He was the Swiss valet of Lord William Russell, third son of the Marquis of Tavistock and uncle to the future Prime Minister, Lord John Russell with whom Dickens dined on several occasions. Whether they talked of this brutal murder, we don’t know. On May 6th, 1840, Lord William was found with his throat cut in his bedroom at 14 Norfolk Street, Park Lane. The valet, Courvoisier, declared that the house had been burgled, and, indeed, there were signs that someone had been in and thrown about articles of furniture and ransacked drawers.
However, the police were convinced that it was an inside job. A search of the premises revealed gold coins and articles of gold and silver belonging to Lord William secreted under the pantry sink and behind a skirting board. Courvoisier confessed when articles of silver were discovered in the possession of a Frenchwoman who owned a hotel. He knew she would recognize him.
Courvoisier was convicted and hanged outside Newgate Gaol on July 6th, 1840. Public executions attracted large crowds. Those who could afford it hired upper rooms in houses overlooking the scaffold at a cost of between two shillings and sixpence and five pounds. The Examiner estimated that a crowd of 30,000 packed the streets, houses, pubs and shops to watch the terrible scene.
Dickens watched from an upper room – he was curious to see, he said, ‘the end of the drama’. No doubt he had a good view of the dreadful moment when, according to The Morning Post:
The death bell tolled. When they reached the door called ‘the debtors’ door’, which leads directly to the scaffold, Courvoisier shook hands with the sheriffs, the ordinary and several others, and walked up the steps in the most firm manner. The executioner soon put the rope round his neck and the cap over his eyes, and the ordinary had scarcely uttered ten words of the service when the light of this world closed forever on the murderer.
The Morning Post noted ‘the howls of execration from the crowd’. Dickens was sickened by the conduct of the crowd: ‘nothing but ribaldry, debauchery, drunkenness and flaunting vice’. His fellow novelist, Thackeray, was there, too, and felt: ‘ashamed and degraded at the brutal curiosity that took me to that brutal sight.’
Dickens wrote that he was, in principle, against capital punishment. However, he knew that it would never be abolished and campaigned for the end of public hangings. His influence played an important part in the abolition of public hangings in 1868, two years before his death.
And here’s an interesting post script to the Courvoisier case. In 2012, a letter came up for auction. In May, 1840, Robert Blake Overton, a surgeon of Grimstone, Norfolk, wrote a letter to Lord John Russell after reading about the murder of Lord William Russell. The newspapers had reported the bloody handprints on the sheets. Overton’s letter advised that the marks be closely examined because, he wrote:
It is not generally known that every individual has a peculiar arrangement [on] the grain of the skin … I would strongly recommend the propriety of obtaining impressions from the fingers of the suspected individual and a comparison made with the marks on the sheets and pillows… The impressions made from the fingerprints of different persons will produce different shapes. He included examples of inky fingerprints to demonstrate his thesis.
His letter was passed to Scotland Yard. They took up Overton’s suggestion, but recorded on the back of the letter that the only marks were those made by the surgeons who had first examined the body.
The letter was found among 700 original documents relating to the investigation of the murder and subsequent trial. This obscure village surgeon was advocating the use of fingerprint evidence to identify the culprit fifty years before the procedure was adopted. In the 1850s in India, William Hershel experimented with fingerprints, but it was not until the 1890s that fingerprinting was used in criminal investigations.
What a pity that Charles Dickens did not see that letter – what might he contribute to the investigations of Superintendent Jones? Wait, though! Perhaps, he did see it … he had visited Norfolk … perhaps he met Doctor Overton. Perhaps, there is a new case to be solved: Fingers in Blood.