Sunday, 10 December 2006

François Benjamin Courvoisier

François Courvoisier was a Swiss national who was executed on 6th of July, 1840, for murdering his employer, Lord William Russell, while he slept in his house in Norfolk Street, Park Lane, in the West End of London.

Lord William Russell was seventy three, and a member of the family of the Dukes of Bedford. His nephew was the politican, Lord John Russell, who at the time was Secretary of State for Colonial Affairs and later became prime minister. Lord William was a widower and the father of seven children.

He lived alone with a household of servants, a housemaid, Sarah Mancer, a cook, Mary Hannell, his valet, Francois Benjamin Courvoisier, and a coachman and groom, all of whom lived in the house, except for the last two. The house was small, and consisted of only two rooms on a floor. On the basement storey were the kitchen and the usual offices, and a room used by Courvoisier as a pantry. On the ground floor were two parlours, used as dining-rooms; on the first floor were the drawing-room and library; on the second floor were Lord William's bedroom and dressing-room and above was where the servants slept. His lordship was a member of Brooks's Club, in St James's Street, and usually spent most of the day there; but he generally dined at home, read for a while, and went to bed at about midnight.

The valet had been employed for only only five weeks; he'd told his fellow-servants that he didn't like his master, describing him as testy and dissatisfied, and said if he only had the money, he'd go back to Switzerland.

On the 5th of May 1840, Lord William got up at nine o'clock, breakfasted and went to his club. But before he left, he summoned Courvoisier and gave him several messages to deliver, including an instruction to his coachman to prepare the carriage and be ready to take him home from his club at five o'clock. Afterwards, Courvoisier said he was afraid he would forget some of his errands; and he did, in fact, omit the instruction to the coachman. At half-past five his lordship returned home in a cab, and was irritated about the mistake, but he doesn't appear to have been so angry as to create feelings of hatred. Dinner was served at about seven o clock followed by coffee and at about nine, Lord William retired to his library.

At this time only Courvoisier, Sarah Mancer and Mary Hannell were in the house. Hannell had been out, but when she came back, Courvoisier let her in, locking and chaining the street door behind her. Supper was prepared in the kitchen at about ten, and Courvoisier brought in some beer: but he left the house and came back in via the area, and the gate and kitchen door were fastened by Hannell afterwards. So both ways into the house from the street were closed and the only entrance from the back, through the basement, was through the pantry.

At about half-past ten the women went to bed leaving Courvoisier to attend to his master, and it was not until half-past midnight that his lordship rang the bell for help in getting ready for bed.

On the following morning, at about half-past six, Sarah Mancer, the housemaid, went downstairs, finding everyhing in such a mess she thought burglars must have been in the house during the night. Furniture was strewn about, drawers and boxes open, and there was a bundle lying on the ground, as if it had been packed up ready to be taken away. The street door had been unfastened, and was on the latch.

She went to tell the cook what she'd seen; the cook told her to tell the valet.

When she'd shown him the mess downstairs, she suggested they check on their master and they went together to his bedroom. As soon as they got in there, Courvoisier went to the window to open the shutters, but Mancer went to the bedside, and saw the pillow saturated with blood, and his lordship lying in bed, dead, with his throat cut.

The police made a minute examination of the house, and concluded that the murder had been carried out by someone in the house, who had then faked a robbery. The parcel contained many articles of his lordship's property. A cloth cloak, which had been hanging up in the hall, was found rolled up, and inside it were Lord William's gold operaglass, his gold toothpick, a silver sugar-dredger, a pair of spectacles, a caddy-spoon, and a thimble belonging to the cook. The police thought the smaller items were the sort of thing a thief would have put into his pocket, rather than packing them up. Although the drawers of the sideboard in the parlour and of the writingdesk in the drawing-room were pulled open, nothing had been taken

The state of his lordship's bedroom tended to confirm the suspicions of the police, and to supply a motive. His lordship owned a case containing ivory rouleau boxes, which were usually used to hold gold coins. The boxes held about five hundred sovereigns, and although Courvoisier was entrusted with the keys of his master's drawers and trunks, he was never allowed to go to this case. The police found that the case had been opened and searched, fruitlessly, for money. A jewellery box and a note-case had also been opened, and several articles of small value taken, including a ten-pound note, which his lordship was known to have had. A purse which contained gold had also disappeared.

Courvoisier immediately came under suspicion, and his things were searched, but nothing was discovered. On Friday, the 8th of May, a police officer examined the floor, the skirting-board and the sink, and behind the skirting-board he found five gold rings which had belonged to Lord William, as well as five pieces of gold coin and a piece of wax. Behind another part of the skirting-board was found a Waterloo medal, which was known to have been in the possession of his lordship, plus the ten-pound note. This was felt to be particularly significant, because if an ordinary thief had taken it from the note-case, he would certainly have taken it with him. The discovery of it hidden in the pantry was taken as almost conclusive evidence of the valet's guilt. A further search turned up his lordship's keyring; on the evening of the next day, a locket was taken from Courvoisier's pocket which contained a lock of the hair of Lord William Russell's dead wife. He'd noticed this was missing a short time before his death.

At this point, the police took Courvoisier into custody. Subseqently other items were found; a chased gold key and on Wednesday, the 13th, in part of the sink in the pantry, the watch which Lord William had placed by his bed on the night of the murder.

An experienced attorney, Mr Flower, was engaged to conduct his defence and a big collection was raised from the foreign servants in London to pay for it. The trial began on Thursday, the 18th of June at the Central Criminal Court.

The court was then crowded with members of the aristocracy and several ambassadors and diplomats. Even the prisoners' dock was filled with seating.

The prisoner was of course, a foreign national, but he chose to be tried by a British jury and pleaded not guilty.

The evidence was presented and the first day's proceedings had closed when new testimony came to light, which gave conclusive proof of Courvoisier's guilt.

In the investigation after the murder, some articles of plate were found to have been removed from the house, but, after the careful examination which had taken place, there was reason to believe that this had happened earlier, and not after the murder. The police hadn't been able to find this stolen property and although a reward was offered it was not until the evening of the first day of the trial that anyone came forward.

The prosecution learned that it was in the possession of Madame Piolaine, the keeper of a French hotel in Leicester Place, Leicester Square. This was conveyed to the prisoner's attorney; and when Courvoisier was told, he at once admitted his guilt.

The defence coninued, much hampered by this admission. It had originally been intended to attempt to implicate the female servants, but this, of course, had to be abandoned. But the defence lawyers did accuse the police of improper conduct and of fabricating evidence. The evidence, Courvoisier's attorney said, was of suspicion only.

Despite this, the verdict, when it came, was guilty, and Courvoisier was sentenced to death.

The next day, he made a full confession, saying: "His lordship was very cross with me and told me I must quit his service. As I was coming upstairs from the kitchen I thought it was all up with me; my character was gone, and I thought it was the only way I could cover my faults by murdering him. This was the first moment of any idea of the sort entering my head. I went into the dining-room and took a knife from the sideboard. I do not remember whether it was a carving-knife or not. I then went upstairs, I opened his bedroom door and heard him snoring in his sleep; there was a rushlight in his room burning at this time. I went near the bed by the side of the window, and then I murdered him. He just moved his arm a little; he never spoke a word."

The execution was carried out at Newgate, on the 6th of July, 1840.

(Coming next: the execution.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is fascinating! How many more stories can you come up with? I never knew......