Kate Summerscale’s new book is a vivid portrait of how one sensational murder roiled Victorian England. The real story, though, is that of the murderer’s rehabilitation.
By Lyz Lenz
The Coombes murder depicted in London’s Illustrated Police News, July 27, 1895. (Photo: The British Library Board)
In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that sentencing a minor to life without the possibility of parole was cruel and unusual punishment. The ruling divided the court in a 5–4 decision, and Justice Samuel Alito read his dissenting opinion from the bench.
“What the majority is saying is that members of society must be exposed to the risk that these convicted murderers, if released from custody, will murder again,” Alito said, adding that the Supreme Court “has no license to impose our vision of the future on 300 million of our fellow citizens.”
His logic was clear: Once you are evil, you are always potentially evil. There is no redemption.
Alito’s fatalism is not shared by all those who work most closely with criminals and ex-criminals. Lettie Prell, the director of research for the Iowa Department of Corrections, deals with algorithms that analyze a criminal’s risk factors on two levels: static and dynamic. The static level looks at what the criminal has done — previous offenses, the nature of the crime, and how many victims. But the second level, Prell notes, is all about change: “The dynamic risk assessment is based on a criminal’s attitude and behavior and their hostility toward others, the ability to be responsive to advice, problem-solving skills … these are all factors that a person can change about themselves.”
Evil, it would seem, is a lot more fluid than what we would like to believe.
On July 8, Yvette Louisell was released from prison on conditional parole. Convicted of murder at the age of 17, Louisell is the first Iowan released as a result of the 2012 Supreme Court ruling. And Prell believes that criminals like Louisell have the capacity to change. Prell would not speak about individual cases, but noted that juveniles who are convicted of murder are among those with the lowest risk factors. Evil, it would seem, is a lot more fluid than what we would like to believe.
The rehabilitation of evil is the subject of Kate Summerscale’s new book, The Wicked Boy, in which she describes Victorian England as a world on the brink of darkness. Summerscale recalls the words of Hungarian author Max Nordau, who wrote in 1892, “We stand now in the midst of a severe mental epidemic, a sort of black death of degeneration and hysteria.” Humanity was in crisis, Nordau argued; there seemed to be an inordinate amount of insanity and murder, too much frivolous literature, and a preponderance of dark hearts. British author Hugh E.M. Stutfield echoed this sentiment in 1895, writing: “Revolt is the order of the day. … Ours may be an age of progress, but it is progress, which, if left unchecked, will land us in the hospital or lunatic asylum.” Stutfield wrote those words during the same summer when England was reeling from news that a 13-year-old boy named Robert Coombes had murdered his mother while she slept.
Coombes is the title character of The Wicked Boy. While his father was away at sea, Coombes stabbed his mother to death. Then, he and his younger brother Nathaniel, went on a 10-day adolescent bender — going to the races, gorging on food, playing cards. They were caught only when the stink of their mother’s body began to infiltrate the street outside.
Summerscale writes with a light hand, letting the detail paint a lurid picture of the media sensation caused by the trial and the baffling behavior of the boys. They slept in the house with their mother’s body for 10 days. They never spoke of the murder after it was committed. When family members and neighbors noticed the smell and broke down the door, Nathaniel tried to run away. But Robert Coombes was almost stoical. He never denied having killed his mother. His cold, callous demeanor led the court of public opinion to label him evil or insane, or both. Either way, he was locked up “until the pleasure of Her Majesty be known.” As Coombes was carried away, Summerscale writes, “he laughed and remarked to one of his guards: ‘It is all over now.’” At this point, the reader can be forgiven for imagining that there never was a boy more evil in all of England.
The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer. (Photo: Bloomsbury Press)
If this were just a story of evil, of the dark heart of humanity, Summerscale might have ended on that note and still had an arresting story of children and crime and Victorian England. But Coombes’ incarceration at Broadmoor, the lunatic asylum that held Britian’s most notorious killers, is just the book’s halfway point, after which the details of Coombes’ life lose focus. He is no longer at the center of the city tabloids, and Summerscale uses the second half of her book to re-draw Coombes by re-creating the world around him. With painstaking research on the lives of his fellow inmates, Summerscale describes Broadmoor and its various infamous lodgers. But there, at the periphery, always is Coombes, perhaps more stark when he’s absent than when he is present. Coombes is eventually released, he reunites with his brother (who was not convicted because the jury believed his brother had forced him into the murder), and goes to Australia, where the two join the Australian Imperial Force and Coombes distinguishes himself at the Battle of Galipoli.
If the first half of the book is intense in its scrutiny of Coombes, the second half feels deceptively distant. I often wondered why I was still reading — wasn’t Coombes’ story over? What more was there to say about a boy who killed his mother in cold blood? The answer lies not in Coombes’ violence, but in his redemption.
Summerscale brings us to the very edge of the conclusion that a person is more than the sum of the evil they cause.
After the war, Coombes moved back to Australia and lived quietly as a tenant-farmer in New South Wales. He never married, he was never caught committing another violent crime, and he would have faded away from the narrative entirely if it weren’t for another boy: Harry Mulville, one of Coombes’ neighbors in Australia. Mulville had been abused by his stepfather, who beat him with a brush hook while he was sick. Mulville took himself to the police for medical attention. The police charged Mulville’s stepfather with abuse, and Coombes took Harry in. They lived together for six years, beginning when Coombes was 48 and Mulville was 11 and ending when Mulville enrolled in the AIF and began to build his own life and family. When Coombes died in 1949, Mulville was Coombes’ closest friend, and the closest thing Coombes had to family (Nathaniel had died in 1945). Mulville commissioned a headstone for Coombes, telling his own children how Coombes had saved his life.
And here, Summerscale finally ventures into the realm of conjecture. Throughout the book, she has walked a delicate line, never veering into speculation even when conclusions seem so ready for the picking — the likelihood that Coombes himself might have been abused by his mother, for example. But at the end of the Mulville episode, Summerscale writes simply: “When I spoke to Harry Mulville’s children in November 2012, I realized that Robert had been like a father to Harry, and a symbol of strength and kindness to them all.” Summerscale meets Mulville, and his children ask her not to speak to him about Coombes’ murder. She complies, but adds in an aside to the reader: “When I started work on this book, all that I had known about Robert Coombes was that he had stabbed his mother to death in the summer of 1895. It was astonishing to hold the hand of a man whom he had saved from harm. I still couldn’t be sure whether Harry knew about the murder. I hoped that he did, and had loved Robert anyway.”
A book that began with a murder — and with a sense that the world was unraveling — ends with a life saved. Summerscale doesn’t overplay the contemporary relevance of Coombes’ story, but the book undeniably unsettles the idea that the evil, manic child of the first half of the book can’t be redeemed. Simply put, he was, and Summerscale brings us to the very edge of the conclusion that a person is more than the sum of the evil they cause.
Prell emphasizes that, while she believes her risk assessments can show a capacity to change, the will to change offers no indicators, no measurable factors — it is a quality the lies deep within. Prell and Summerscale are both methodical in their approach to human behavior. They are researchers — dispassionate and analytical — but, for both, the capacity to change is both redemptive and unsettling: How can we feel comfortable if good can so easily slip into bad and if bad can right itself again? Maybe the lesson is that life is about more than our comfort, and that hope walks hand-in-hand with unprecedented evil.