The wicked boy The mystery of a Victorian child murderer

Kate Summerscale, 1965-

Book - 2016

In East London in the summer of 1895, Robert Coombes (age thirteen) and his brother Nattie (age twelve) were arrested for matricide and sent for trial at the Old Bailey. Robert confessed to having stabbed his mother, but his lawyers argued that he was insane. The judge sentenced him to detention in Broadmoor, the most infamous criminal lunatic asylum in the land. Shockingly, Broadmoor turned out to be the beginning of a new life for Robert. At a time of great tumult and uncertainty, Robert Coombes's case crystallized contemporary anxieties about the education of the working classes, the dangers of pulp fiction, and evolving theories of criminality, childhood, and insanity. With riveting detail and rich atmosphere, Summerscale re-create...s this terrible crime and its aftermath, uncovering an extraordinary story of man's capacity to overcome the past. --

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True crime stories
New York : Penguin Press 2016.
Main Author
Kate Summerscale, 1965- (author)
Item Description
First published in Great Britain by Bloomsbury Publishing.
Physical Description
378 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations, maps ; 22 cm
Includes bibliographical references (pages 309-360) and index.
Contents unavailable.
Review by New York Times Review

NOBODY: Casualties of America's War on the Vulnerable, From Ferguson to Flint and Beyond, by Marc Lamont Hill. (Atria, $16.) Hill analyzes such high-profile deaths as Michael Brown's, Sandra Bland's and Trayvon Martin's to explore a system of negligence and indifference. The state has effectively abandoned those whom Hill calls "Nobodies": people marked as black, brown, immigrant, queer. LOSING IT, by Emma Rathbone. (Riverhead, $16.) Julia, the heroine of Rathbone's novel, is 26, professionally adrift and - most vexing of all - still a virgin. During previous opportunities, she always demurred, certain that a better one would come along, but now, "my virginity composed about 99 percent of my thought traffic." When she goes to live with her aunt, her quest to finally have a sexual encounter is complicated by a family member's revelation. THE WICKED BOY: An Infamous Murder in Victorian London, by Kate Summerscale. (Penguin, $17.) In 1895,13-year-old Robert Coombes and his younger brother were traipsing alone around East London. Days later, their mother was found dead, and Robert was sent to one of England's most infamous prisons. Summerscale reconstructs the case and its aftermath with forensic care. DARK MATTER, by Blake Crouch. (Broadway, $16.) After he is violently kidnapped, Jason, a married professor in Chicago, awakes as a different man entirely: His wife is not his wife, his child has not been born and he is working on a brilliant project. As Jason's various selves confront one another and he embarks on multiple paths, he must grapple with the question of which of his lives is real. Crouch draws on disparate influences in his thriller, which our reviewer, Andrew O'Hehir, called "alternate-universe science fiction bolstered by a smidgen of theoretical physics." UNFORBIDDEN PLEASURES, by Adam Phillips. (Picador, $16.) In a series of essays, Phillips, a British psychoanalyst, explores the meaning and the role of everyday indulgences in contemporary life. While others focus on the taboo, Phillips writes, "the seekers of unforbidden pleasures may know something about pleasure that has never occurred to the transgressive." SWEET LAMB OF HEAVEN, by Lydia Millet. (Norton, $15.95.) After her daughter, Lena, is born, Anna begins hearing streams of voices - both foreign and English, and not violent - a hallucination that resists diagnosis. When her marriage dissolves, she and Lena escape from Alaska, where they were living, to a hotel in Maine; but when her husband considers a political run, they must constantly evade his reach.

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [July 30, 2017]
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Summerscale (The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher) bolsters her reputation as a superior historical true crime writer with this moving account of Victorian-age murder that is a whydunit rather than a whodunit. In East London during the summer of 1895, 13-year-old Robert Coombes and his younger brother, Nattie, attended a heralded cricket match on their own, telling neighbors that their mother was in Liverpool visiting family. In fact, Emily Coombes was already lying dead in her bed behind a closed door, having been fatally stabbed by Robert. Horrifically, her corpse remained undetected for well over a week while the brothers acted as if nothing were amiss. Upon arrest, Robert claimed he acted after his mother had beaten Nattie, and before she could do the same to him. The resulting trial focused on the question of Robert's mental state, whether he was really the wicked boy of the book's title, and how the penny dreadfuls he was so fond of may have warped his mind. Summerscale's dogged research yields a tragedy that reads like a Dickens novel, including the remarkable payoff at the end. (July) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Library Journal Review

The narrative of Robert Coombes, a 13- year-old who killed his mother in 1895, offers a fascinating glimpse into Victorian and post-Victorian life in England and Australia. School systems, sporting events, news coverage, the penal system, and the Victorians' appetite for sensationalism are all revealed in the early segments of this story. Summer-scale thoroughly researched news accounts, court records, institutional histories, and military data of the day. Coombes was tried for his mother's murder and sentenced to detention in the Broadmoor asylum, the same institution that concurrently housed Dr. W.C. Minor, one of the major contributors to the Oxford English Dictionary. Coombes thrived at Broadmoor, a surprisingly humane institution, and when he was older, he was declared to have been cured and released. He immigrated to Australia, distinguished himself during combat in World War I, and lived out a quiet life Down Under. Connie James's British accent helps immerse the listener in the setting. Verdict Victorian England unfolds realistically in this gruesome tale of matricide. Though the driving force behind the work is a search for Coombes's motivation, listeners will also learn a great deal about society at the turn of the 20th century. ["For true crime readers, history buffs, and fans of the grittier side of Victorian life": LJ 6/1/16 review of the Penguin hc.]-Ann Weber, Los Gatos, CA © Copyright 2016. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review by Kirkus Book Review

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. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.