Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Scholarly Examination Befits Shocking Crime

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Scholarly Examination Befits Shocking Crime

Article excerpt

Byline: Anne Payne


Author: Kate Summerscale

Data: Penguin Press, 378 pages, $28

In 1897, Robert Coombes, a 13-year-old from a respectably working-class East London household, stabbed his mother to death in her bed. He and his younger brother, who was aware of the deed but hadn't participated, then went on a modest spree, attending cricket matches and the theater on the proceeds of pawning family possessions. Their father, a ship's steward, was at sea and the boys told neighbors that their mother was away visiting relatives.

In telling Robert's story, Kate Summerscale's "The Wicked Boy" occupies the niche that the author has carved with "The Suspicions of Mr. Wicher" and "Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace." Starting with a British court case that was a public sensation in its time but is now mostly forgotten, she uses broad and deep research to present the case and its aftermath in a rich historical context.

Robert was considered quite bright by teachers as well as family, and the killing was clearly premeditated. If he had intended to escape detection in the long term, his plan was short on detail. The money would quickly run out, the neighbors' inquisitiveness would grow, his father would come home. There was a more pressing problem: Robert had left his mother's corpse in her bed, and it was July in a well-populated area. While London has a famously cool climate, the sunny midsummer weather was easily hot enough to bring on rapid decomposition, flies and odor. After 10 days, the secret was out.

Theories which aligned with popular notions of the time abounded. Was Robert a product of evolution running in reverse or of the oppressiveness of industrial life? Perhaps a physical defect was the problem; he had earlier been diagnosed with a brain that had grown too fast for his skull when his parents sought a medical reason for his headaches and erratic temperament. …

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