV movie of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher years before, but dismissed it as fiction.
“No, it’s all true. The book even won an award for non-fiction at the time, but the story gets better. The detective Whicher, suspected the family’s 16-year-old daughter, Constance Kent, was responsible for the murder but the local police were against him because he was an outsider, a Londoner,” McLean said.
“She was arrested, but without sufficient proof, she was released without trial because of public opinion about a working-class detective harassing a young woman of breeding,” he said.
“The brilliant Whicher was discredited and left the force in 1864. The next year, Constance Kent walked into a magistrates court and confessed to the killing of her half-brother.”
She was sentenced to death but this was commuted to 20 years in prison, because of her youth and her confession.
Her grisly murder was said to be an act of revenge against her father focusing his attention on the children of his second marriage.
Released in 1885, Constance Kent emigrated to Australia, changed her name to Ruth Emilie Kaye and became a nurse.
“She worked at Sydney’s Long Bay, then lived in Mittagong before becoming a respected matron of a nursing home in East Maitland in the Hunter Valley from 1911 until she retired in 1932,” McLean said.
“Not only that, but her brother William also came to Australia, ending up as a famed marine biologist working for the government,” he said.
Author Kate Summerscale told a TV interviewer at the time of her book’s publication that she’d first read about the murder mystery in an anthology of Victorian crimes.
“It was a very celebrated case and a terrible one. I thought it an extraordinarily rich story and terribly gothic,” she said.
Summerscale then became fixated on investigating detective Jonathan (Jack) Whicher, one of the original eight detectives in the first detective force in the English-speaking world.
“He came up with a very ingenious solution to the case, but he was unable to substantially prove it and his career was ruined by the accusation he made,” she said.
“He went on to become the inspiration for the detective in The Moonstone by author Wilkie Collins (in 1868), which was the first proper detective novel.
“Then I saw this was a story about the origin of detective fiction and the origin of detection as a profession. And I was fascinated by this particular man (Whicher) and what happened to him after this catastrophic case . . . he became the driving force in the book,” Summerscale said.
Detective-Inspector Jack Whicher was aged 45 and already very successful when he probed the murder mystery. His face scarred by smallpox, Whicher’s normal role as a detective was to operate undercover. Fellow officers described him as ‘an excellent officer’.
Reserved and laconic, he was private about his past but seen as a quiet, shrewd and practical man with a wry sense of humour and benevolent to his foes, having a drink with one thief before taking him prisoner and sparing him the handcuffs.
In 1858, two years before his notorious ‘failure’, Whicher had caught a thief who had stolen a Leonardo da Vinci painting and in the same year helped in the hunt for Italian revolutionaries – terrorists – who had tried to assassinate Napoleon III in Paris using British-made bombs.
After he retired, Whicher, although now vindicated, became a tenacious private investigator, doing outstanding work in the longest and most famous court battle of the late 19th century, the case of the Tichborne Claimant.
Whicher died in 1881, aged 66. By then, he’d been almost forgotten. He’d been punished for his failure in the Constant Kent case, but he still believed she probably hadn’t acted alone.
And Constant Kent? The woman saved from execution by Queen Victoria who once had her own waxwork in Madame Tussard’s, outlived Whicher by 78 years.
According to author Kate Summerscale, Constance Kent “had a gift for invisibility’ and after she served her time and left prison, the public had no idea where she went and didn’t find out for almost a century.
Kent died in April 1944, aged 100, in a hospital at Strathfield, Sydney, and was cremated at Rookwood Cemetery.
After becoming a nurse in Melbourne, she’d worked as a Perth hospital matron before moving to Sydney in the mid-1890s. She then worked in a leper’s colony at Long Bay and as a matron of an institution for young offenders in Parramatta.
Still using the name Emilie Kaye, she opened a nurses’ home in Maitland in 1911 which she ran until her retirement in the 1930s.
A few months before her death after just turning 100, the local paper did a picture story on her. She was smiling for the camera in the tribute photo to the ‘pioneer nurse’. People were oblivious to her darker past.
The King and Queen sent her a congratulatory telegram and she was reported to be a “really wonderful old lady”.