When I began writing The Prosecution of Mr. Darcy’s Cousin: A Pride and Prejudice Mystery, I thought to use the actual Regency era case known as “The Ratcliffe Highway Murders” in the plot line for the although a suspect was identified, the man committed suicide and nothing was proved in court. P. D. James and T. A. Critchley discuss this case in great detail (and a bit of editorializing) in “The Maul and the Pear Tree.”
However, as I set up the story line for my novel, many changes needed to be made to the actual Ratcliffe mystery to fit my manuscript. Most importantly, the Ratcliffe murders occurred in December 1811. In my books, Major General Fitzwilliam (Colonel Fitzwilliam in the original Pride and Prejudice) married Miss Georgiana Darcy right after Napoleon escaped from Elba and right before the Major General returned to serve with Wellington at Waterloo. That moves my story to 1816.
The Major General and Mrs. Fitzwilliam have been married sixteen months and are the parents of a daughter. The major general resigned his commission and became a landed gentleman in Oxfordshire. Yet, doing so brings Fitzwilliam no success for 1816 was the “Year Without Summer,” when the ash from the Mount Tambora eruption spread across Europe, England and America, disturbing the weather and disrupting crops. Fitzwilliam knew much success as an Army officer, and this “failure” plays hard with his nature.
I used the concept of the mass hysteria associated with the Ratcliffe Murders in this book. What would happen if several gruesome murders occur in Wapping? What if the prime suspect is the son of an earl? Would justice prevail? Would the victims, part of the poor of London, know justice? There are bits of Jack the Ripper-like hysteria in the tale.
I did draw some on the Ratcliffe murders. My first victims are modeled after the linen draper, Timothy Marr, and his family, but that is the extent of the similarities. I created a mystery within a mystery within a mystery.
In the original Ratcliffe Highway murders, there were two households attacked by an unknown assailant. The occupants of the house were clubbed to death; seven people lost their lives, including an infant. There was an outcry by the London populace, and the government advertised a reward for information leading to the discovery of the murderer. The Times gave the crimes a position of prominence in their headlines.
No metropolitan police existed at the time. People depended upon magistrates, night watchmen, the Thames River Police, Bow Street Runners, etc. Jurisdiction was often overlooked. Crime scene investigation was nearly nonexistent. In the case of the Ratcliffe murders, hundreds of spectators tramped through the households to view the gruesome scene.
In the foreword of “The Maul and the Pear Tree,” James and Critchley say their “principal source [was] the Home Office paper (Domestic Series) now in the Public Record Office. Before the Metropolitan Police were set up, the Middlesex magistrates maintained a regular correspondence with the Home Secretary on criminal matters, and the bundles of papers for December 1811 and the early part of 1812 contain a wealth of material on the Ratcliffe Highway murders that has never before been assembled or, with the exception of a few documents referred to by Radzinowicz (Note: Sir Leon Radzinowicz was an academic criminologist and founder of the Institute of Criminology), published.” The fact that the Home Office became involved with the crimes speaks to the devastation Londoners felt. Not since the Gordon Riots was there such an outcry.
Ironically, there is no record of the resting place of the victims. The grave sites of the victims of the Ratcliffe murders were replaced with new buildings or the gravestones were removed. The bones of the accused (who committed suicide) were uncovered as part of an excavation for public utilities. Amateur criminologists claimed various bones from the site. “A scrapbook now in the rectory of St. George’s-in-the-East contains an undated entry about John Williams [the accused]. It ends: ‘His skull is at present in the possession of the owner of the Public House at the corner of Cable Street and Cannon Street Road.’” (James and Critchley, page 264)
The Prosecution of Mr. Darcy’s Cousin: A Pride and Prejudice Mystery
Fitzwilliam Darcy is enjoying his marital bliss. His wife, the former Elizabeth Bennet, presented him two sons and a world of contentment. All is well until “aggravation” rears its head when Darcy receives a note of urgency from his sister Georgiana. In truth, Darcy never fully approved of Georgiana’s joining with their cousin, Major General Edward Fitzwilliam, for Darcy assumed the major general held Georgiana at arm’s length, dooming Darcy’s sister to a life of unhappiness.
Dutifully, Darcy and Elizabeth rush to Georgiana’s side when the major general leaves his wife and daughter behind, with no word of his whereabouts and no hopes of Edward’s return. Forced to seek his cousin in the slews of London’s underbelly, at length, Darcy discovers the major general and returns Fitzwilliam to his family.
Even so, the Darcys’ troubles are far from over. During the major general’s absence from home, witnesses note Fitzwilliam’s presence in the area of two horrific murders. When Edward Fitzwilliam is arrested for the crimes, Darcy must discover the real culprit before the authorities hanged his cousin and the Fitzwilliam name knew a lifetime of shame.
Excerpt from The Prosecution of Mr. Darcy’s Cousin (Scene: Darcy rescued this cousin from a public house and brought Fitzwilliam to Darcy House. Fitzwilliam’s father, the Earl of Matlock, tracks his son to Darcy’s door.)
For the next hour, Edward offered an explanation to each of the earl’s accusations while Darcy attempted to soften the angry words spoken by both. It always was so. Matlock never recognized Edward’s strengths, only his second son’s faults.
Darcy did not approve of Edward’s self-absorption: In fact, he found the squalor into which the major general sank deplorable; however, he knew his cousin did not abandon his honor. Edward would suffer for his moments of self-pity. Darcy intervened to allay the earl’s most recent attack.
“At a minimum—all of which the major general may be accused is drinking too heavily and exercising poor judgment.”
The irony of those words would long haunt Darcy’s logical mind for as if he announced the next act of a Shakespearian tragedy, a second knock upon his door changed the room’s tenor.
He looked up to find Thomas Cowan framed by the open door, a painful expression upon the man’s features. Behind him, two cleanly dressed men created a formidable wall.
“Cowan?” Darcy remarked in curiosity. “What brings you and your acquaintances to Darcy House? I thought upon this day you were to search for a certain lady’s lover. I did not realize you meant another social call upon my household.”
Recognizing Cowan’s wariness, Darcy waved away his servants.
“It was my purpose, but Mr. Richards and Mr. Parker,” Cowan gestured to the men behind him, “called upon me this morning. It seems word of our visit to Wapping reached the ears of those of Bow Street via the Thames Police.”
A sharp unease settled in the pit of Darcy’s stomach; he realized Cowan symbolically placed himself between the Runners and the major general.
“Why would the Thames Police have a care for my cousin’s presence in Wapping?”
Darcy’s first thought was of a report of Edward’s altercation upon the docks, but Cowan’s expression cautioned of more shocking news.
Extending his arm in Darcy’s direction, Cowan handed over a folded newsprint.
“What is amiss, Darcy?” the earl demanded.
Darcy unfolded the paper and scanned the page for something of significance, which would affect his cousin, but nothing unusual jumped from the page to draw his attention.
“I fear I do not understand, Cowan.”
His friend pointed to the lead line: “Murder Most Foul.”
“Murder? A murder in Wapping?” Darcy whispered into the silent room.
His nerves remained tense.
“Murder?” the earl expelled in exasperation. “What murder? This is ridiculous. What could a murder in Wapping have to do with an earl’s son?”
The earl was on his feet and storming toward Cowan when Darcy stepped between the irascible Matlock and the former Runner.
“We should listen to what Mr. Cowan has to say, Sir,” Darcy cautioned.
Falling into the familiarity of their military roles, Edward asked, “What is the issue, Sergeant?”
Cowan smiled with the major general’s slip.
“During the past sennight, Sir, two gruesome murders occurred. All of London is astir with fear. Saunders Welch sent Mr. Richards and Mr. Parker to escort you to No. 4 Bow Street.”
Matlock blustered, the earl’s face turning red with anger.
“You think my son holds knowledge of this murder simply because he had too much to drink one night. With that type of logic, half of London should be under suspicion!”
“The innkeeper at the Sephora testified that Fitzwilliam stayed with him for more than a week, and the innkeeper has yet to observe the major general sober,” Cowan explained.
“The innkeeper also provided a statement that the major general returned to the Sephora covered in blood on the night of the first murder.”
Darcy attempted to reason with the Runners sent by Mr. Welch.
“We spoke to a dock overseer of an altercation involving my cousin and several crew serving on the ship Towson. The sailors meant to impress the major general into service. You were with me, Cowan, when the harbormaster, Mr. Belker, described the incident.”
“I gave Mr. Welch my statement, Darcy,” Cowan assured, “but as the Towson set sail, it will be difficult to question the ship’s captain or his men.”
“Even those in the infirmary?” Darcy asked.
“Even those in the infirmary,” Cowan confirmed. “They sailed with another ship to rejoin the Towson in Dover.”
“What proof then?” Matlock demanded. “If you, Darcy, and this Belker fellow describe a fight, what proof would draw a shadow across my son’s name?”
“Could you produce your sword, Sir? The one from your uniform,” Richards asked.
While the others argued, Darcy scanned the news story for details that might be connected to the major general.
“It says here a man, his wife and child were killed by a military-style sword. Their throats slit, even the child’s.”
Edward glanced to Cowan and Darcy.
“I have no idea of the sword’s whereabouts. It was not among my things when I awoke this morning. I assumed either Darcy or Cowan retrieved it when they carried me from the inn.”
“We gathered your purse, the watch Uncle presented you upon your enlistment, your gloves, and the Queen Anne pistol you carried,” Darcy admitted, but I took no notice of your sword Did you, Cowan?”
“No, Sir, but we hurried our perusal of the room because the carriage would not wait more than a quarter hour. We could have overlooked it.”
“This is preposterous!” Matlock exclaimed, appearing black with rage. “My son spent more than a decade in the King’s service in both America and upon the Continent. For God’s sake, he was with Wellington at Waterloo! Fitzwilliam received his latest commission at the hand of the Prince Regent!”
“You possess little choice, Sir,” Cowan cautioned. “Mr. Welch means to question any suspect. Concerned with the outcry, the Home Office offered a reward in the case. It would be best to make your statement.”
“Did the major general wear a uniform when you rescued him?” Mr. Parker asked.
Cowan answered before Darcy had time to form a response.
“Why would the major general’s clothing be of interest?”
Darcy recognized what Cowan wished him to know: Edward’s uniform could be used as evidence against the major general.
“I ordered it burned,” Darcy swore, although he knew his household staff washed his cousin’s filthy clothing. “Fleas and lice polluted the garment. I would not risk the life of my servants or of my infant children with the prospect of typhus or worst. We destroyed my cousin’s items as quickly as we could remove them from his back.”
“Was there evidence of blood upon the items?” Parker asked.
Darcy did not wish to lie, but he knew that even in a drunken state Edward could not commit willful murder. The deaths of war haunted his cousin, but Fitzwilliam would not lash out at an innocent family as part of his anguish.
“I cannot say for certain. My cousin’s clothes were caked with mud and dried dirt and human feces. I did not recognize blood as part of the stains.”
“We should depart,” Cowan suggested in a tone of false calmness. Edward shot a look of panic to Darcy.
“Surely there is another means for the major general to respond without creating a public spectacle,” Darcy concluded.
“I will escort my son to Bow Street,” Matlock declared with authority. “Fitzwilliam and I will follow you in my coach.”
Richards and Parker looked to Cowan for assistance.
“If you hold no objections, Sir, Richards and Parker will follow you. They have very strict orders,” Cowan explained.
“I mean to go with you also,” Darcy assured Edward. “We will clarify any misconceptions, and then you will return to Darcy House to reunite with Mrs. Fitzwilliam and the countess later today.”
“My God!” Edward exclaimed as his anguish returned. “What will Georgiana and mother think of this shame?”
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Regina Jeffers is an award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency, and contemporary novels. She is a retired English teacher and an often sought after consultant for media literacy and language arts.