An investigation of a late-19th-century crime in which a 13-year-old boy murdered his mother.
In the summer of 1895, Robert Coombes stabbed his mother, and he and his brother, 12-year-old Nattie, stole her money and took off to watch the local cricket match. Their father was a ship’s steward, kind and caring but often absent. Leaving their mother’s body upstairs in her bed, the boys enlisted the aid of John Fox, a fellow from the docks who had done odd jobs for their parents. With a look at late-19th-century social mores, the availability and quality of education, and the poor state of psychological help, former Daily Telegraph literary editor Summerscale (Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady, 2012, etc.) exposes how the young killer’s mind worked. Robert, an excellent student, was a voracious reader of the penny dreadfuls, adventure books aimed at the young. He was eccentric, morbid, prone to terrible headaches and periods of withdrawal, and obsessed with ghastly murderers. His mother comes off as a harridan: she often beat the boys, including once for stealing food (she often didn’t feed them), and she even threw knives at Nattie, who seems to have been oblivious to the direness of the facts but followed Robert without questions. After two weeks, the body was discovered in an advanced state of decay. The trial process was quick and fair, and Robert was remanded to the notorious insane asylum Broadmoor, where he was put in the gentlemen’s wing. The author explains the surprisingly kind treatment there, and she follows Robert’s transfer to a Salvation Army colony and move to Australia, where he finally found the adventures he had dreamed about.
This well-written story is not so much a true-crime tale or murder mystery as an excellent sociological study of turn-of-the-20th-century England.