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Authors: Michael Knox Beran

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“I believe the communication took place as soon as possible,” Adolphus replied.

Phillips continued to remonstrate, but the Lord Chief Justice silenced him. “Let us have no more inquiry or argument about it. Call the next witness.”

The suspense, however, continued, for only after the prosecution witnesses previously scheduled to testify were called would the new and mysterious witness for the Crown appear.

At last the moment came.

“Call Charlotte Piolaine,” said the clerk of the court.

A woman dressed in black entered the room. Courvoisier had, until that moment, preserved “the greatest composure,” Adolphus wrote in his diary; but upon seeing the witness, “he became most agitated, gushed into a profuse perspiration and nearly fainted.”

The witness was sworn and, examined by Adolphus, gave her name as Charlotte Piolaine. “My husband's name is Louis—he is a Frenchman—I am an Englishwoman—we keep the Hotel Dieppe, Leicester Place, Leicester Square.” The witness was asked whether she knew the prisoner in the dock. She did. “I think it is about four years ago that I knew him—he came to a situation, to take a place in the hotel as waiter—I do not recollect whether he told me his name—we used to call him
Jean
—French is generally spoken at our hotel. . . .”

“Since that time, has the prisoner continued to be acquainted with you, coming in occasionally?”

“I never saw him since till about six weeks ago I think—he then came to our hotel—it was on a Sunday evening—he merely asked me how I was—he stayed about two minutes.”

“How did he introduce himself to you, do you remember?”

“He knocked at the room door, I said, ‘Come in,' and he walked in—I did not recognize who he was at the moment—it was some time since I had seen him—he said, ‘Do not you recollect me?'—I said, ‘No, I do not'—he said, ‘I am John, that used to live with you some time, over in the Square'—I recollected him then—he stayed a few minutes, and then went away. . . . I saw him again, I think it was on . . . a Sunday evening—he merely came in and asked me how I was—it was in the evening—he had a paper parcel in his hand—he asked me if I would take care of it till the Tuesday following, and he would call for it—I said, certainly I would, and he left it with me, and went away—I put the parcel in a closet, and locked it up—it is a closet I use generally—I had no notion at that time what the parcel contained—it was a sort of round parcel, tied with a string, and sealed.”

“Did he call for it on the Tuesday following?”

“I never saw him since until to-day. . . . I took the parcel out of the closet yesterday morning, for the first time—I was induced to take it out, on account of what my cousin brought upstairs in a French newspaper—he read it to me, and showed it to me.”

Mme. Piolaine testified that the parcel, when she opened it, contained, together with such things as stockings and an old coat, a number of silver spoons and forks. Each of the utensils was stamped with a crest distinguished by a goat
statant
(standing in profile with its four feet upon the ground).

It was the crest of the Russells.

In cross-examining Mme. Piolaine, Phillips attempted to discredit her testimony by insinuating that the Hotel Dieppe was a house of ill repute, but to no avail, and a succession of prosecution witnesses corroborated her story. A washerwoman testified that the stockings found in the parcel belonged to Courvoisier, while his great friend Carr told the court that the coat, too, was his. A print-seller in Pall Mall testified that the brown paper in which the parcel was enveloped was the same he had used to wrap
The Vision of Ezekiel
, a print which Lord William had recently acquired from him; and the identity of the silver was proved by his lordship's former valet, James Ellis, who was now valet to Lord Mansfield, a relative of the great eighteenth-century jurist William Murray, first Earl of Mansfield.

When, a short time later, the court adjourned for the day, Courvoisier sent a message to his counsel: “Tell Mr. Phillips, my counsel, that I consider my life is in his hands.”

*
Born at Highfield, near Liverpool, in 1782; Trinity College, Cambridge; called to the Bar by the Inner Temple in 1813; raised to the King's Bench in 1828; a Baron of the Exchequer from 1833.

†
In charging the jury, Lord Chief Justice Tindal told the jurors that they “must give no credit” whatever to Constable Baldwin's statements concerning the bloodstained handkerchiefs and gloves.

‡
Born at Sligo circa 1787; Trinity College, Dublin; called to the Irish Bar in 1812, to the English, in 1821.

CHAPTER EIGHT

A Bad Brief

I walked, with other souls in pain,

Within another ring,

And was wondering if the man had done

A great or little thing,

When a voice behind me whispered low,

“That fellow's got to swing.”

—
Oscar Wilde

H
ad the appearance of Charlotte Piolaine as a witness for the prosecution been Charles Phillips's only surprise that day, he might have considered himself fortunate. But Phillips's difficulties were compounded by a circumstance known, at the time, only to a few of those who watched him in his last, desperate struggle to save his client's life. Earlier in the morning, as Phillips sat in the courtroom awaiting the judges, Courvoisier had turned to him and said that he had something to tell him in confidence.

What had happened was this. Courvoisier had been taking exercise that morning in the press yard with the other prisoners. Unbeknownst to him, the police had taken Mme. Piolaine to a room overlooking the press yard, where she had at once identified him as the man she knew as “Jean.” The police then informed Courvoisier that a witness had come forward with the missing plate and had identified him as the man who had brought it to her.

In his conference with Phillips, Courvoisier admitted that it was true—that he
had
given the parcel with the plate to Mme. Piolaine.

Phillips, who until that moment had been persuaded of his client's innocence, was speechless. At last he said, “Of course then you are going to plead guilty?”

“No, sir,” Courvoisier replied. “I expect you to defend me to the uttermost.”

Phillips was inclined to throw up his brief; but after consulting one of the judges, Mr. Baron Parke, he conceived that, as his client would not release him from his obligation, he had no choice but to carry on. The brief was indeed a bad one—could scarcely have been worse; but Phillips rose to the occasion, so much so that he was afterwards criticized—quite unfairly—for having defended too zealously a man whom he knew to be guilty. But the zeal was in vain; no amount of forensic ingenuity could have overcome the testimony of Mme. Piolaine.

The next morning, Saturday, June 20, 1840, the court met again, and Phillips made his closing address to the jury. It was, an old lawyer who heard it remembered, “extremely eloquent.” But the brilliant advocate was “overweighted by facts,” and English juries are not “apt to be carried away by flowers of rhetoric.”

The solution to the mystery of the purloined plate spelled the doom of Courvoisier; and after deliberating for an hour and a half,
the jurors returned a verdict of guilty. Lord Chief Justice Tindal assumed the black cap and pronounced the sentence of death.

In retrospect, the crime and punishment of Courvoisier marked the end of an era. The hideousness of the crime was overshadowed by the absorbing puzzle of its solution. This was less because of Lord William's unsympathetic character as a victim—he seemed to some a senescent parasite—than on account of the change in literary and cultural modes that was taking place. The Romantic rebels who had risen up to shatter the neo-classical idols of their eighteenth-century fathers were themselves in decline. They had rejected the detached, ironical empiricism of the Enlightenment and had revived, in its place, the bloody poetries of the past. Yet now their own candles were guttering down. Scott was in his grave. So were Lamb, Shelley, Keats, Byron, and Coleridge. Wordsworth was, indeed, alive, but his genius, it is generally conceded, was no longer so.
*
In murder-writing as in the other departments of literature, a new empiricism, a brusque, commonsensical style of writing and perception, was coming into favor, one reflective of a larger alteration in the culture as a whole. The new style, if it conveyed accurately enough the surface perplexities of particular crimes, was incapable of penetrating their depths.

It is true that in May 1840 two Romantic prose-masters were living who might have found in the Mayfair murder something more than a test of deductive wit, a cryptogram in flesh and blood. Had these writers interested themselves in the case, they might have left a more probing account of it than is found in the
surviving sources. At the very least they would have been sensitive to the subtler reverberations of its atmosphere; would have seen the ghosts at the windows, sniffed the rotting feudalisms in the cellar—perceived the molding of new crimes out of old ones. The house of Russell boasted a castle ascendancy as gruesome as those of Borgia and Atreus; and in other circumstances Thomas Carlyle might have delighted to expose it. But it so fell out that on the afternoon of Tuesday, May 5, 1840—Lord William's last—he was delivering the first of six lectures on heroes and hero-worship in Portman Square. Carlyle thought lecturing akin to being murdered, an “absolute martyrdom,” but he had to go through with it, and during the whole of May his powers were narrowly focused on Portman Square.

As for De Quincey, he was now fifty-five, a widower and functioning
opiomane
living with his children in a cottage on the outer fringe of Edinburgh. His mind was as fertile as ever, and his pen as productive; but in the spring of 1840 he was seeing the final installments of his
Recollections of the Lake Poets
through the press, and like Carlyle he had little time to spare. He seems also to have looked on Courvoisier's murder-artistry as unfinished, and in his 1854 essay, “Three Memorable Murders,” he referred, on I am not sure what evidence, to “the scheme of Courvoisier” to “have sought each separate month's support in a separate well-concerted murder,” a scheme which, if it had been projected, was never realized.

*
The correlative Romanticism in religion was similarly in decline. The Oxford Movement effectively ended with the cessation of the
Tracts for the Times
following the appearance of Newman's Tract 90 in 1841: four years later, Newman was received into the Roman Catholic Church. The Romantic Toryism of Young England survived, if it did not flourish, in the 1840s, and was given its finest literary expression in three novels Disraeli published in that decade:
Coningsby
(1844),
Sybil
(1845), and
Tancred
(1847). But in his ascent to the top of the greasy pole, Disraeli discarded his youthful philosophy; the charms of romance paled before the more potent pleasures of power.

CHAPTER NINE

Shrift

He turned over the leaves. Carelessly at first; but, lighting on a passage which attracted his attention, he soon became intent upon the volume. It was a history of the lives and trials of great criminals; and the pages were soiled and thumbed with use. Here he read of dreadful crimes that made the blood run cold; of secret murders that had been committed by the lonely wayside; of bodies hidden from the eye of man in deep pits and wells: which would not keep them down, deep as they were, but had yielded them up at last, after many years, and so maddened the murderers with the sight, that in their horror they had confessed their guilt, and yelled for the gibbet to end their agony.

—
Dickens, Oliver Twist

C
ourvoisier, returned to Newgate a condemned man, fell into a depression of spirits. He was “sullen and reserved,” and he tried, unsuccessfully, to end his life by stuffing a
towel down his throat. By degrees, however, he recovered something of his old equanimity; he made friends with his jailers, who came to feel a genuine affection for him; he prayed to God; and he composed a number of confessions in which he did not scruple to admit that he was, indeed, the killer of Lord William.

There were at least five of these exercises in shrift. In the first, he said that the murder was the result of a quarrel. Late Tuesday night (as he told it), Lord William rang the bell. Thinking that his lordship wanted his bed warmed, he went upstairs with the warming pan. His lordship was not pleased with this anticipation of his desires; he said that a valet ought not to presume to know his master's wishes, and “ought always to go and answer the bell first, to see what [was] wanted.” A little after midnight, Lord William rang again; this time, he said, he
did
want his bed warmed, and added, “rather crossly,” that Courvoisier should take “more notice of what he was doing.” By now Courvoisier was himself very angry, and in a fit of pique, he says, went downstairs and set about disarranging the dining room. Lord William, when he came down to use the water closet, caught him in the act. “What are you doing here?” he asked. “You have no good intentions in doing this; you must quit my service tomorrow morning; and I shall acquaint your friends with it.” He then went up to his bedroom, leaving Courvoisier in great agitation. He concluded that the “only way” he could cover his “faults” was by murdering his master:

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